Stars: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Demian Bichir, Michael Madsen, James Parks, Lee Horsley, Zoe Bell, Walton Goggins, Bruce Dern | Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino
“You only need to hang mean bastards, but mean bastards you need to hang.”
The Hateful Eight is, as its title suggests, a sort of inverted Magnificent Seven, its cast of colorful characters coming together not to put aside their lone wolf differences in unlikely defense of a pastoral dream but to bite, tear, shoot, hack, poison, stab, and hang each other in pursuit of goals which, as the film progresses and the tide of blood comes in, are sucked into the void like dirty water down a drain. It’s Tarantino’s bleakest film, a pressure cooker full of comprehensively human beasts whose slowly revealed foibles and virtues inspire just enough empathy to make their messy deaths an emotional ordeal as well as one of the stomach. The Hateful Eight‘s back half withholds catharsis to the point of tooth-grinding anguish. Its sole spot of hope and beauty, a friendly letter reputed to have been sent to one of the characters by Abraham Lincoln himself, is revealed as a forgery, crumpled up in bloody hands and tossed aside at the film’s conclusion. By the time Roy Orbison’s “There Won’t Be Many Coming Home” starts crackling over the final bloodbath, the idea that violence can lead to anything but horror has been abused more thoroughly than that goddamn roadhouse door.
What separates The Hateful Eight, for all that it’s full of oddball killers and protracted conversations, from the rest of Tarantino’s filmography is just how difficult a film it is. Not since Reservoir Dogs has the director done anything this vicious, and even that was full of likable wags and ended in heartbreak, not quixotic abomination. Here we have a cabin full of dyed-in-the-wool killers who are, true to the marquee’s word, just fucking hateful. Jennifer Jason Leigh is all blood, spit, and teeth as the bottomlessly repugnant Daisy Domergue, but her shrieks and splutters as Kurt Russell’s John “The Hangman” Ruth elbows her in the face time and time again are nauseating in their raw intensity. Her flawed, beautiful voice, too, brings the film one of its few moments of tranquility and even draws a grudging compliment from her captor. Ruth, a man who takes so much pleasure in watching people hang that he places himself at risk to bring his bounties in alive, has an appreciation for beauty and sentiment in stark contrast to his bone-deep cruelty. He tears up over a heartfelt letter and gruffly asks Daisy to keep singing “Jim Jones to Botany Bay,” though the first sign of conflict drives him instantly to paranoia and violence.
The stickiness of The Hateful Eight is perhaps best embodied by Samuel L. Jackson’s Major Marquis Warren, a disgraced Union cavalry officer turned bounty hunter. Warren enters the film seated on a heap of frozen corpses and, give or take a pulse and the presence of refrigeration, leaves it in similar territory. He’s as close as Eight gets to a protagonist, but although he’s another ex-slave with a penchant for arson, that’s pretty much where the similarities to Django Unchained‘s title character end. Born and raised in violence, he does violence wherever he goes without regard for who’s on the receiving end. His stagecoach ride with Ruth, Domergue, and Walton Goggin’s wide-eyed Chris Mannix plays like a demented seesaw of moral judgment, positioning him first as a heroic escapee from a monstrous institution, then as a callous survivor, and finally as a man who deals out death without pity and claims to have forced a dying enemy to fellate him. He is a skilled deceiver, partly out of necessity and partly, it seems, for amusement, and a keen observer of human nature. He’s a man who defies easy summation, as horrid to watch in action as he is entertaining.
Tarantino’s much-touted decision to shoot The Hateful Eight in 70mm is borne out as soon as the credits roll. What little time the director spends outside the waystation that is the film’s nexus, he takes full advantage of with sweeping shots of forbidding mountain peaks and snow-covered fields stretching away to the horizon. The camera loses none of its energy when it moves from the confines of the stagecoach to the snowbound prison of Minnie’s (Ruth, with the peculiar paranoia of a man just smart enough to know that he’s a little stupid and his survival depends on obsessive vigilance and control over his circumstances, is quickest to hustle from box to box), and Tarantino’s direction hacks the watering hole into a patchwork battlefield of discrete areas dominated by different characters. There is a definite sense of theater to the whole enterprise, full of long cuts, moments of intense focus, and tracked movement. The blizzard howling outside, besides driving the best gag in the film (a broken door repeatedly kicked in and then nailed shut again), is a constant reminder of the unrelenting proximity of death. It also recalls the storm from John Carpenter’s The Thing, another Kurt Russell-starring movie about paranoia and the incomprehensible violence lurking within human beings and one to which The Hateful Eight pays frequent musical tribute.
Russell, Leigh, and Jackson give engrossing performances, though they also have the most and richest material to work with. If the film has a weak link it’s that several of its characters are left ill-defined in the press of faces and names, present more as bodies to absorb excess violence than as points of interest in their own right. Jody (a slickly villainous Channing Tatum) and his gangsters come off as markedly one-note when compared to Warren and company, though the depth of genuine sibling connection Tatum and Leigh manage to suggest with their single momentary exchange is crushing in its intensity. Perhaps it’s mulish to ask that every member of the ensemble in a nearly three-hour movie get their day in the limelight, and from Goggins’s bumptious fanboy routine upon meeting Bruce Dern’s broken-down General Sandford Smithers, a boyhood hero of his, to Tim Roth’s tongue-in-cheek monologue about dispassion as the sole guarantor of justice, there’s plenty to enjoy, but I can’t help but feel the disconnect between the rich characterization of the core cast and the corresponding sketchiness outside that circle.
Throughout The Hateful Eight, the dollar value of the human body is a prominent point of discussion and contention. The film has slavery on its mind during every cold discussion of bounty prizes, and if Warren has an explanation it’s as exegesis for the horrors of the plantation and of war, the commodification of life and the giving of permission to take it with an official blessing. He is a man who grew up knowing precisely how much he cost to buy; getting paid to kill others, conflating their faces with the numbers on their WANTED posters, seems like a natural extension of that hellish knowledge. When Daisy, whose crime is never revealed but whose ten thousand-dollar bounty is established ad nauseam, attempts to bargain the dead gangsters’ bodies to Walton Goggins’s Chris Mannix in exchange for her freedom, the twisted economy of flesh is placed front and center. All three participants in the desperate auction are wounded and likely to die, but greed, for survival and money both, gives us a look in microcosm at how circumstances can inspire such spectacular cannibalism.
The other currency the film discusses is murder itself, particularly of the battlefield variety. Warren’s service endears him, at first, to Ruth, allows him to strike up a conversation even with General Smithers, a putrid Confederate wreck. Mannix idolizes Smithers for the infamous atrocities he committed against black POW in the Civil War, and it’s fighting their pointless battle together that brings Mannix and Warren together across the sharpest of political and societal lines. Violence is not what separates the people snowed in at Minnie’s Haberdashery, it’s what binds them together and enables their diseased fraternization as much as it does their eventual mortal conflict. When all’s said and done, they’re lying in a lake of mingled blood with nothing to separate murderer from murdered, and up above them Daisy hangs, hand in grisly hand with what’s left of the man who brought her in.
The Hateful Eight is out now in the US. The film opens in the UK on January 8th.