I’m in a weird spot with The Hateful Eight, as it’s a beautiful, ugly, crass, vulgar, thrilling, suspenseful, and nigh uncomfortable film to sit through. The film’s greatest achievement is holding an uneasy tension until the “Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino” credit shows up at the end, and that’s not a simple task, given the film’s 187-minute running time. Once again, Quentin Tarantino goes hardcore with his own revisionist take on history, the third in a string of what I like to call “bloody justice” films after Inglourious Basterds [which concerned eight (coincidence?) Jewish-American soldiers on a mission to kill as many Nazis as possible, including Adolf Hitler] and Django Unchained (which could be viewed as the ultimate middle finger to racism and slavery). These two films along with The Hateful Eight are quite a shift in tone from Tarantino’s previous five solo-directed films; witty dialogue which gave cool panache to the banal or trivial has given way to shocking speech and strong violence underlining some of our more repulsive moments in history.
The Hateful Eight finds us immediately post-Civil War, where figures like the African-American Union officer Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and Confederate General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern) are still wearing their Blue and Gray coats, respectively. While this setting may attempt to excuse the racist tone and language used by most of the cast, Tarantino tends to overdo it in hopes to sear how horrible we were to each other 150 years ago into our brains, just in case we forgot our high school history classes. The heavy use of the term “nigger” and how it’s hurled at Warren may have been acceptable a long time ago, but hearing it this much in 2015 is bordering on overkill, even if its intent is to jolt us out of indifference.
Putting Warren and Smithers in a room together is just one of the elements made to slowly simmer in the stockpot, which isn’t set to boil, but instead to start a kitchen fire intent on burning the whole house down. With the exception of the film’s first couple of chapters, the bulk of The Hateful Eight is a bottle episode, with the titular Eight – Sanders, bounty hunters Warren and John Ruth (Kurt Russell), Ruth’s bounty Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), and three strangers (Demián Bichir, Tim Roth, and Michael Madsen) – being stuck inside a farmhouse-type store with a blizzard bearing down upon them.
Already, we’re put on edge due to Ruth having to hole up in a house with six people he doesn’t know (including the two strangers he picked up), any of whom might be out to scoop the bounty on Daisy from under him. The rest of the film builds upon that tension, spiderwebbing between the various people as wartime allegiances and various crimes against humanity are disclosed and discovered. Like I said at the beginning of this review, this is The Hateful Eight’s greatest achievement; it’s a thrilling combination of The Thing (coincidentally, also starring Kurt Russell) and some great Hitchcockian suspense, all leading to some gruesome payoffs. It’s basically a three-hour Mexican Standoff, with personal histories replacing guns as their weapons for much of the film.
Lending a hand to that suspense are performances given with delicious overblown aplomb, often straying into knowing caricature for entertainment’s sake. From the forthright and self-righteous to the sly and cunning, Tarantino’s carefully-picked cast seems born for the roles they’re given, especially Jennifer Jason Leigh, who practically runs away with the movie by stealing every scene she’s in. Her acid-tongued Domergue is “the fly in the ointment, the monkey in the wrench, the pain in the ass,” as Bruce Willis from Die Hard once said. She’s there to cause trouble and to be the thorn in everyone’s side, especially Ruth’s. The unbridled mischief that sparkles in her eyes in every scene – even the ones where she’s being beaten due to insolence – never fades until she’s finally made to be afraid, and even then, you can still see the wheels turning behind her eyes as she plots her way out of her situation.
A lot of this film is Tarantino doing Tarantino: backflipping dialogue, creative one-liners, plenty of gallows humor, font types from his previous movies, and timeline-jumping for exposition and dramatic purposes. Part of me thinks it’s been done before and that he could’ve done this movie in his sleep. However, he hasn’t been this simple since Reservoir Dogs, which was also a one-location film for its majority and also about eight principal players. Even though he has to juggle all these characters, their personal histories, and their own personal conflicts with one another, he still manages to keep it clean and powerful with indelible imagery and a barbed script.
Much has been made of the decision to shoot this film using Ultra Panavision 70, a widescreen process not used since 1966’s Khartoum, which was shot for Cinerama theaters. Director of photography Robert Richardson uses this extra-wide format for lovely establishing shots and exquisite framing between our characters, but one has to question its use in a location which doesn’t necessarily endear itself to the spectacle of Ultra Panavision 70. Yet Richardson manages to make the one-room haberdashery larger than life, and one cannot deny the artistry in the content; neither landscapes nor exploding heads have ever looked so pretty.
Oh, yeah. The exploding heads. They’ll catch you off-guard in the second half of the film, when the guns start speaking more than the actors do. The gore effects were done by none other than KNB EFX Group heads Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero, the latter having spent his time handling similar effects and directing duties on AMC’s hit show “The Walking Dead.” The violence in The Hateful Eight is startling and appalling, yet it has an oddly comic, splatterpunk-ish bent to it due to overblown exaggeration. No matter how comedic some of the violence may seem, there is one instance where the happiness in which the participants seem to revel during a specific killing will unsettle you, resulting in the film’s most ugly scene in a film full of ugliness. It’s that ugliness found in humanity that Tarantino seems to feel the need to showcase and stamp out; by film’s end, you’ll understand.