Quentin Tarantino's latest cinematic cherry bomb, "The Hateful Eight," has been the subject of spirited debate and dozens of finger-wagging think pieces: Is it misogynistic? Racist? Just wholly reprehensible?
I'm a steadfast believer in the idea that depiction doesn't equal endorsement, but the film is loaded with enough stomach-churning sadism to supply more than enough ammunition for either side to prove its point. Viewers will likely see what they wish, but Tarantino's ideas are murky enough to make a definitive answer near impossible. The filmmaker loves to play violence and racial epithets for uncomfortable laughs -- this is, after all, the same guy who used a character getting their face blown off as a punchline in "Pulp Fiction." For better or (more often) worse, the characters' excessive use of the N-word is equally as identifiable a Tarantino trademark as the appearance of the director's favored (fictional) Red Apple cigarettes.
Tarantino has embraced his role as cinema's merry prankster, one who enjoys provoking his audience as much as he desires to entertain them. Here he gives us a story about how our country's sins of the past aren't so great at staying contained in the past (an idea that shouldn't be shocking to anyone who's read the news lately). The film's politics remain somewhat opaque, and the morality was easier to parse in his previous films, which took the form of revenge fantasies featuring oppressed groups who wrought blood-soaked vengeance against their persecutors: women in "Death Proof"; Jews in "InglouriousBasterds"; American slaves in "Django Unchained." Now Tarantino presents us with a cast of characters who are all oppressors in one way or another, and everyone's hands get equally bloody.
Set in post-Civil War Wyoming, "The Hateful Eight" offers a vicious portrait of frontier justice. We meet bounty hunter John "The Hangman" Ruth (a great Kurt Russell), traveling by stagecoach to transport his prisoner Daisy Domergue (the gleefully wicked Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the town of Red Rock, where she's due to hang. Daisy has a black eye by the time we join the pair, and she spends a lot of time getting savagely beaten by her male counterparts throughout the film. It's in keeping with Tarantino's methods that he never indicates how we're supposed to react to these eruptions -- though, I'd point out that not indicating isn't the same as not caring how we react. It also soon becomes exceedingly clear that Daisy is more than capable of dishing out the violence herself.
On the road, they encounter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a Union war hero turned bounty hunter, and the pair add him to their party. Before long they've picked up another wandering soul, a racist former Confederate outlaw named Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who just so happens to be Red Rock's incoming sheriff (or so he claims). With a massive snowstorm on their heels, the group seeks shelter at Minnie's Haberdashery to rest up and wait out the storm.
Upon arrival, they find that the cabin is already hosting an unruly collection of miscreants: a former Confederate general (Bruce Dern), an oily British hangman (Tim Roth), and a monosyllabic cowboy named Joe Gage (Michael Madsen). Minnie and her husband are nowhere to be found, and in their place is a Mexican (Demián Bichir), who calls himself Bob and claims that he's been left in charge by Minnie while she's off visiting her mother.
It borders on superfluous to say that the film lives up to its title: these aren't lovable anti-heroes, they're a murderer's row of villainous monsters. With its band of untrustworthy criminal types together in a confined location there's a bit of a resemblance to Tarantino's debut feature, "Reservoir Dogs." The mix of racial and political ideologies don't mix so well, and soon enough murder is the name of the game as "The Hateful Eight" evolves into a locked room mystery, inspired by Agatha Christie as much as brutal winter-weather westerns like "The Great Silence" -- with a dash of John Carpenter's "The Thing" thrown in for good measure.
Even fans of the filmmaker sometimes grow impatient when Tarantino sits back and allows his characters to ramble on and on, but I never mind. Especially in this case, since it's when those words turn to action that the film becomes significantly less interesting. The eventual onslaught of violence and mayhem is the natural payoff to the verbal violence that's come before, but while it's the inevitable conclusion to this story, seeing the characters destroy one another in horrifically bloody ways isn't as interesting as witnessing their psychological battles. Still, all that talking allows the actors to flex their muscles, and the film boasts some wonderful performances -- in particular, Jackson, Goggins, and Leigh are all fantastic.
By the end, the walls and floor are painted in blood, brains, and viscera, and more than one character lies bleeding to death on the floor (another of Tarantino's favored elements). But there's more going on here than empty provocation. The walls of Minnie's Haberdashery function as a stand-in for America, both of the past and the present, where an unruly population is locked inside and sooner or later we're all going to tear each other apart. That's about as bitter, pessimistic, and darkly cynical a viewpoint as one can have in this day and age -- though one that's increasingly apt. The director doesn't offer solutions, he simply uses his beloved pulp genre trappings to comment on the state of things as he sees them.
Countering the moral ugliness is the film's incredible technical beauty; the production design, effects, and music are marvelous. Legendary composer Ennio Morricone provides his first Western score in 40 years, and it's a wonderful mix of the majestic and the sinister. Tarantino's regular cinematographer Robert Richardson shoots in Ultra Panavision 70, using the extreme widescreen images to capture the icy mountains and snow-covered vistas, then pulling the rug out from under you once you realize the film mostly takes place indoors.
This isn't to say the format goes to waste: once we're inside, Tarantino uses every inch of the expanded frame to convey a sense of claustrophobia. The wideness also allows him to keep as many of his shifty characters in frame as possible, allowing us to keep an eye on each one of them. Unfortunately, Rochester isn't one of the locations selected to receive the film's roadshow presentation on 70mm film. It's disappointing to say the least. I mean, c'mon Weinstein Company: if a filmmaker's going to use his work to pay tribute to film, I don't think it's crazy to suggest that the birthplace of the medium should be included in the fun.
The material presented in "The Hateful Eight" may often be morally repugnant, but Tarantino is too skilled a filmmaker to not make its presentation slickly entertaining. The disconnect adds a layer of discomfort as it forces (nay, requires) the audience to ask themselves what they find so enjoyable about witnessing the degradation of human bodies. Tarantino butchers good taste, then leaves us to sift through its grisly remains.