The Hateful Eight: Quentin Tarantino’s Free-Form Formalist Fountain of Blood
More than seven hours after finishing The Hateful Eight I am still working through how much I actually liked it. Some negative reviews I’d read called this film dull, a slog, overlong and underplotted. I disagree. Perhaps it’s my anxiety that makes me feel that way; the first act screams for speedy exposition and Tarantino provides none, preferring instead to have its ever-growing cast of characters converse, their prejudices and grudges on their sleeves. As an anxious person, the fear of a conversation going south fast is a real one to me, and it’s the tension from conversation after conversation where characters would much rather be shooting than speaking that sustains the first half of this three hour film. Tarantino is nothing but gratuitous, and never more so than with dialogue.
The second act of the film features so much bloodletting that at one point it has to double back on the plot just to explain how the violence erupted to such an unbelievable extent. Again, Tarantino is nothing but gratuitous, and his love of violence is nearly that of his love of talking. Heads are blown off. Bodies are riddled with bullets. At one point, some characters suddenly begin to upchuck pure blood. I’ll let you see how they begin to do so, if you are so inclined.
So there’s lakes of blood and rolling hills of dialogue. That’s standard Tarantino. What separates his other films? What elevates the best and holds back the rest? Well, my top three of his are Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction, and Inglorious Basterds. There’s no Kill Bill comp to The Hateful Eight; that film was Tarantino luxuriating in two styles that were in his wheelhouse. They were his purest expressions of joy. Pulp Fiction stands apart from the rest of his filmography thanks largely to the precision with which it told stories that felt like they should be spiraling out of control. It was like being in a stunt car with a master driver. Again, there’s no comparison here. The Hateful Eight is neither as narratively brazen nor precise as Pulp Fiction; its aims are more lofty than high-octane.
But Inglorious Basterds? There’s a decent comp, I suppose. It too was dinged by some critics for the reasons I loved it most: its willingness to sit back and let characters talk their way into corners where no one could escape without shooting. Tarantino’s dialogue has never been more musical. In Christophe Waltz he found the best acting companion to his words since Samuel L. Jackson spoke of shepherds and evil men in Pulp Fiction. Compared to this film, The Hateful Eight’s seams begin to show. The cast of characters here are almost too easily categorized into types, like the suspects in an Agatha Christie novel. You have two bounty hunters, one a white mountain man who always keeps his charges alive and watches them hang, the other a black cavalryman who always shoots them in the back. You have a man who claims to be a sheriff, another who clearly was a Confederate general, a drifter, and an odd Englishman (one of my favorite Western tropes, I admit). They are assembled at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a sort of inn where stagecoaches can find shelter during a storm. Minnie and her husband Sweet Dave are nowhere to be seen. And that blizzard is on everyone’s ass. It looks like they’ll be holed up here to two or three nights. And did I mention the bounty hunters are toting a fugitive with a $10,000 bounty on her head?
The story eventually does become a whodunit, after blood begins to spill and no one quite knows why. It just takes a long damn time to get there. As I said, the length isn’t itself a problem. It’s that by the time Tarantino doubles back on the narrative to tell us extra details, it becomes anti-climactic. The rug is pulled too many times. In Pulp Fiction, all that narrative cross-cutting provided endless delight with each new piece of insight. Here, it feels more like plot stuffed in the footnotes. With Inglorious Basterds each big scene was a self-contained marvel of building tension. Despite the single, enclosed setting of The Hateful Eight, there’s nothing contained about either of its acts. At times this is thrilling; characters mix and match with varying degrees of loathing. At the center of it is Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson). A black former soldier-turned-bounty hunter, the characters he get along best with still drop the n-word copiously. Never mind the Confederate general and the son of a Confederate commander who are both in the same room.
Tarantino, long criticized for the copious use of racial epithets in his films, almost defiantly unloads here. In fairness, he is not simply being the equivalent of a teenager on reddit, gleefully reveling in puerile offense. He is going for something here. Not so much a grand statement as an attempt to honestly explore this very specific scenario; a racial powder keg in an ugly era that often brought out the worst of white America. But this is the second stab Tarantino has made at looking at race in 19th Century America and I’m not convinced he has the narrative touch to reconcile this material with his love of grandiose escalating thrill. Django Unchained stopped being entertaining the moment it looked honestly at its subject matter in the eye. In trying to make me cheer at the end it lost me. The Hateful Eight is much more specific in its narrative approach; it is about these characters, and how they interact upon meeting in this film. It has no desire to earn raucous applause. Even so the way the script uses racial slurs for laughs in one sentence and venom in the next strikes me as both self-aware and, well, obnoxious. This material shouldn’t be solemn (Tarantino should never be), but it would benefit from being less obvious in its braggadocio that it thinks it’s getting away with something.
Still, this is a film that almost demands to be seen. Tarantino’s borderline fetish for traditional filmmaking may be a bit overbearing, but with the visuals he concocts here with cinematographer Robert Richardson, by god, I think he has a point. The 70mm print is luscious. From the snowy vistas the open the film to the deep crimson blood spurts that end it, every shot enveloped me in a way that can’t be faked. If Tarantino’s scripts are his kinetic playground, this film at least is his directorial tribute to the classic form of the Hollywood Golden Age. Lighting, framing, and a sense of place are all paramount here. Tarantino zeroes in on characters’ actions and scoops up details in ways that unexpectedly ratchet up tension. Consider how one character slowly plods through “Silent Night” on the piano as two others converse on the other side of the room. The piano becomes the third party in the conversation, like a host blissfully unaware that its guests are about to have a knife fight.
The Hateful Eight is the most deliberately challenging film Tarantino has made. For that reason alone, it deserves credit he might not get for the times he has stuck to his guns and made exploitation fare (no matter how well he does exploitation). In some regards, he aims high and hits. I still think Ebert’s quip that “Tarantino is too gifted a filmmaker to make a boring movie, but he could possibly make a bad one” applies 21 years after he wrote it in his review for Pulp Fiction. The Hateful Eight is not yet that bad one. I’m fairly certain that, when it settles in my cranium, it will be a good one. I like Tarantino’s music. Through this one’s dissonance, I can still hear the melodies that keep me coming back.