The Hateful Eight
Stars Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth, Bruce Dern. Directed by Quentin Tarantino.
The central question in reading all Tarantino movies (especially his last historical re-imagination, from Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained and now The Hateful Eight) is this: How serious is it? Is this just a blood-splashed, hi-trash, tongue-in-cheek cartoon, or a super-clever, post-post modern cinematic expression on thorny issues, such as slavery and the American Civil War? Tarantino gets away with it all because he teeters between both (if we discount his real-life polemics on race and police violence), milking his gift of dialogue writing and dramatic exaggeration to slip in and out of the shadow.
As usual, fans will rejoice in The Hateful Eight. But those not entirely indoctrinated in the black church of Tarantino will find this latest joint harder to stomach than Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds (and of course, Tarantino’s best work remains Jackie Brown). Where the narrative of the earlier historical films are sprawling and the revisionist allegory less unambiguous, the new film is narrow in scope, at some points claustrophobic, a chamber piece of amoral characters trying to out-mean one another. Sometimes you wonder what he is trying to get at. What, I mean, is this actually about? Race relations in post-Civil War America, or the moral terror of the present-day US reflected through the period setting and the most American genre, the Western?
There are more than eight gunslingers, but I suppose Tarantino counts only those who are vicious and leaves out the innocent. In snowy Wyoming – a cowboy film set in the blizzard is quite ingenious – bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) is transporting his prized capture, the murderess Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the town of Red Rock. As the blizzard is chasing his stagecoach, Ruth picks up another bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), and an ex-Confederate rebel and now sheriff, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins). After a long conversation and a spatter of violence committed against Daisy – poor, crazy Daisy! – the party arrive at a haberdashery where they will stay and wait out the snowstorm. Inside, there are other travellers already holing up, including a professional hangman (Tim Roth), a cowboy (Michael Madsen), a Mexican (Demian Bichir) and an ex-Confederate general (Bruce Dern).
Once inside, while the storm is raging outside, it’s clear that there’s nothing left for these people to do but talk. And talk they do, in verbal subterfuge and tall tales, in jokes and in menace, each of them sizing up the others’ allegiance and history. Tarantino’s talent as a writer of dialogue is duly celebrated – perhaps him and Woody Allen are the best, in a not entirely different way in fact – and here the underlying obsession is the North-South, white-black divide of the Civil War, culminating in the terrifying scene when Major Warren confronts the old and racist general with a story of sexual and racial vengeance. One of The Hateful Eight’s running jokes, and maybe the kernel of its obscure message, is that Major Warren, a black man, is said to be a pen pal of Abraham Lincoln. The major goes everywhere with a presidential letter in his pocket, which he proudly shows to those who ask to see it, but its authenticity will be questioned.
Again, what is that about? A hope for reconciliation in a divided country after a bloodbath? The difference between justice and vigilantism? The Hateful Eight is violent, wacky, entertaining, and somewhat meaner than I thought it would be, but Tarantino’s appropriation of history in order to bring forth his critique and wild fantasy is less convincing here – much less than Inglourious Basterds, which I think is another of his best films. That he is always heavy-handed, a maestro of wilful exaggeration, is a cinch; only that in The Hateful Eight, the natural steam that runs his madcap engine seems spread out too thin.
What we have, and what we have is enough, is the theatrical swagger of these assorted malcontents: the room becomes a den of colourful personalities with secrets to hide and scores to settle. Jackson, as Major Warren, has the most delicious lines as usual. But it’s Jennifer Jason Leigh as the increasingly demented Daisy, and Walton Goggins as the jumpy Mannix, who stand out from this new collection of Reservoir Dog-like assassins. Now that the director has made three historical films that happily subvert factual respectability, perhaps the demon has been exorcised.
Tarantino is one of the most original filmmakers at work, and the irony that he “steals from every movie ever made” only compounds to the alchemy that makes modern American cinema, or at least a pocket of it, continue to breathe and live.