by Austin GoldQuentin Tarantino has always made films for one person and one person only: himself. But since his tastes run from the highest of art to the lowest of exploitation, he’s found an audience that’s just as broad. However, The Hateful Eight may be the first movie he’s made for his audience, or rather at his audience.
During the intermission, my fellow audience members complained that there wasn’t enough violence. “Where was all the blood?” Then came the second half, and boy, does Tarantino deliver in the blood and guts department. But this isn’t the funny “I shot Marvin in the face” violence of Pulp Fiction or the fantasy bloodbaths of Kill Bill films. No. The bloodshed here is brutal and ugly. He wants us to look at ourselves and question why we enjoy what we enjoy. He makes this clear in the first part of the film, where paranoid bounty hunter, John Ruth (John Wayne via Kurt Russell) repeatedly hits his prisoner, Daisy Domergue (a mean as hell Jennifer Jason Leigh). The first time he hits her, it’s played to huge laughs, but with each successive hit, the audience becomes more and more aware of what they’re laughing at, and the laughter dies down.
This being Tarantino, there’s laughter to be found in other places, especially in the dialogue. Many of its best lines belong to Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson in his coolest role since Jules in Pulp Fiction). He’s the first of the titular Eight that we meet. Warren is stuck in the middle of a snowy road and convinces Ruth and his driver, O.B. (James Parks at his most genuine), to let him in their stagecoach. They’re on their way to Red Rock, Wyoming. Later, they come across Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins via Walton Goggins), who’s on his way to Red Rock to be sworn in as the new sheriff. Together, they outrun a blizzard to Minnie’s Haberdashery, a saloon/motel on their route. Also staying at Minnie’s is a mexican employee (Demián Bichir overdoing his own accent), a traveling hangman (a very proper Tim Roth), a mysterious cowboy (a hoarse Michael Madsen) and a Confederate general named Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern doing a crotchety reprise of his character in Nebraska).
The Hateful Eight is a character piece and Tarantino spends the whole first hour acquainting us with everyone. They each ask and answer: “Who are you and why are you here?” It drags on for far too long, but helps Tarantino make some of his points. In a year when the meaning of the Confederate flag was debated, he shows us exactly who it represents with Smithers and Mannix. Smithers takes joy in his racism and refuses to address Warren directly when they first meet. Mannix is the son of a Confederate militia leader whose main goal was to kill as many black people as he could, his philosophy being: “When black folks are scared, that’s when white folks are safe.” Warren adds a counterpoint with his own philosophy: “The only time black folks are safe, is when white folks are disarmed.” Warren himself isn’t much better, though. He joined the Union army to kill as many white people as possible, even if it meant killing his own men. All the characters have such contradictions. There’s no one to root for; no bedrock to hang our morals on. It truly lives up to the title. Well, almost.If you’ve been keeping count, these characters don’t quite add up to eight. This could be chalked up to Tarantino’s indulgence, as The Hateful Eight is his eighth film (8½ if you include Death Proof). The slow first half of the film mimics 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Tarantino has praised for withholding its central conflict until just before intermission. The whole 70mm roadshow is indulgent and gimmicky, but it’s admittedly educational for people unfamiliar with the format. It’s actually a shame that most people won’t get to see the 70mm cut. Not only because it looks better on film, but it just works better as a movie. The wide-release cut does away with minor amusing tangents, including one about a plucked chicken that perfectly exemplifies the paranoia of the characters. Some shots are shorter and a few takes are different. The changes are subtle but the difference is felt. The most noticeable change, of course, is the lack of overture and intermission.
The sinister overture composed by Ennio Morricone really sets the mood for the film and eases the audience in. Without it, the opening feels incomplete. Getting Morricone to score the film is indulgent in and of itself, but it actually works in the film’s favor. He’s most famous for scoring Sergio Leone’s westerns (The Dollars Trilogy, Once Upon a Time in the West, A Fistful of Dynamite), many of which rank among Tarantino’s favorite films. But Morricone did something smart here: he scored it not as a western, but as a horror film set in the West.
And that’s really what The Hateful Eight is. Not “horror” as in “scary,” but rather in the way Network could be considered a horror film. A film this ugly may be what we need right now; a film we’ll discuss and debate long after the credits roll. Released 150 years after the Civil War in a year when race relations and gun debates reached a deafening volume, this just could be the film that gets us to shut up and listen.
4 out of 5 stars