Writer and director Quentin Tarantino returns to the Western genre with The Hateful Eight, a locked room mystery set after The Civil War, which seeks to explore not only a whodunit style tale but also racial tensions with parallels to modern society. It’s a potent blend that seeks to both thrill and comment simultaneously, with results that both enthrall and repulse.
The Hateful Eightcenters on a group of people in the Wild West who are forced to take shelter together during a blizzard. Among them are bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell), his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), former Union Major and bounty hunter Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), and newly appointed Sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins). But with a large sum of bounty money on the line and Daisy set for hanging, no one can trust each another, as it quickly becomes apparent that someone is not who he says he is. Not only that, but racism and the specter of The Civil War bring tensions to a boiling point until the bullets start flying.
Tarantino has been fascinated with crime and violence from the very beginning, with his period pieces of late focused on putting these ideas in a more genre-heavy context. However, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained focused on rewriting history as a form of fantasy wish fulfillment, with the results being both heavy handed and often shallow despite being well executed. But The Hateful Eight is focused on creating a violent mystery in the context of the U.S.’s troubled past, not attempting to right wrongs through fiction. And with a more realistic, although heightened, context, the film is able to blend its elements more naturally and completely, even if the film is still meant to entertain more than enlighten as these morally murky gunslingers fall into violence.
Truly, there are no heroes here as each character is propelled by his or her hate rather than some noble goal. Whether that hate is focused on another person, a side in the concluded war, or a race, that hate causes each man and woman to take action with horrific consequences. While that may seem too disturbing and taxing to be entertaining, Tarantino manages to keep up the excitement in spite of the often disturbing turns of event that take place. In fact, its realistic ties to today’s racially-charged issues plaguing society make it more interesting and resonating than the troubling wish fulfillment attempt of Django Unchained.
It all plays out more cohesively thanks to the work of cinematographer Robert Richardson and composer Ennio Morricone, who give the film a rich and aged look and sound. While Tarantino loves to riff on and crib from decades of cinema that he loves, his pastiche style can often seem stitched together rather than being birthed from a singular vision. But The Hateful Eight is a far more cohesive whole, a film that takes inspiration from classic Westerns, John Carpenter’s The Thing, and numerous mystery novels, but doesn’t feel the need to wear its references on its sleeve. The result is a narrative that is constantly playful (most notably in a sudden interruption by Tarantino himself as an interjecting narrator) but consistently focused on the matters at hand.
While The Hateful Eight may be billed as an ensemble piece due to its mystery-style narrative in the vein of Agatha Christie, it’s Russell, Jackson, Leigh, and Goggins who are front and center in the piece. Backing them up are Tim Roth as a witty Englishman in charge of hangings, Demian Bichir as the Mexican man temporarily in charge of where they are staying, Bruce Dern as an elderly former Confederate general, and Michael Madsen, who is quite ugly. While each has his moment in the spotlight, they are above all plot elements meant to up the tension due to their potentially duplicitous nature rather than fully formed characters. Given that the wealth of character development and standout lines are given to the previously mentioned stars, the main characters ultimately eclipse the rest of the ensemble.
However, that can be excused when the actors who are the focus of the narrative so masterfully command the screen. Russell’s violent and brutish Ruth and Leigh’s snakelike Daisy play like oil and water off one another, causing some of the film’s most shocking violence, which is often inflicted upon Daisy. It’s a potent blend that appalls and constantly forces you to switch sympathies due to both being nasty through and through. But it’s really Jackson and Goggins who blow the doors off here. Jackson’s Warren may carry the brunt of the damage caused by racism, but he too is a violent and hateful man, with the actor firing on all cylinders in every moment. Like most of his roles in Tarantino’s films, Jackson shows that he isn’t just a charismatic star, but a truly talented actor. In particular, a stunningly vulgar and riotously outrageous speech he gives shows his talent at delivering complex and evocative dialogue in an emotional, intelligent, and realistic manner. Goggins (long loved for his role in the FX series Justified but largely unknown in the mainstream) is equally fantastic as the racist and cunning Mannix. Goggins’ is saddled with an equally complex character that fulfills the roles of antagonist, antihero, and protagonist at various points in the film, all while having to portray a character that is despicable, likeable, and hilarious. That’s a massive balancing act that is pulled off with an ease that will show those who do not know Goggins how marvelous he is.
Of important note is Channing Tatum, whose mystery role forbids me from delving into details, as his late injection into the story turns the narrative on its ear. However, his surprise appearance and twist are the most exceptional things about his inclusion, but his shaky accent and awkward role in a period piece are almost as dizzying as the turn of events associated with his inclusion.
Here, Tarantino plays out his well-known loves of dialogue, protracted scenes, and excruciating tension that inevitably build to violence, with slowly spilled secrets threatening to turn each person against one another at any moment. But while the violence is filmed in all its shocking, blood-drenched, brain-covered glory that is expected of the filmmaker, the outrageous killings are far less interesting than everything that leads up to them. Tarantino has crafted intricate and outlandish dialogue with every speech and conversation that plays out across the movie’s considerable running time. As we’re left to uncover each person’s true nature and motivations, we’re left hanging on every word spoken; giving greater weight to how the characters are formed.
Those revelations play out to varying degrees of success, with those associated on a character basis being more interesting and shocking than those revolving around the central narrative of betrayal associated with Daisy. Save for one whiplash-inducing sudden reveal, the major mystery of who’s who in Minnie’s Haberdashery is not as interesting as the racial tensions that inform character motivations. While the violence is built to cause audible reactions, they simply aren’t as captivating as the potent blend that comes from tremendous actors boldly delivering rapturous dialogue.
While The Hateful Eight may not be looked back upon as Tarrantino’s most evocative or influential film, it certainly shows a writer and director with a mastery of cinema, one who can take a well-worn handful of genres and a set of ideas to their most captivating limits, even if they can never quite reach transcendent heights beyond pure entertainment.