The Hateful Eight begins so promisingly. The unsettling music by veteran spaghetti western composer Ennio Morricone fits perfectly, as a stagecoach rolls slowly past a wooden Christ on a stone cross. Just as watchful are the encroaching storm clouds set against Wyoming mountains.
The characters inside the horse-drawn carriage pique the viewer’s interest, too. Bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) is accompanying his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the town of Red Rock. Former Union officer Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and ex-Confederate renegade Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) round out the quartet.
The group arrives at a lodge outside of Red Rock just ahead of a vicious blizzard, where they meet the other four rounding out The Hateful Eight. Mexican Bob (Demian Bichir) tends the horses and helps run the establishment. A gregarious Brit (Tim Roth) greets the newcomers. Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern) warms himself by the fire, and a cowboy writing his autobiography (Michael Madsen) sits aloof in a corner.
Tensions are already high between the prisoner and his captive, but in this post-Civil War period, it doesn’t take long for sparks to flare up as well between former loyalists and rebels. Tossing even more fuel onto the fire, Jackson’s character suspects that at least one person in the room aims to free the Hangman’s prisoner.
As he’s shown in his seven previous films, Tarantino knows how to craft a suspenseful narrative. Even if none of these characters are developed deeply, The Hateful Eight held my interest for its nearly three hour run time. Few if any of the movie’s minutes felt extraneous to the unspooling story.
As usual, too, the film’s visuals and sound don’t disappoint. The Wyoming mountains and forests are lovingly realized, and the attention to period detail is convincing. And the wind whistling through the slats of the stagecoach lodge had me zipping up my jacket for warmth.
But (and you knew this “but” would arrive sooner or later), The Hateful Eight is fatally lacking in other key areas, especially when compared to Tarantino’s two previous films. Both Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained had characters in whom I felt emotionally invested, which is not the case here. In addition, The Hateful Eight is missing the dark humor of Basterds, not to mention the warmth and tenderness that grew among Django’s protagonists. Any of these qualities would’ve been most welcome in this new film.
Worst of all, The Hateful Eight sickeningly rehashes the theme of ethnic apocalypse from his two most recent films. With Inglourious Basterds, you had the climactic conflagration that consumed Nazi, black, and Jew alike. By the end of Django Unchained, the Southern slavers met their doom, but not before Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington’s characters suffered in ways that must’ve had master of masochism Mel Gibson frantically taking notes.
In The Hateful Eight, the stagecoach lodge becomes America in miniature. To appease both Northerner and Southerner, one character even proposes that the fireplace become Georgia, while the bar is christened Philadelphia.
In Tarantino’s worldview, of course, this is not an America at peace. Women are casually pummeled and bloodied, as white, black, and Hispanic together all suffer extreme violence. If Gandhi believed that an eye for an eye made the whole world blind, through Tarantino’s ultraviolent lens, the world becomes dismembered, and its head explodes.
With our country’s legacy of racism and misogyny, Tarantino may be somewhat prophetic. Who knows, some white blood may be shed before anything remotely like equality is achieved across genders and ethnicities, much as I hope Tarantino is mistaken.
Unfortunately, our director on his third such outing seems to relish the blood and gore of his prophecies. Tarantino unquestionably possesses expansive cinematic talents. Here’s hoping he grows up and tells a more mature story in Film Number Nine.
2.5 out of 5 stars
(Parents’ guide: The Hateful Eight is rated R, for all of the usual Tarantino reasons.)