Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight boasts the most striking opening shot of any film released this year, and arguably the most beguiling, contrarian final one. The three hours of fervent, bellicose celluloid in between veer from passionate ax-grinding to lazy-day wheel-turning, from crystal cinematic clarity to dynamically befuddled, wanderingly confused filmic indulgence, and from great to merely passable. The Hateful Eight is very likely the least uniform film Tarantino has ever made, rising from clandestine peaks to overbearing valleys with split-second timing and not one ounce of diffidence.
Calling it the messiest film of the year is both understatement and overstatement, and point of pride and vexing mistake, for all Tarantino films function along a slantwise plane of self-indulgently monstrous, accidentally satisfying messiness. But The Hateful Eight is simultaneously Tarantino’s messiest film ever and his most straightforward. Or say it’s too messy in all the wrong ways, not messy enough in the ways it ought to be. There’s nothing wrong with a film that feels like an unfinished rough draft – there’s portent and pregnancy in the waiting gaps a film fails to fill in, in the t’s it wishes not to cross and the i’s it refuses to dot – but The Hateful Eight feels more like mere sketchwork.
But first, a word on The Hateful Eight the cinematic antiquarian, the cinematic sexagenarian, and the cinematic event. Tarantino has clearly professed his idolatry for the classical cinematic experience of old, and his glorious and somewhat monomaniacal “Roadshow” experience – complete with overture and intermission – is his preferred means of witnessing his eighth film. The highlight of the piece, in this regard, is the scorchingly grainy 70 mm celluloid The Hateful Eight was filmed on, a harbinger of oppressive lateral framing and sublime, ostentatious cinematic glory in the “screw you, I’m going to make them like they used to” mold.
The aforementioned opening shot, a desperately lethargic pan outward from a monolithic totem of Western expanse into the crisp, primordial limbo of white hell we will soon learn to be Wyoming, is the most pummellingly gorgeous shot in the entire film, and a death-marked foreshadowing of things to come. With Ennio Morricone’s discordant, sharp-edged score blaring out of the picture and into your soul, the shot belongs not in a Western, but a Mario Bava giallo. Hours later, Tarantino will make good on this claim: The Hateful Eight is a Western in name, but a horror film, about the failures of American to tame the West, in spirit.
Tarantino’s opening gambit is a promise to reapply the luminous classical Hollywood framing of gilded glory inherent to the 70 mm celluloid and curdle the vast expanse of the frame into a deliberately ominous marker of overpowering malevolence surrounding and suffocating the pitiful humans within. Yet even this promise is subverted again once the film reaches the artificial refuge of Minnie’s Haberdashery. Most of the film, a slow burning series of longueurs questionably stitched into a motion picture, will unfurl within the constraining walls and hidden rafters of this bar turned prison. The 70 mm framing – traditionally applied to emphasize the girth and glory of external grandiosity – is no longer a forewarning of blizzard-shrouded post-McCabe and Mrs. Miller omniscience, but a weapon of internal claustrophobia. Despite the name, the haberdashery begins with more than eight occupants, and as tensions boil and alliances shift, the lateral expanse of the framing ensures we are always aware of the characters in the background, or off to the side, lurking and leering.
So score three for Tarantino for applying a long dead technique, tricking us into expecting how he will apply it, and then subverting his already subverted tools for a decidedly small-scale Western that almost dares us to expect bigger things of it. The trouble is that the same can be said to apply to the film’s script; while the innards of Minnie’s attain the crisp and cluttered despondency of a classically lived-in movie location, Tarantino’s film is more vital on the outside than when its internal organs are sprayed across the camera. Suffice it to say that the back-and-forth shifting and sliding of the characters is a great tease, amounting to much less than the hot-house of backwoods racial tension and post-Civil War malaise initially suggests.
Tarantino’s most recent films have delighted in disrupting history and both uplifting and chagrining the role of cinema in debating with history. The nervous bundle-of-wires anti-propaganda piece The Inglourious Basterds was a striking condemnation of American war-making practices that denied us the satisfaction of its cocksure titular characters at every turn, crafting a modern-day Raiders of the Lost Ark where the American heroes are essentially irrelevant to the spitfire success of the finished plan. Django, a Blaxploitation film slathered over the most tempestuous time in American history, and the most dangerous subject in the American memory, questionably posited a sort of mythical and fictional American house-cleaning by giving a black cowboy a gun and letting him loose on his white captors. The film is flawed, but little details reveal a work of deceptive complication and necessary scholarship; take the way it tacitly hints at the dishonesty of the white savior complex narrative and quietly exposes seeming racial liberal Dr. King Schultz as a fiction right from the way he circumstantially wanders into the opening frame like a fake hero, or snake oil salesman, in a fable.
Both films are united in a certain post-modern critique of cinema as reality, a problematic but fascinating implication that cinema cannot meaningfully take on the reigns of reality and thus ought to exist, openly, in the realm of fiction. To Tarantino, the idea of a film that legitimately showcases the Holocaust, or American Slavery, as it existed in reality is a lie, and he delights in upending that masquerade with cinematic potboilers rooted not in reality but in the classical myth-making traditions of American fiction: the war film, or the Western respectively. If Tarantino’s cinema presents a ridiculous vision of history, it also proposes that so-called “real history” in cinema is an object worthy of ridicule to begin with.
The Hateful Eight, Tarantino’s second Western, decides to submerge twisting Reconstruction-era tensions in another past-its-prime genre: the Agatha Christie mystery. With a great majority of the film given to argumentation and characters questioning one another, Tarantino creates an almost open-faced excuse to put America’s racial history on trial, finding the scoundrel and the rapscallion in figures both white and black, Northern and Southern, social outcast and social honoree. In the spirit of a great many classical Westerns, Minnie’s is not really a haberdashery but a stage upon which the souls of its characters are contested, a cauldron within which the social relationships that construe and misconstrue American identity will boil and burst open. The cramped claustrophobia extends as far back as John Ford’s seminal Stagecoach, but a more obvious point of reference is John Carpenter’s much-loved The Thing, a similarly snowbound work of festering paranoia that ends with a white body and a black body sharing a last gasp of darkness as the world cleans itself of human foibles.
In The Hateful Eight, however, those two characters are ex-Yankee and ex-Confederate, united, uncomfortably, in hanging an outlaw whose allegiance was primarily to their own self. The message is that malleable social allegiance dies hard when life is on the line, that racism and misogyny are fluid tools applied, erased, and reapplied depending upon an individual’s need for power at the moment. But that’s hardly revelatory when all is said and done, and, more importantly, Tarantino’s slippery wordplay sometimes unwinds race to the point where it seems entirely plastic and rhetorical, as though it has no fixed, material core at all, no institutional sedimentation in capitalist norms that might keep him from heroically upending it and turning it into falsity and fairy dust. Certain moments do land, for instance when a white character – the black character’s only real friend in the film – turns on him once the black character’s facade of perfection slips, implying that, for the white man, only ideal or exceptional black characters pass muster even in a world that absolutely requires deceitfulness and treachery for a black person to survive. But other sequences are most dubious indeed, as with the aforementioned finale which mockingly and solemnly offers an ironic but genuine hope (Tarantino always trying to have it both ways) for an America where two people can put ideology and skin-color aside to trust each other’s merit in service of the act of murder. (As though meritocracy has been a predominantly egalitarian construction in the US, an argument which Tarantino is unwilling to dismember and thus has ensconced himself in the 1800s when he can mock mostly explicit racism rather than the more perniciously masqueraded implicit 21st century breed of racism).
The Hateful Eight a thoroughly mean-spirited, nihilistic film, with potentially provocative questions – of the tension between frontier justice and civilized justice, as well as a black man’s place in America and the value of lying against a nation that has done nothing but lie to you – are undone by Tarantino’s structural insistence on the evil inherent to all members of the human race. Perhaps the point would have been set in stone had Tarantino also not settled on the wit and ingenuity of his ultimately arbitrary mystery; there’s an anti-mystery, a critique of mysteries, inherent to the dry bones of The Hateful Eight, but Tarantino makes the fatal mistake of trying to wow us with his twists and turns while also insisting on the fundamental meaninglessness of it all, winding us up in a classical (ball of) yarn whilst untangling the yarn right in front of us. More than ever, Tarantino’s chosen genre and his chosen social commentary seem at odds with one another.
More immediately, The Hateful Eight is undone by its insistence on recapturing the grimy, nihilist anti-camaraderie of Tarantino’s first film, Reservoir Dogs. In theory, there’s nothing wrong with Tarantino’s implicit insistence that his own films now belong to the American canon of classical cinema to be reread and revitalized over time through cinematic intertextuality. But The Hateful Eight never critiques or adds to Reservoir Dogs; it merely restates in long-winded passages and to lesser effect. The absence of Tarantino’s long-term editor Sally Menke, who passed on in 2010, was merely a stinging sensation in Django; here it is an out-an-out death knell to a film that drags interminably.
The anti-cool carnivorousness of Reservoir Dogs, that film’s insistence on a world of cinematic cool as a mask worn by characters trapped under the weight of curdled machismo, is rekindled in moments of The Hateful Eight, a film that brashly and nihilistically insists on every Western archetype as a sewer dreg masquerading under some variant of social image or allegiance. It is a cinematic scum bucket that dares us to like anyone within before slitting the throat of basic notions of character empathy. But the film achieves nothing in three hours that Reservoir Dogs didn’t in half the time. Tarantino’s cinematic arguments are necessarily convoluted and cocksure, but they tend to be carried along on the wave of Tarantino’s phallic thrust of pure charisma. For him, provocation encircles a the point; in The Hateful Eight, provocation bleeds pointlessness. But then, maybe pointlessness is the point in this astringent, bile-infused engraving (not a painting; Tarantino is too harsh for such pictorialism) of America’s intestinal juices. Unless it’s actually a festive, convivial rusty-blood-bucket-toy-box . Or both, but either way: a dilemma of a film, equal parts shambles, excrement, insight, and perfectionism. Off its rocker, proud of it, to its detriment and its ever-lasting life. Essential cinema of a kind, but I’m throwing my hands up on this one.
Score: 7/10 (revised)