Tarantino's 'The Hateful Eight': A Demanding Film, but This Time, It's Worth It

In which the director takes the paradoxical, ambivalent elements that characterize his work to the next level.

Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” takes place in Wyoming after the Civil War, and it features some of the typical characters of the classic Hollywood Western, the “spaghetti Western,” and the revisionist takes on the genre made after the decline of its classic era. By definition, therefore, “The Hateful Eight” can itself legitimately be called a Western, given the setting and plot materials. However, I will not be using this genre label again, because Tarantino’s dialogue with the Western tradition is the least interesting aspect of this gripping film.

I was somewhat disappointed by Tarantino’s previous picture, “Django Unchained,” which was set before the Civil War. It made me feel the director was increasingly becoming insulated within his own cinematic world, detached from the reality around him and overwhelmed by his own mannerisms. But now comes “The Hateful Eight,” a movie as bold and experimental as Tarantino’s finest films. If this movie is in dialogue with anything, it is with the director’s own oeuvre – not an arrogant repetition of what he’s done before, but rather a backward glance that aims to expand and heighten the paradoxical, ambivalent elements that have always been part of Tarantino’s work. This may be the movie in which Tarantino demands the most of his audience, even if he makes up for the difficulty during the film’s final part.

The opening captions of “The Hateful Eight” explain that we are about to watch the director’s eighth movie. (The only other case I can remember in which a director numbered his film is Federico Fellini’s 1963 “8½,” whose title likewise referred to the number of pictures the director had made; it was also a film in which the director explored his own previous work.) Tarantino intends “The Hateful Eight” as a spectacle, and it both is and is not one; it shows us the magnificent snowy landscapes of Wyoming, but it is also set almost entirely inside one location, a roadhouse where all the characters find shelter from a blizzard.

The movie’s ironic reference to itself as spectacle includes the division of the story into segments, each announced by a title card such as “Son of a Gun,” including one that declares “Intermission.” Here Tarantino intended for the lights to go on and for the audience to have a break, as was the custom in old-fashioned spectacles stretching out over three hours and more, such as “Ben Hur” or “Lawrence of Arabia.” At the screening I attended, the movie continued uninterrupted at this point, as I imagine it does at other Israeli theaters. Tarantino’s call for an intermission suggests that “The Hateful Eight,” which is also around three hours long, is in fact made up of two parts that reflect on one another, like the two parts of “Kill Bill.”

This image released by The Weinstein Company shows Kurt Russell, from left, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bruce Dern in a scene from the film, 'The Hateful Eight.'
AP

The movie opens with a stagecoach carrying a certain John Ruth (Kurt Russell), a bounty hunter traveling to the town of Red Rock with his prisoner, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), for whom he will collect a $10,000 fee before she is hanged in the town square. They are joined by another bounty hunter, Captain Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), who also intends to deliver prisoners that he has already killed; and by Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who is going to Red Rock to become its new sheriff. When the blizzard hits, they all take shelter in the roadhouse, whose owner is absent; it is run in his absence by a Mexican named Bob (Demian Bichir). Also present at the store is the mysterious Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), an elderly Southern general (Bruce Dern), and a Briton, Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), a hangman by profession, whose job it will be to execute Daisy.

Action takes the lead

In the movie’s first part, the action consists almost entirely of dialogue between the characters as they gather at the roadhouse. These conversations, written with Tarantino’s usual talent, reveal certain past ties between some of the characters. The first part ends with the movie’s first outburst of violence, which leads us into the second half, where the time sequence begins to be scrambled, as it was in Tarantino’s early works “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” (there are also brief flashbacks in the first part). Now the plot becomes one of suspense, as one protagonist investigates who killed one of the others, as though he were a private detective from a different movie (and story) altogether. If the first part was all about words, now action takes the lead, as bloody as only Tarantino can make it. “The Hateful Eight” is thus a distinctly physical film, but it also has a nearly abstract essence, even more condensed than in previous Tarantino films and responsible for most of its dialectical nature.

The second half of the movie also features voice-over narration by the director, highlighting the deliberate difference between the two parts and the movie’s blending of the real and historical with the fictional and mythological. As the story unfolds, the skilled performances of the cast become more and more extroverted, taking on a grotesque theatricality. But as “The Hateful Eight” transitions from one kind of action to another, from the verbal to the physical, Tarantino fulfills his vision of pushing his movie and characters closer and closer to oblivion.

"The Hateful Eight": Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino; with Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demian Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, James Parks, Channing Tatum, Dana Gourier, Zoe Bell, Lee Horsley.