IN THE HATEFUL EIGHT, director Quentin Tarantino assembles his characters to marshal his grand conceit, like a master chess player.
We first meet the two bounty hunters: John – the hangman – Ruth (Kurt Russell as John Wayne) with his bounty, murderer Daisy Domergue (a welcome return to from, form from Jennifer Jason Leigh) are on a stage coach trying to out gallop the coming storm and seek refuge in the lonely hilltop shop come hostelry, Minnie’s Haberdashery. Along the way, they encounter and rescue the other bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson as Samuel L Jackson), an ex-cavalry officer carrying a – putative – letter from Lincoln (his letter of freedom), along with three corpses, his bounty, piled one upon the other like pelts (Unlike Ruth, Warren prefers to kill his prisoners. Keeping them alive is “too much work”).
But it’s a crowded road. Yet another straggler joins the party: Chris Manix (a tremendous Walton Goggins), a confederate rebel and the supposed new sheriff of Red Rock, the (typically named) town they’re all headed for.
Ruth’s prisoner has a bounty on her head of $10,000. Major Warren’s corpses have bounties on their head of $9,000. They agree to look out for each other to protect their assets.
So here you have it – Tarantino’s concerns are aligned and spread out before you like a warm blanket against the cold tundra (freshly blown in from The Revenant). The Hateful Eight continues (from Django Unchained) his exploration of the underlying tensions that were born with the union of North and South and that continue today: racism, freedom and the amoral spirit of capitalist enterprise – the three sides of the American idea.
Once they’ve entered Minnie’s Haberdashery and we meet the other key players (they aren’t so much characters per se, but symbols…of racism, greed, murder, rape etc; that’s why they’re the “hateful eight”) the issue of racism takes centre stage. Within the snow battered cabin are a lying Mexican, a morose embittered confederate officer, livid at the presence of a Black man in their midst (a beautifully quiet performance from Bruce Dern), a hangman (Tim Roth channeling Christoph Waltz) and an enigmatic gunman (Michael Madsen rendered near invisible amongst the grandstanding of the other cast).
Within the cabin (sealed off from the outside world…from outside influences) they recreate the civil war, dividing the cabin between a North and a South. The hostility between the races, in particular between the Black free Northerner Major Warren and the White Southern “nigger-hating” confederate officer (Tarantino revels in his freedom to use the ‘N’ word without being branded racist), is fused to the venom that the White South feels by the liberation of the – Black – North.
Freedom is threat.
To Tarantino, there’s an almost symbiotic relationship between the hated and the hater.
It’s a mutual hatred that, like the storm imprisoning them all, denies them any real sense of freedom (no matter, as one character says to another, “… it’ supposed to be a free country”). Indeed, the arc of the entire narrative and the story’s Agatha Christie-type mystery is all about trying to free someone (the murderous Daisy Domergue).
Amidst all this enmity and hatred lies a common territory. It’s that of commerce. For it’s not just the captives, dead and alive who have resale value, they all do; interspersed amidst the racial taunts and the bloodshed are financial calculations and the promise of deals and counter deals. Characters who are natural enemies bond over bonds of commerce. They are after all imprisoned in a shop – about as potent symbol of America you can find.
If murder will out, so too will money.
And in the end, murder does out. This is BY FAR, Tarantino’s most gruesome venture. Brains are blown out, blood gets vomited here there and everywhere, Daisy Domerge’s face is slavered with blood for most of the movie; the whole of Minnie’s Haberdashery is, by the end, awash in red. His characters are bound not only by the handcuffs that join them, but by the (bad) blood that links them… as a nation.
Tarantino’s movies are always excessive; the action, the comedy, the bloodshed always extreme. Usually it works just fine. But The Hateful Eight feels unrestrained, his characters given over to stock archetypes. It’s an excess of self-indulgent, rambling, bloated storytelling. It’s almost three hours long; and at times, especially during the longeurs of the middle chapters (Yes “chapters”: this is after all a Tarantino movie) it feels like four.
And the orgy of blood. So much of it – like a child wallowing in mud; a gleeful attempt to outdo anything Saw or B-movie horrors can conjure up.
Pity, because it’s a visual treat and the score is tremendous.
If you choose to go, don’t eat before
The Hateful Eight: DIRECTOR; Quentin Tarantino. WITH: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell; Jennifer Jason Leigh; Walton Goggins; Tim Roth; Michael Masden; Bruce Dern. CINEMAOGRAPHER: Robert Richardson (World War Z); COMPOSER: Ennio Morricone (For a Few Dollars More, The Mission etc)