Waaaaayyy back in my early days as an armchair critic, I focused almost exclusively on exploitation, horror, and other “B”-movie genres. They’re pretty much all I wrote about, in fact, and calling my blog “Trash Film Guru” made a kind of sense back then. These days, of course, I find myself casting my hopefully-more-sharply-trained critical eye on just about anything, and if I went back and added up the numbers over the last two or three years I’d probably find that I’ve reviewed just as many comics as I have films, and that I’ve reviewed as many Hollywood blockbusters, documentaries, foreign films, and straight-to-video numbers as I have old-school (or, for that matter, new-school) exploitation flicks, but still — the “Trash Film Guru” name continues to run at the top of my site, and since it does, I take it as almost a personal responsibility to review new Quentin Tarantino films as soon as they come out, given that he’s essentially the living embodiment of the exploitation ethos in our day and age.
Not that it’s a responsibility I don’t relish, mind you — I’m not ashamed to admit that I still absolutely love all of Q.T.’s work to one degree or another (yes, even Death Proof), and that I still consider it a genuine cinematic “event” when something new from the man hits theaters. And yet —
I never did get around to seeing 2015’s The Hateful Eight when it was playing cinemas. I was short-staffed at work at the time and clocking six-day weeks for a good few months there, and so getting out to the movies just wasn’t something I had time for. By the time things settled down a bit and I found myself with something vaguely resembling “free time” again, wouldn’t you know it — the damn thing was long gone. It’s out on Blu-ray and DVD now (with excellent picture and sound as you’d expect and sparse extras, the most notable of which is a decent little “making-of” featurette), though, so hey — I can finally do my duty as a self-appointed “guru” of exploitation and report back to you, dear reader, with my thoughts on this, our guy Quentin’s latest, and perhaps most divisive, effort.
First off, let’s not kid ourselves — everybody loved Inglourious Basterds (and with good reason), and everybody especially loved that long, slow-burn first scene. A lot of folks even openly wished the entire flick had aped its tone and structure, and evidently Tarantino was listening, because The Hateful Eight is easily his “talkiest,” most insular, most claustrophobic, most subtle work yet. It takes a long time to get going and is decidedly less flamboyant in terms of its balls-to-the-walls, operatic violence(though rest assured there’s still plenty of it) than we’re used to from the auteur, but in many ways that’s the best thing about it — not only because, hey, a little variety is always good, but because Tarantino extends that meme outward within the film itself. The Hateful Eight, ya see, is much more than “not exactly what we were expecting” — it’s also never exactly what it appears to be.
On the surface, of course, this story about bloodthirsty bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (played by Tarantino mainstay Samuel L. Jackson) crossing paths with more-supposedly-gentlemanly-but-really-even-more-twisted fellow bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) as he escorts his latest captive, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) into the one-horse town of Red Rock, Wyoming barely ahead of a blizzard sounds like it’s probably a fairly traditional western — as new characters make their acquaintance, though, such as the town’s purported new sheriff, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), and add layers of intrigue to the proceedings, one starts to get the idea that perhaps Tarantino is going to give us a Peckinpah-esque “revisionist” western. It’s not until we meet the rest of the “hateful” bunch, though — former Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), Red Rock hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), cow puncher Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), and substitute shopkeep Bob (Demian Bichir), who are all waiting out the storm inside the confines of an establishment known as Minnie’s Haberdashery — that we realize what we actually have on our hands here is an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery where no one is who they appear to be. Even the ones, paradoxically, who are.
But hold on a minute. Is that really what Tarantino is serving us here? Of course not. The various characters are, in fact, the flesh-and-blood embodiment of any number of problems (specifically those of the racial, cultural, political, and sexual varieties) plaguing just-post-Civil War America, and even as the onion of just who the fuck did what and what it even means is being peeled, the deftly-intertwined socio-political commentary is where the real action is here — and even there you honestly have to wonder whether or not Tarantino is confining his critique to this historical setting, or showing just how little has really changed between then and now. None of this ever gets heavy-handed, but it sure is thought-provokingly juicy.
The other delicious bit of sleight-of-hand that Tarantino indulges in comes by way of the brilliant “switcheroo” he pulls immediately after the film’s opening act. Robert Richardson’s gorgeous cinematography at the outset gives us magnificent snow-swept vistas of such quietly ominous grandeur that I was literally kicking myself for not having seen this flick in 70mm, and coupled with Ennio Morricone’s Oscar-winning score the feel established early on in epic in the truest sense of the word — then the remaining 90% of the movie takes place in a single room and is pretty much a stage play on celluloid. Here’s the funny thing, though : Richardson and Morricone’s work only gets stronger once confined to these tight quarters. I have no idea how that works, but works it does.
Needless to say, the acting from all parties concerned is absolutely superb, and much as every line of dialogue in The Hateful Eight is loaded with import whose meaning will only become clear later, every single movement, gesture, even facial tic on the part of the actors matters here. At over two-and-a-half hours long you’d be forgiven for assuming that there was a fair amount of “filler” material on offer in this flick, but the truth of the matter is that each and every detail is relevant to this film’s outcome. Not only are there almost no “throwaway” lines, there are very few, if any, “throwaway” moments.” So, ya know, pay attention.
And I hope that the nay-sayers who bad-mouthed this flick are still paying attention. If ever there was a film almost purposefully designed to benefit from critical re-appraisal as the years go on, it’s this one. Sure, it’s something of a lengthy slog and most of the tension is bubbling well beneath the surface, but damn — The Hateful Eight is a powder keg that could go off at any second, even if it isn’t always exclaiming that fact in forceful, “in-your-face” tones. You do need to be patient with this flick — but your patience will be richly rewarded.
So — is this Tarantino’s best work? No, Jackie Brown still holds that honor in my own humble opinion. But The Hateful Eight is definitely his most complex, multi-faceted, nuanced, and politically aware effort to date, and shows that while the years may be mellowing the tone of his product, they are in no way blunting its impact.