Review: Tarantino's 'The Hateful Eight' is a Violent, Fantastic B-Movie
by Jeremy Kirk
December 24, 2015
It took a while for the American Western to find its groove. Even by the 1930s, the genre hadn't quite found its prestige. Examples were cheap, cookie-cutter B-movies that hardly showed anything of resonance. That was, until 1939, when John Ford gave us Stagecoach, a near-perfect film that practically invented the genre as we know it today. The film made the genre one of importance and one that, even in 2015, continues to reinvent itself. This year's The Hateful Eight isn't exactly a reinvention of a genre so much as it is a return of sorts. Quentin Tarantino, as with all of his films, creates a singular, unique experience that is both a love letter to a genre as well as a whole, new bag entirely. And it all starts, of course, with a stagecoach.
On that stagecoach, we are introduced to four of those despicable, eponymous characters: "The Hangman" John Ruth, a bounty hunter who always brings his captures in alive to hang, played by veteran actor Kurt Russell; Daisy Domergue, Ruth's latest prisoner he's taking in, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh; Major Marquis Warren, a former, Union soldier turned bounty hunter, played by Samuel L. Jackson; and Chris Mannix, the self-proclaimed, new sheriff of Red Rock, played by Walton Goggins. Red Rock is the goal for this stagecoach, but the blizzard quickly catching up to the travelers in the snow-clad mountains of Wyoming forces them to make a pit stop. The location: Minnie's Haberdashery.
Here, where most of Hateful Eight takes place, we meet the remaining four: Oswaldo Mobray, the hangman in the area, played by Tim Roth; a cow-puncher named Joe Gage, played by Michael Madsen; Bob, the Mexican caretaker of the Haberdashery while Minnie is away, played by Demián Bichir; and General Sandy Smithers, a former general in the Confederate army during the Civil War, played by Bruce Dern. Ruth, ever the cautious – some might call it "paranoid" – fellow, doesn't trust any of them, his belief that one or more of them is there to break his prisoner free even if that means killing everyone else. The blizzard hits. The front door has to be nailed shut. Truths begin flying and responded to by bullets. Everyone has a secret, and some of those secrets could get the lot of them killed. It is, after all, a Quentin Tarantino film.
Part single-location character study, part Agatha Christie-esque thriller with the body count to match, part masterpiece of violence loaded with tongue-through-cheek black humor, The Hateful Eight is always true to itself and true to its maker. Tarantino didn't shock anyone after announcing he would be following Django Unchained with another Western. The genre suits him, and that goes way beyond the filmmaker's obvious passion for it, especially the Spaghetti Western era. It suits his visual style to a T, as well, the filmmaker and cinematographer Robert Richardson capturing it all in glorious 70mm this time around.
With The Hateful Eight, though, Tarantino is going back to his filmmaking roots in a way, the film's single location and cast of brightly colorful characters drawing more than a little comparison to Reservoir Dogs. The story, though brimming with information that slowly builds his exquisite characters, is rather straightforward. It has its reveals just as any good mystery should, and Tarantino still seasons his narrative with those blindsiding shocks that flash grisly violence before our eyes and leaves us to deal with the ramifications in the aftermath. The Hateful Eight is likely the filmmakers meanest film to date, most of this aspect stemming from just how unlikeable these characters are. Every one of them gives you a reason to hate them or, at the very least, not think too highly of them from a moral standpoint.
The success in its ability to entertain, though, is another matter altogether. As wretched as these characters are they are each something of a caricature, almost a cartoonish representation of a character we’ve seen in the Western genre before. Stereotypes run rampant, some of which would probably get the race card thrown at them were the characters not all throwing the N-word around like it’s never gone out of style, anyway. In this post-Civil War, post-Lincoln assassination setting that particular word hasn’t run its course just yet, nor have a lot of hateful attitudes. The nasty speech and intolerant dialogue getting thrown around becomes more a representation of the hate-filled time and place than any of the individual players.
A whole article could be devoted to the actors playing those parts, by the way, as each of them brings something incredibly special with them. Russell and Jackson are in top form playing up the camaraderie between the two bounty hunters early on, their attitudes towards each other shifting with the progressing storyline. Goggins is also a treat to watch here (when is he not?) playing his role of a former raider during the Civil War with a natural, built-in loathing. All the while, his energy is off he charts, and Goggins performance matched with the character makes Chris Mannix one of the film's biggest surprises. Roth and Madsen are equally strong, the former getting a little more scenery to chew in the front half of the film. Dern is quiet but powerful just as his character’s attitude requires.
Jennifer Jason Leigh, however, becomes the real standout among the wide slate of talent involved. She plays the role of a woman who, without knowing the crimes of which she is accused, dares you to despise her. As reprehensible and overtly grotesque as she comes across, you can’t break your vision from her. It’s mostly due to the quiet, somber disgust she projects for much of the film, and the fact that Tarantino knows precisely when to hold the camera directly on her. More than that, though, is the knowledge that, when this woman explodes, it’s going to get ugly fast. Even after all that, Leigh gives off the slightest sense of charm within her performance, a key moment of genuine sweetness coming midway in the film when she begins strumming a guitar and sings a folk song. The Hateful Eight has a sea of character moments, and this most humanistic of traits Leigh gives to her character is one of the many reasons why she stands out so much.
It is difficult, of course, for anyone in the esemble to really stand out in a Tarantino film. Even the smaller parts, those characters within the film that aren’t quite mean enough to be counted among the main herd, are remarkable. James Parks, a Tarantino veteran after Kill Bill and Death Proof, makes the coach driver, O.B., so much more than a throwaway character, and Channing Tatum, America's sweetheart, shows up late in the second half for a brief but memorable role. Dana Gourrier as the Minnie of Minnie's Haberdashery and Gene Jones as her significant other, Sweet Dave, pop up in a minor flashback, but even their chemistry makes you wish to see more of their "insignificant" characters.
The star of The Hateful Eight - besides the amazing direction and phenomenal acting - comes in the form of Ennio Morricone's original score (which you can now buy a copy of), specifically the film's theme. Tarantino has never used an original piece of music written for one of his films until now, and Morricone, 87 years of age and counting, delivers a theme that is both hip and dark yet unapologetically playful. It makes perfect sense why Tarantino decided to break one of his longtime, filmmaking rules with this piece of music. Not only does Morricone's theme fit The Hateful Eight like a boot, it fits Tarantino, himself.
Hip, dark, and unapologetically playful – and not to mention brutal and as unforgiving as a rattlesnake pit – Tarantino and his event pictures have been that bit of dark entertainment that is always anticipated and always delivers as promised. The Hateful Eight isn't a sprawling epic like Django Unchained, nor does it have the emotional resonance of the Kill Bill saga. It doesn't subvert the audience's expectations in clever and satisfying ways like Pulp Fiction or Inglourious Basterds, in my opinion the two films competing as Tarantino's best and his true masterpieces.
The scope of The Hateful Eight, though, comes in those stunning 70mm frames and the depth the filmmaker captures whether he's shooting a Wyoming mountain range or a small shack. Aside from its technical execution and the success of such, the film could be viewed as Tarantino making a B-movie, albeit a damn fine one. In that way, the filmmaker and lover of film history has turned that stagecoach around and headed back into the lost, yet, important beginnings of the American Western. The only difference between those films of old and this is Tarantino has nearly a century of technological advancement and a career's worth of honing his skill, one of the greatest filmmaking skills the art-form has yet seen. All this to make The Hateful Eight, the greatest B-movie Western of all time and another, cool work of art from Tarantino. Truly, John Ford would even be proud of this one.