Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015) squanders whatever potential it might have had to be a truly great western on a series of miscalculations that gradually devolve it into a bloody, race-baiting diatribe; full of the sort of mentally ill sensationalist muckraking that has fast become a cliché instead of trope in Tarantino’s cinematic style. Carrying over his infantile fascination with the word ‘nigger’ (and no, if Tarantino is unashamed to bandy it about ad nauseam some 60+ times in this movie, I certainly have no quam about marking it once for this review) – perhaps, the most loaded and incendiary word in the English language, and, thoroughly mined until there is literally no ‘shock value’ left in it in Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), herein, Tarantino takes ‘that word’ to new lows of casualness; to what purpose…ah, now there is a point. Or is there? Throughout The Hateful Eight I found myself waiting for a more prolific movie to emerge; my level of expectation, too lofty for Tarantino to satisfy. In essence, The Hateful Eight is Reservoir Dogs (1992) all over again, tricked out in the frontier milieu with a sidestep into 70mm; that glorious, though tragically defunct widescreen format, yielding exceptional image clarity. Thanks to cinematographer, Robert Richardson, The Hateful Eight has at least pictorial value to recommend it; the starkly surreal depictions of its snowy Coloradan landscapes (subbing in for Wyoming) with their epic natural splendor lending genuine scale and scope to this otherwise wafer-thin and unprepossessing showdown that owes more to the modern pulp crime actioner.
By now most everyone has either heard about or read of ‘the guitar incident’ – Tarantino derailing virtually all future relations between the Martin Guitar Museum and any film production company hoping to feature their product; allowing his star, Kurt Russell to destroy an 1870’s antique on loan out in good faith, smashed to bits against a wooden pillar for a pivotal scene. Evidently, Russell was unaware the guitar he was dismembering was not a prop; while co-star, Jennifer Jason-Leigh became utterly horrified in the moment; Tarantino pleased to have achieved ‘the reaction’ preserved for posterity on celluloid, even if it alienated professional relations with the museum for good; Martin Guitar’s Director, Dick Boak understandably revoking all usage of any of their prized possessions after the maimed remnants of this instrument were returned to him with an insurance claim remunerating the full value for this antique. Alas, no dollar amount can effectively compensate for the willful ruination of cultural heritage; something for which Tarantino seems to possess an almost maniacal resolve and relish to dismantle.
In only 8 films, it now becomes rather apparent Tarantino’s sole purpose for making movies is to satisfy his own inarticulate grey matter, hell-bent, all-consuming and, as it turns out, predicated on a measly and self-devouring, gauche and gargantuan ego masquerading as ‘style’. Even the briefest TripTik through his work illustrates how niggardly and transparent his modus operendi has become, unremarkably distilled into a litany of foul-mouthed vituperations, spewing forth from the mouths of virtually every character populating his skewed perspective on mankind in general. There are no heroes in a Tarantino movie; arguably, no ‘normal’ people either. Add to this about 40 quarts of red dye number two, indiscriminately splashed about until virtually every set dressing in its path is bathed and dripping in simulated blood and guts, and, Tarantino’s overweening sadism is gratified – even championed – as ‘art’; a very sad state of affairs. Personally, and apart from his one shining moment of true inspiration – Pulp Fiction (1994) – I do not consider Quentin Tarantino a great film-maker. I keep returning to his films in the hopes he will come around to possessing such inventiveness again. But I have marked him previously, and will do so again herein, as a ‘one hit wonder’ merely making, and then re-making, the same damn movie over and over again.
The innate value of a true artisan becomes self-evident when his body of work is compiled to be forever thereafter studied and re-evaluated both on the merit of its individual achievements and the collective maturation of his filmmaker’s technique. This latter appreciation can only be surmised with the passage of time. But even with the narrowest of timelines from 1992’s Reservoir Dogs to The Hateful Eight, it has become increasingly transparent Tarantino’s goal is neither to excite nor entertain; merely to startle, repulse and disgust his audience. It really is a dead end pursuit; a race to the bottom with varying degrees of immediate popularity afforded him in the present, but with everlasting detriment done to the longevity of his reputation. With each subsequent movie, Tarantino, in absence of genuine originality, has deduced that any old debasement of history, steeped in appalling levels or sexism and racism, will suffice to sell tickets. And, in this regard, Tarantino has not been wrong. His movies are generally ‘well received’, make money, and have acquired a following that teeters on branding him an auteur. Even as I make mention of this I can sense the likes of Hitchcock, Cukor, Ford, Wyler, Wilder, Minnelli, and others, collectively rolling over in their graves.
The Hateful Eight is a ravenous beast of a movie, its motley crew of disreputable and blood-soaked hags and homicidal brutes sub-par for the course. Tarantino cleverly masks his perversions by getting together an all-star cast to peddle his putrefied wares. Star power aside, The Hateful Eight has very little going for it apart from its gimmick to stage a sixties styled roadshow, complete with overture, intermission and entr’acte. Over the course of Tarantino’s ascendancy in Hollywood he has proven both a passion and contempt for golden age Hollywood; The Hateful Eight, his latest ‘homage’ and/or sacrifice on his altar. Let us be fair in reassessing Reservoir Dogs as not so much a revisionist’s take on the classic ‘caper/heist’ gone hopelessly awry (a la the likes of The Italian Job 1969); or Jackie Brown (1997) as a bloodletting revamp of the Blaxploitation cycle that performed a rather tasteless phallatio on the American cinema of the mid to late 70s (Cotton Comes to Harlem, (1970), Foxy Brown (1974), and Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2; cheaply disguised erotica, using the patina of that same decade’s affinity for the kung-fu/karate flicks. Inglourious Basterds (2009) was Tarantino’s historical revision of WWII, reconstituted as a Nazi-fied anti-Semitic harangue, making Jews the blood-thirstier of its perpetrators; and finally Django: Unchained – watering down the severity of radical racism with its’ over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek exchange in loaded insults.
And now, drum roll, please – The Hateful Eight; a sort of compendium of all of Tarantino’s derisory venom, consolidated under the roof of one expansive trading outpost in the middle of a snowy nowhere. No one gets out of this one alive and Tarantino wouldn’t have it any other way – his theater of death completely imploded in the final reel. I will venture a guess there is not much he can do as a director except to go in a completely opposite direction from this point onward. I mean, Tarantino has given us just about all of the exploding heads, blasted out innards, blood-disgorging, castrating, ball-bashing, ultra-sadistic dismemberment of not only human bodies but equally distorted perceptions on the human condition – that which supposedly makes us ‘humane’ and ‘superior’ beings in the food chain. But Tarantino has devalued just about every principle that ought to make life worth living, his screen violence gone so far beyond what we used to consider as ‘permissible’ to now appear as though he were smearing feces across our movie screens with mocking insolence, as with the degenerate immunity of a mad creator, drunk on his own misguided sense of genius, though tragically suffering from some inbred, nipple-sucking melancholia. Even the most basic primates have more aptitude and intuition than this.
And yet I never ceased to be amazed by the warped and frustrated elements that surfaces to the top of Tarantino’s toilet bowl with the nagging resolve of that last piece of excrement refusing to get flushed from my consciousness after the houselights have come up. Tarantino suffers from an affliction that is by no means exclusive to him; that of the equally dumb and lucky fatalist who, having outfoxed and made money for the bean counters presently in charge of Hollywood’s dream factories – some might argue, by articulating a popular rage - now fancies himself as its jack of all trades, when time and again, he has simply proven to be the master of none. If Tarantino would only focus on one element of what he remarks to be his all-encompassing virtuosity, leave directing to the directors, or writing to the writers, and most definitely, acting to the actors, he might unearth a new precedent that could both delight and entertain without indoctrination. But his approach to storytelling is so sledgehammer-heavy and so densely packaged around the most contemptuous tone of an enraged middle-aged kid who never grew into his long pants - and thus isn’t quite sure if they fit - he holds the rest of us in the balance of his very tightly clenched fists, determined to pummel our sense of morality – so transparently casting judgment on it as idiotic and/or just plain wrong. If we are to be fair and tolerant in assessing The Hateful Eight on its merits as well as its misfires, it is high time Tarantino quit talking down to his audience and relinquish his mind-warping insolence to make the rest of us see the world with its inherent ugliness amplified all out of its natural proportion.
Part of the problem I have with The Hateful Eight is that it perversely feeds upon the new American standard in degenerate race relations; Samuel Jackson, doing a variation on Pulp Fiction’s Jules Winnfield as Major Marquis Warren. Jackson is a very fine actor – with enough cachet to exalt his rank to that of a ‘premiere’ among his contemporaries. It is Jackson’s superb delivery of the lines he has been given to regale us with a sordid flashback of abject humiliation (Chester Charles Smithers (Craig Stark), forced at gunpoint to trek across the frozen tundra naked, orally raped, then murdered by Warren as retaliation for his father, Gen. Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern) cold-blooded execution of black union soldiers at the Battle of Baton Rouge) that carries the ballast of this scene’s dramatic tension. Alas, unable to resist showing us everything, we get momentary flashes of Warren’s beady-eyed elation, head cocked into the steely glint of winter’s light, as he savors the breaking down to bedrock of a man’s character and soul. Revenge is indeed a dish best served cold, Warren denying Chester the bodily warmth of a blanket earlier promised, then cruelly executing him in a manner to mimic his own father’s butchery. And yet, for all its ruthlessness, this moment just seems very jejune at best; merely the axis on which all of the blood-laced carnage yet to follow will pivot.
The Hateful Eight begins several years after the Civil War with some truly majestic landscapes to recommend it; Colorado (substituted for Wyoming), a stark, yet compellingly pristine backdrop draped in winter white on which Tarantino intends to let the rivers run red with the blood of virtually his entire cast. In nobler times, this would be considered a very Shakespearean pursuit. Alas, there are no noblemen in Tarantino’s entourage; no tragic voices of reason to be pitted and prematurely snuffed out in their prime and, thus, no character for the audience to relate to or truly haunt us with their epic sense of loss; the cornerstone of all iconic works of tragedy since Medea. No, we are deprived such luxury and satisfaction, replaced by a den of repugnant and vicious bottom feeders, permitted the run of the play with their contracts written in blood. We meet Major Marquis Warren on this snowy path to Red Rock, Wyoming. Warren, a bounty hunter transporting three corpses on which he intends to collect, is the subject of cruel fate; or is it divine comeuppance?; his horses half-frozen and dead, leaving him stranded in the middle of nowhere with an advancing blizzard licking at his boots.
The wagon master, O.B. Jackson (James Sparks) alerts Warren that his fare is not the obliging sort; and in short order Warren realizes as much when he is met with the point of a rifle. Inside the carriage is another of Tarantino’s uncouth brethren, bounty hunter, John Ruth (Kurt Russell) aptly nicknamed ‘the hangman’, transporting captured fugitive, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh, utterly wasted in a thankless part, the literal punching bag of the piece) to see her dangling from the end of a rope in Red Rock. While suspicious of Warren at first, the Major’s reputation has preceded him, as has Ruth’s with Warren; the two men regarding one another with edgy admiration. Ruth becomes enamored by Warren’s claim he has a personal letter from President Abraham Lincoln. As any man able to call himself a ‘friend’ of the President can likely be trusted. So Ruth allows Warren to accompany them on their journey. While Ruth takes the letter shown him by Warren at face value, Daisy spits on it as an obvious forgery; causing Warren to physically assault her. Not long thereafter, the stagecoach encounters another lost soul along these deserted parts; militiaman, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who reports to be on his way to Red Rock to assume duties as its new sheriff. Mannix, an unrepentant racist, and Warren, unwilling to back down, almost come to blows over each other’s controversial war records.
The stagecoach is threatened by the advancing storm; its passengers forced to take refuge inside Minnie's Haberdashery, a nearby trading outpost. Curiously, the proprietress, Minnie Mink (Dana Gourrier), a familiar face to Ruth, is nowhere to be seen. Instead, everyone is cautiously greeted by Bob (Demián Bichir); a Mexican who claims Minnie has departed to comfort her ailing mother, and thus, having left him in charge. Bob’s story does not ring true, his immediate refusal to allow Warren to tend to the stages’ horses inside the nearby barn, and later, the discovery of a wayward pink jellybean tucked between the floorboards, suggesting something of a violent nature has caused Minnie to disappear. Or has she already been picked off by Bob and the other lodgers; Oswaldo Mobray (the morbidly underused Tim Roth); a.k.a. ‘English Pete Hicox’ – a.k.a. ‘the little man’; Joe Gage (Michael Madsen); a.k.a. Grouch Douglass – a.k.a. ‘the cow puncher’, who when pressed by Ruth, reports to be on his way to visit his own mother for Christmas, and finally, Sanford Smithers, a retired and very prickly Confederate General. Almost immediately, Ruth astutely recognizes the only way to trust these curious gatherers, is to disarm everyone except Warren. Ruth is well aware Daisy’s gang might be on the prowl and plotting her daring escape.
Inexplicably, the tone of this tension shifts from the strangers in their midst to Warren’s own credibility; Mannix surmising Warren’s Lincoln letter is a forgery, thus forcing Warren to admit as much, but, in his own defense, claiming it buys him leeway with otherwise racist whites. The old General is very much of this ilk – perverse in his hatred of blacks until Warren suggests he knew Smithers’ son, Chester, since found dead and buried in a wilderness grave nearby. Warren offers to regale the General with the particulars of Chester’s demise; a story that quickly reveals how Warren unabashedly delighted in the abject humiliation, oral rape and murder of Chester; considering his interpretation of frontier justice hearty recompense for Smithers’ execution of black soldiers at the Battle of Baton Rouge. Having left his unloaded pistol on the table nearest Smithers now, the old man’s eyes welling up with tears of disbelief, anger, sorrow and pain; Warren goads the General to attack him. Smithers takes this bait and is executed by Warren, who thereafter claims ‘self-defense’ and/or justifiable homicide as his only recourse. In all the chaos no one, except Daisy, notices someone has poisoned the newly brewed coffee.
Again, Tarantino, ever the egotist than the clever filmmaker, cannot resist the urge to insert himself into this tall tale and show us how uber-clever he has been. The Hateful Eight is ridiculously divided into ‘Chapters’ like a novel; Tarantino pausing to pontificate in a recap of the previous scene’s highlights; as though to mock his audience for not ‘getting it’ the first time. A more effective reveal might have come from either better staging of the previous sequence (to let the audience figure this one out for themselves) or in the staging of a flashback (soon to be employed by Tarantino to even more obvious effect for yet another trick up his sleeve). But no; we get Tarantino’s voice-over instead, haughty and reveling in having pulled the wool over our eyes. Too late Ruth and O.B. realize they have been poisoned, spewing fountains of thick bloody vomit as they crumple in agony and collapse to the floor. The expiring Ruth attempts to strangle Daisy. However, in his weakened condition he is overtaken and murdered by her instead using his own gun. Warren manages to disarm Daisy before she can free herself of Ruth’s handcuffs. Now, Warren assesses the situation with an almost Sherlock Holmesian proficiency for tying up all of Tarantino’s remaining loose ends. He deduces Mannix is innocent of the crime of poisoning the coffee, having almost taken to swig of it himself. Warren also ingeniously reconstructs the murders of Minnie Mink, her husband Sweet Dave (Gene Jones), fellow employee, Gemma (Belinda Owino) and another wagon master, Six-Horse Judy (Zoë Bell doing a Calamity Jane knock-off), innocently responsible for bringing these bandits to the haberdashery.
To expose the identity of the poisoner, Warren now aims his gun at Daisy’s head. Joe confesses. Alas, no one has anticipated that perhaps they are not alone; Warren realizing too late another plotter is lurking beneath the floorboards. This mystery man shoots Warren in the crotch. Oswaldo and Mannix wound each other in an exchange of gunfire. Joe is shot by Warren who now orders the hidden assassin to reveal himself or Daisy will die. Enter Jody Domergue (Channing Tatum), Daisy’s mercenary brother who, having learned of his sister’s capture planned for a showdown with Ruth in Red Rock. Alas, the same blizzard that thwarted Ruth’s journey into town, earlier resulted in Jody and his entourage’s detour at Minnie’s; their execution of this trading outpost clan, sparing Gen. Smithers to use as window-dressing for their diabolical plot.
Alas, either Jody has underestimated Warren’s resolve to be just as ruthless a butcher, or we, as the audience, have not seen enough Tarantino movies to recognize almost immediately how this one will end. Warren brutally blows Jody’s head apart with his pistols, the tidal wave of blood and grey matter showering a horrified Daisy who now angrily claims Jody has amassed an even bigger rescue party sure to descend on Minnie’s at daybreak and assassinate anyone who stands in the way of her freedom. Daisy tempts Mannix. If he will only kill Warren, she will promise him immunity from their wrath at dawn and even let him claim the bounties on all of these piled up corpses – a formidable sum. Oswaldo echoes Daisy’s suggestion, briefly contemplated by Mannix before Warren shoots both Daisy in the foot and Oswaldo in the leg. More bullets, more bodies and a brief respite from the carnage as Mannix temporarily blacks out from blood loss; regaining consciousness just in time to seriously wound Daisy. In honor of Ruth’s commitment to see her hanged in Red Rock, the dying Warren encourages Mannix to help him string up Daisy from the rafters. As she expires, her neck slowly twisting, then, breaking, the two men contemplate what their own lives have been worth; Mannix mildly amused by Warren’s forged Lincoln letter, reading from it aloud.
The Hateful Eight is brainless, bloated and self-indulgent to a fault; curious too of Tarantino to stage his Agatha Christie-ish locked room murder mystery in the ultra-widescreen 70mm process; a contradiction between format and subject matter. Arguably, Tarantino knows how to write dialogue. There is a lot of exposition in The Hateful Eight. But he cannot resist to unravel his solid prose with loaded four-letter barbs and a repetition of ‘that word’ until both have effectively lost all potency to shock and revile. The vices far outweigh the virtues of this piece and, in the end we are left with a fizzling, hair-trigger pseudo-western/noir, populated by grotesques left virtually unrecognizable – even as stereotypes to the audience or archetypes gleaned from another Tarantino movie. There is no narrative arc, per say, other than to cage the cast like a pack of unwieldy animals and then let the lowest common denominator of their collected villainy, rather than nature, run its course. Tarantino’s view of humanity continues to depress. Lacking a denouement, or at least one to suggest there was anything better or more to this story than the devolution of man into beast, The Hateful Eight elevates nihilism to a finite craft, though never an art. You could easily do without seeing this one. I could sincerely do without any more such debauched outings from Tarantino – period!
The Hateful Eight on Blu-ray is an enigma. Tarantino has denied home theater viewers the ‘luxury’ of experiencing the full breadth of his depraved wish fulfillment. We get only the ‘theatrical cut’ and not the roadshow. Honestly, it’s a silly decision; one made arbitrarily by Tarantino to suggest the only ‘real’ way to experience the movie in its complete form is at the cinema. We lose the overture, intermission and entr’acte, plus a few choice bits of dialogue that otherwise expands the run time without enlarging either the vocabulary or the impact of the story itself. The Blu-ray’s image is immaculate, as expected; capturing the subtlest nuances in Robert Richardson’s low-lit interior cinematography. From a pictorial standpoint, the best parts of The Hateful Eight take place outside – a pity these represent less than a third of the run time. But the establishing long shots lensed by Richardson are of a magnitude as exhilarating as anything created for a David Lean epic; smooth, steady master shots of the mountainous terrain looking positively ravishing under a blanket of undisturbed snow.
Once we move indoors, the effect of 70mm is greatly subdued; Tarantino expertly filling the vast expanses of the screen with interesting details, and blocking the action with meticulous craftsmanship. As I stated at the beginning of this review – there’s nothing wrong with the ‘look’ of the picture; only the picture itself, and this 1080p presentation will surely not disappoint. Rich color saturation, natural flesh tones, exquisite amounts of fine detail, beautifully textured film grain and superior contrast. The DTS 5.1 audio is equally impressive. Frankly, from a movie made only last year, we expected no less. Extras are disappointing: a brief ‘making of’ featurette and a self-aggrandizing look at the 70mm process hosted by Samuel L. Jackson, as though he were heralding the coming of the next The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. Alas, only ‘the ugly’ is presented for us herein. Bottom line: pass and be glad that you did.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)