‘The Hateful Eight’ infuses whodunit plotline with director’s distinctive qualities
Few film directors’ styles are as immediately recognizable as Quentin Tarantino’s, whose sharp writing and aestheticized violence are his stylistic standouts. His latest film, The Hateful Eight, is a comically self-aware reflection of his own career and style—but it is also something new.
The film stars Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell as bounty hunters Marquis Warren and John “The Hangman” Ruth, respectively. Ruth is en route to the town of Red Rock to hang his prisoner, outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), when Warren hitches a ride with them. When they stop at a remote haberdashery to escape a blizzard, they encounter a group of men – all apparently there for different reasons – but suspicions soon arise that someone in the cabin is plotting to free Domergue. What ensues is a bloodbath only Tarantino could realize.
I came into the theatre with certain expectations and in most respects, it delivered. This film is drenched in the theatrical irreverence for which Tarantino is known. The gory set pieces are graphic and over-the-top, but to the point of being strangely comical rather than disturbing—a feat I have seen no one pull off quite like Tarantino. What’s more, the violence actually propels the story forward with what could easily have become an immature gimmick. Between these bursts of brutality is a story which actually keeps you actively guessing until the end. The dialogue, laden with foul-mouthed wit and morbid satire, reveals the backstory and history of these characters in a way that does not deviate from the rest of the movie. This is a level of literary depth which Tarantino has perfected, and The Hateful Eight is no exception. In addition to always-great performances by Jackson and Russell which thrust the story forward, the other six did not disappoint; Walton Goggins plays a quick-witted white supremacist, and Tim Roth’s character is so connivingly greasy you could wring him out like a towel.
I rooted for Jackson’s character because I’m biased. The reality is that the titular group is one of the slimiest, foulest bands of malcontents in crime fiction. Their compulsive lying and constant desire to deceive and usurp one another is what keeps us guessing the most. The characters are so dishonest that the uncertainty of their testimony keeps the suspense real throughout, rather than confusing the audience like it easily could have. It is the typical epic, multilayered story of which Tarantino is a master helmer.
That being said, this film is not like Tarantino’s others, as his films have typically featured quest narratives. Whether it is Butch frantically trying to escape the dungeon in Pulp Fiction, The Bride flying to Japan to slay an assassin in Kill Bill, or Django trekking through the American South to find his wife in Django Unchained, the characters in Tarantino’s films are trying to get somewhere, and it is the variety of location and setting in these stories which has allowed Tarantino to unleash his full cinematic kookiness. The things we know and love about Tarantino are all a result of him giving himself free reign to not just his artistic vision, but to the story itself. The Hateful Eight is thus an experiment in form, replacing the journey with a whodunit. For me, it was a bold place to go for a director who has so firmly planted his style in this narrative structure. The trademark ornamentations are still there – snappy dialogue, buckets of gore, and loads of ethnic slurs – but Tarantino’s desire to explore new territory, a healthy exercise for any artist, is nonetheless a detail that stuck out to me like a sore thumb. This is not a bad whodunit, let alone a bad movie, but others have done it better—just like how Tarantino has done better than others in different ways. And I think that it is this decision to experiment in different narrative tropes which has forced Tarantino to spread his talents thinner than usual, and which prevents The Hateful Eight from achieving the status of its predecessors.
As a fan, I still am not sure if I felt the way I did because of genuine production errors, or because I just didn’t get what I wanted. But the bottom line is that while I left The Hateful Eight happy, I nonetheless wanted something more. But I’m glad that Tarantino decided to make this film without eschewing his own gleefully twisted aesthetic.