The Hateful Eight

January 22, 2016
Samuel L. Jackson in 'The Hateful Eight' (2015)
Samuel L. Jackson in 'The Hateful Eight' (2015)

Each new film by Quentin Tarantino generates a storm of anticipation. We know what to expect, but initially The Hateful Eight took me by surprise. It is a long movie, divided into chapters, with an old-fashioned intermission. Instead of the usual gore fest the first half is all dialogue and scene-setting. If this appeals more than wall-to-wall bloodshed, you might like to leave at intermission. No sooner do the lights go down for Part Two than the bullets start flying.

The story begins with a stage coach racing through the snow in wintery Wyoming, a blizzard brewing in the background. An obstacle appears in the shape of bounty-hunter, Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) who has been left stranded with a dead horse and the corpses of two villains he hopes to cash in at the town of Red Rock.

The occupant of the coach turns out to be another bounty-hunter, John Ruth (Kurt Russell), otherwise know as the hangman because of his preference for bringing in his clients alive and letting justice take its course. Ruth is hand-cuffed to a woman, the rough-mannered Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who has a big price on her head.

Before the coach can reach the shelter of a wayside inn called Minnie’s Haberdashery, another stranger appears in the snow. It’s Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) a former member of a gang of confederate marauders, who says he’s on the way to Red Rock to take up the job of sheriff. The wounds of the civil war are still raw, and none of the passengers – on the basis of race or war service – have any reason for liking their companions. And so there were four: each despising and mistrusting the other.

When they arrive at the oversized log cabin where they will need to spend the next few nights there are already three guests – an elderly confederate general (Bruce Dern), a wordy Englishman who claims he’s Red Rock’s new hangman (Tim Roth), and a silent cowboy (Michael Madsen); along with a taciturn Mexican called Bob (Demían Bichir) who says he’s looking after the place while Minnie and Dave are away. It smells fishy, and Ruth is convinced that one or more of the group is plotting to murder him and free his prisoner.

The atmosphere gets pretty steamy in the cabin, as stares and insults are exchanged. It seems momentarily that Tarantino is giving us a western version of the old Agatha Christie story, And Then There Were None, (stylishly filmed by René Clair in 1945). Who is the potential murderer? Who will be first to die?

Without giving anything away, I can tell you these questions soon become academic. Almost everyone is a murderer in a Tarantino flick. The time for sharp dialogue is over, and the blood-letting is about to begin.

As the scenario degenerates into chaos one can only wonder what goes on in Tarantino’s mind. For a knowledgeable writer-director who understands dialogue, editing and cinematography, why does he always resolve a story in the most excessive, vicious way? What adolescent impulse drives him to make glorified B movies, when he could do so much better?

Tarantino is possessed by the demon of postmodernism – the idea that everything great and good that can be done, has been done. He is a connoisseur of decadence, compelled to touch up the wellworn genres of the past with his own gloss of irony. He loves to fashion something expensive from the crudest materials while trashing the conventions. For Tarantino the only way is down.

If Tom Hooper suffers from excessive good taste as a filmmaker, Tarantino indulges too cheerfully in deliberate bad taste. It’s not as if anyone could be shocked by such antics, as they have become trademarks. It leaves an audience divided into those who can’t get enough bloodshed, and those – like me – who feel increasingly sickened by the stuff.

Tarantino’s cinephilia is everywhere on display – from an original score by Ennio Morricone, the Puccini of spaghetti westerns; to shooting on 70 mm film, with the same wide-screen ratio used in Ben Hur (1959). The title is a cynical play on John Sturges’s classic western, The Magnificent Seven (1960).

The Hateful Eight is a gruesome fairy tale from which we can take lessons about the deep divisions that still exist within the American society, but it’s enlightening to put it alongside another recent release set in the American west, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant. In contrast to Tarantino’s love of cinematic trash, Iñárritu believes it’s still possible to make something new and powerful within an established genre. The Revenant is as brutal as The Hateful Eight, but without the black, cartoonish humour. It’s a movie that plumbs the depths while Tarantino skates across the surface. One can see the difference between art and showbiz, between a visionary director and a master of pastiche.

The Hateful Eight
Written & directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demían Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, James Parks
UK/USA, rated R18+, 168 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 23rd January, 2016.