The Hateful Eight and Quentin Tarantino are (unsurprisingly) cultural agents of incendiary race and gender debates, with regard to the purpose of film as a medium for messages about the presence of women and black men in the public imaginary.
I associate Westerns with dusty deserts, not mountain country that makes you understand why the Inuits have so many words for snow. This meant that from the very beginning; I felt rather than realized that Mr. Tarantino had totally flipped the script. The colours in the first half of the film – gazillions of grays and primal whites against gorgeous horses galloping with a blizzard at their backs – are like Safyr Blue when you are expecting a ‘skop, skiet and donder’ movie. From the thrilling opening sequence, set in the mountains of Wyoming at an unspecified historical time that appears to be a decade or so after the Civil War, the music is “majestic and delicate, its grand spaces filled with tendrils of feeling—but it’s as if the music can feel something we can’t.” There is visceral confusion from the get go, and a lurking feeling of suspicion that all is not as it should be.
Before even getting to the dialogue and action, the mountainous vistas and sinister drumbeats instill a sense of foreboding. Like hey wena, nature can be as unforgiving as the hearts of humans. It is shot in in Ultra Panavision 70 – an arcane camera process last used in the 50s and 60s on extravaganzas like Ben-Hur, described as having been built for lassoing mountain ranges. The score, by Ennio Morricone, is as imperious as the landscape and you can tell that him and director of photography, the three-time Oscar winner Robert Richardson, were probably reveling in tonal and compositional experiments the whole time. There is a lot to see and hear on this film and the majority of it takes place in a horse-drawn coach and in a shed.
John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is a bounty hunter travelling to Red Rock with Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), his murderous captive. He gives a ride to Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson), a former Confederate and now bounty hunter and, and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a gee-shucks hillbilly ex-Confederate soon to be the town’s new sheriff. The worsening storm forces them to batten down the hatches at Minnie’s Haberdashery, where four more characters enter the fold. Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), an old Confederate general, Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a taciturn but archetypal cowboy, cattle-hand, Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), a flamboyant hangman, and Bob (Demián Bichir), the shop’s temporary Mexican caretaker. Minnie is nowhere to be seen. In a sense, it is like the whole of America got squashed into that one room.
The film’s camera virtuosity is nothing compared to the dialogue. The script could easily be a stage play, with crisscrossing opposites like hostility and camaraderie, ugliness and integrity – it’s like Shakespeare made a spaghetti Western. The hideous racism, senseless violence, gore, horrible misogyny are almost like red herrings, a distraction from the truth of the matter: that history is being restaged as a visualization of Faulkner’s words: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
The dialogue and plot have led it to be described as an Agatha Christie type mystery, but the brilliance is that the very wide angle lenses almost compel you to drink in all the details – instinctively drawing your eye around the barroom, looking for clues, scrutinizing faces, trying to figure out who did what and with who and for what purpose. This is an evolved example of the art of the protracted scene (think of the breakfasts in Reservoir Dogs, the 15-minute basement bar game in Inglourious Basterds or the dinner at Candyland in Django Unchained). It is my favourite loop in Tarantino’s personal signature. The exchanges get more tense and more funny as they go on and on and on, absurdly stylized but still keeping you guessing.
Prejudices, paranoia and pain reign supreme throughout the film, as they do in the real world. It’s a marvel that through all that verbiage and violence; a black man gets to tell his own story and the only female lead is “the film’s scapegoat and punching bag”. The Hateful Eight and Quentin Tarantino are (unsurprisingly) cultural agents of incendiary race and gender debates, with regard to the purpose of film as a medium for messages about the presence of women and black men in the public imaginary. “Mr. Tarantino doesn’t make films that are “about race” so much as he tries to burrow into the bowels of American racism with his camera and his pen.” After this, the same can be said for violence against women, and capitalism.
The intentionally unlikable characters and their ingeniously rendered violence (never cathartic, never sad, despite this being a revenge film) when they do what they do for money in America weave a critical social commentary with a narrative so tight and gripping that you don’t even realize you’re being schooled. This grand theatrical performance of history in terms of misdeeds and revenge potential, reveals much about the implications of political, racial and sexual insanity that we’re still wrangling with today. It will snag at your conscience, just as your full attention will be hijacked by facial expressions and bloody projectile vomit shot with a poet’s eye.