Released: January 2016
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Quentin Tarantino, it seems, cannot release a film that doesn’t generate controversy. Interestingly, given the myriad different settings and stories his films cover, the objections almost always boil down to just two things- the films are too violent and they are either racist, or at least inappropriately utilise racist language. To quickly get these objections out of the way, yes, The Hateful Eight is really violent- but then Wyoming in the late 1800s was pretty violent , and this doesn’t feel at all out of place given the story and the setting. Bounty hunters and criminals are not known for their sweet demeanour, and those classic Westerns like The Magnificent Seven are all about violence and how it can solve problems. It can be argued by not showing any blood or any ramifications, they glorify it even more, as just another costless part of the heroic narrative.
Race definitely comes up in The Hateful Eight. It stands out for me as one of the few films to casually show the complexity of prejudice in the rural states in the post-civil war era, without that taking the full focus of the film. There’s Confederates who, whilst being completely, unapologetically and objectionably racist, also get the chance to argue the civil war was about more than race. There’s the black, unionist military hero, who might enjoy killing whites a little too much, and after the civil war launched headlong into campaigns to wipe out the native Americans. There’s the friendly homesteader, running a coaching inn for all, who also happens to hate Mexicans. No one gets off with one point of view, and none of the prejudices appear anything less than character flaws, not something to emulate. It’s called Hateful Eight because that’s the one thing they do all have in common- their hatred for someone else. Anyone else.
The film itself is a heady mix of Western-style grudge-matches and a locked room who-dunnit, stitched together with beautifully shot landscapes when outside and then sharp and well-crafted dialogue once inside. From bounty hunters to sheriffs to generals to outlaws, not one character has any reason to trust another, but the harsh blizzard keeps them all shut up in Minnie’s Haberdashery together. The first half is pure exposition, but with people so well written and so interesting, that it not only doesn’t matter, it hugely enjoyable getting to know everyone. As you meet them, find out who they are most like, who they hate most, what they value and why they are heading to Red Rock, tensions start rising and tempers flare. It takes a strong cast to work together to pull off a script so complicated and to accurately portray characters that each have a different face depending on who they are talking to, and Tarantino has succeeded in putting an outstanding team. From his old stalwarts Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell‘s gruff and intimidating bounty hunters, Tim Roth‘s delightfully British hangman, Walton Goggin‘s surely Blazing Saddles inspired sheriff to Jennifer Jason Leigh‘s wild and desperate turn as a prisoner, there isn’t a misstep amongst them.
With such different people in one place, and with so many having so much to lose- money, notoriety, a job, their life- hidden alliances and bare-faced hatreds start to form. So when, at the halfway mark, someone poisons the coffee, it is all set to go south very quickly. Partnerships form in unlikely places, simmering tensions bubble over and no one knows who to trust. With Samuel L. Jackson’s bounty hunter taking over as detective-in-residence, the film switches from character portraits to the angriest Agatha Christie crime drama made yet.
It is a very long film, and I think it is wise to take advantage of the interval offered part way through, but it is hard to see how it could have been cut down. Every scene is important, every detail worth savouring. While Django was spectacular in it’s locations and it’s scale, Hateful Eight turns the Western into what Tarantino does so well, a small room mystery, where the focus and tension just keeps burning until the whole film catches fire.