The Hateful Eight starts with a deliberate and slow set of opening tableaus, charting incredible snowy Wyoming landscapes (actually filmed in Colorado). They’re captured in magnificent 70mm, making for enormous panoramas which at once feel expansive yet claustrophobic.
These images are accompanied by an unnerving and magnificent theme composed by Ennio Morricone – here scoring his first Western in decades – which further serves to drive home the message of disturbing happenings to come. It almost doesn’t feel like a Tarantino film, such is the slowness, the calmness. In fact I was instantly reminded of the opening of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, and I wonder if Tarantino has now reached a point where nods to genre and exploitation films are eschewed in favour of a more classical approach.
The crux of the film is that John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is taking his bounty Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to a town called Red Rock, where she will be hung for her crimes and he will receive $10,000 reward. The problem is that a blizzard is on the tail of his stagecoach, and so he is forced to stop over at local tavern Minnie’s Haberdashery, wherein six other nefarious characters are also holed up. The claustrophobic atmosphere is ramped up and we are trapped with these villains, none of whom can be trusted, and at least one of which has dangerous designs on the rest.
It’s a paranoid kind of who-dunnit, and so to talk any more about the plot would be to ruin it. Therefore I’m instead going to talk a little bit about my overall feelings and get to the heart of why I feel as I do; that I was ultimately disappointed.
Technically there’s nothing to fault. This is Tarantino at his most masterful, most in control and ultimately most sure of himself. The Hateful Eight is beautiful, impeccably shot, cleverly blocked and makes great use of the 70mm Panavision format to include the smallest of details in the widest of shots. But the problem doesn’t lie in the execution, it lies in the story itself.
In a Q&A at the Directors Guild of America, following the screening of the film and with Christopher Nolan as the interviewer, Tarantino was asked what influenced the story and he cited two key influences.
The first was the TV Westerns of the 1960s (Gunsmoke, The Virginian etc.) He said that his favourite episodes of these shows were the ones where celebrity guest stars would come in and play a one-off character. What Tarantino most enjoyed about these episodes was that you never could tell until the end whether these characters were protagonists or antagonists. They would ride into town as a mystery, and you had to decide if you trusted their story or not.
So Tarantino thought ‘what if I put eight of these characters in a room together’. Which is a great idea, except that in Hateful Eight, they all turn out to be villains (more on this later).
His other key influence was John Carpenter’s The Thing. Aside from the obvious visual comparison (snow everywhere, Kurt Russell), it was the paranoia of the film; that none of the characters were able to trust the others and so the tension builds to a terrifying head that the audience feels in a palpable way.
But the difference with The Thing is that all of those trapped are good guys.
Therefore my problem with The Hateful Eight comes because in taking these aforementioned influences it then misuses them to the detriment of the impact it wants to achieve. Nobody in The Hateful Eight is likeable. In fact they’re so thoroughly despicable that they all deserve death. So when the paranoia builds, and the suspicion of someone smelling a rat (so to speak) leads to tense showdowns it doesn’t have much weight, because we aren’t rooting for anyone to get out alive. And it makes the big reveals fall a bit flat because the stakes are removed when we don’t empathise with a single one of them.
And unlike The Thing, where the characters are all desperate to not lose their friends and colleagues to this intruding alien (the clear antagonist), and so try to root it out for their collective survival, in The Hateful Eight the characters all dislike each other to an extreme degree. So it really feels like a matter of time before they blow each other away in a hail of bullets and blood. All there truly is to consider is what order will they be despatched and who will form temporary alliances. And that’s not enough to sustain tension and provide a thrilling experience in a 3 hour film. So it makes the long, slow burning scenes feel a little indulgent, and leaves a feeling of flatness as you walk out of the auditorium.
What the film does excel in is its commentary on racism in both the 1800s and in the present day. There is a subplot involving a letter supposedly written by Abraham Lincoln to Samuel L Jackson’s character, which he uses to curry favour with ‘white-folk’. It’s amazing how well the letter works, and how when its authenticity is called into account, the same white-folk who had accepted the black man as one of their own now turn on him with cruel racist words and even crueler hearts. Tarantino is commenting on the small truths that reveal true racism in the hearts and minds of vast swathes of human beings even today, and its powerful stuff.
The symbolism of a black and white horse, shot in slow motion, battling through the snow together to try and reach a destination they’ll never get to is another example of this, and is perhaps even more visceral given its universal accessibility as a message.
But overall I’m incredibly sad to say I was left feeling flat by The Hateful Eight. As Westerns go, Tarantino, for me, created a modern masterwork with Django Unchained (whose tension was higher than anything I’ve seen in recent memory). The Hateful Eight is an entirely different beast, I just wish there had been someone or something worth rooting for. I wanted to empathise and because I didn’t the tension was lost.
But it’s worth seeing on the big screen if only to be reminded of the beauty of cinema when its done right.