Hateful Eight: Existential Horror in the Wild West
I will follow Quentin Tarantino’s lead, and like this movie, The Hateful Eight, I will allow this review to be indulgently long. And like Tarantino, I will break it into chapters, using titled headers.
[Note: This review was originally published in 2015 but is being re-posted 5/2019 because of the new, Netflix release of The Hateful Eight Extended Version as a miniseries, available for streaming. And FYI: No Spoilers here.]
Prelude: It’s dreadful and wonderful
“Damn. Tarantino never fails to amaze,” I wrote in my book, breathless (having just gasped my heart into my lungs). It was only intermission, and I was already getting high off the crazy-violent depravity-fumes that Tarantino was releasing into the theater. I was glad for the break, to get some fresh air. But hey, he went more than an hour and a half (the running time of most other films) before a shot was even fired. He (and Samuel Jackson) made us wait. And it was hot-blooded, high-tension waiting – like the most highly-charged sexual foreplay that brings you right up to the edge of the cliff, and then, still not giving what you crave, hangs you perilously over the side, where you are clutching for your life and consummation. It’s dreadful and wonderful.
Part One: The Eighth Movie by Quentin Tarantino
First there is an orchestral overture. This movie is being presented as an old-fashioned 70-mm cinematic roadshow, complete with overture and intermission – in limited release. (Only about 40 venues will get this added razzle-dazzle, which adds up to 3+ hours. Most theaters will show the 35-mm version, without the intermission, and slightly shorter.) The grand-opening music is by Ennio Morricone, the legendary Sergio Leone collaborator and the iconic master of scores for the most famous old Westerns (including The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Fistful of Dollars). The much-discussed twist of the movie is its underlying mystery plot, but the biggest mystery might be how Tarantino got this musical giant, who is now pushing 90 years old, to create a score for one of Tarantino’s unabashedly bad-taste, gore-fest films. For this alone, Tarantino is amazing.
The film opens big – a sprawling view of snow-covered mountains as wide and vivid as you’ve ever seen. And a six-horse stage coach is racing across the white, barren landscape, trying to outrun the howling blizzard that pursues it. Tarantino got at least this one epic shot from his much-touted, Ultra-Panavision 70mm-format camera. (“These are not the same kind of lenses used to shoot Ben-Hur; they are the same lenses,” Tarantino has boasted.)
Click: More about the 70-mm format, from Tarantino, including, “Man, that is going to the movies, and that is worth saving, and we need to see more of that.” – interview with Mike Fleming Jr. at Deadline Hollywood (2nd paragraph)
Click: What Is 70-mm Film, and Why Is It Worth Seeing on the Big Screen? by Sarah Gorr
When the opening credits are plastered up on the screen – static, not scrolling, they are bold red and black, vintage, cowboy-movie lettering against a bright white background, like an old-style movie poster. The Hateful Eight (nod to Leone), along with an intro line: “The 8th Movie by Quentin Tarantino.” Wow. This guy is proud of himself, and in addition: This guy loves movies! He is putting himself all-in and relishing every classic going-to-the-movies moment. And it works; I start off excited, like I am going on a cinematic adventure, led by someone who definitely knows the way.
So: The dazzling, white-snow wide-shot is held for a long time – plenty of time to take it all in, and then he cuts to a tight close-up of an old, rotting skeleton hanging from a wooden cross (in 70-mm vibrant enormity). Snow blows across the skull as Tarantino pulls the camera out very, very slowly, finally showing the cross standing isolated against the immense, empty landscape. “Think about it,” I can almost hear him saying. “It’s a skeleton, and a cross, and snow – primal.” (Tarantino does actually take to narrating his own film in the second half, which is surprising and quirky.)
Part Two: The Door is Nailed Shut
What follows the grandiose and traditional opening is a crazed mash-up of Wild-West cowboy-hats-and-shotguns (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) and an Agatha Christie whodunit-mystery (And Then There Were None), an over-the-top blood-splattered horror flick (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), plus another blood-soaked film for good measure (the revenge-horror classic, Carrie), lines of dialogue as witty and well-crafted as Shakespeare (let’s go with Titus Andronicus, his bloodiest tragedy), and Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential play No Exit.
About the latter: Characters are punished by being locked in a room together for eternity. The original title of this 1944 French play is actually the French equivalent of the legal term “in camera,” referring to a private discussion behind closed doors. English translations have also been performed under the titles No Way Out, Vicious Circle, and Dead End, all of which would have been appropriate titles for this movie.
“Hell is other people” – Sartre
The movie begins vast and spacious, as I have described, and then quickly goes indoors and claustrophobic. The travelers from the stage coach take shelter from the storm in a remote, one-room roadhouse, which already holds some questionable characters and is now filled with a motley assortment of killers (some outlaws, some lawful). The beloved owner of the roadhouse is suspiciously absent, and the only door is literally nailed shut. (The latch has recently been broken, so wood planks must be nailed across the door and the wall, to keep the blizzard winds from blowing in.) No one can enter or exit without breaking the boards away from the door. And it’s a full house. Sartre’s famous line, “Hell is other people” might as well have been painted on the cabin wall in blood – Charlie Manson-style.
And this is the brilliant and evil genius of the film. It starts as a customary, wide-screen Western (with what one would wrongly assume are stoic and laconic cowboys) and converts to a theatrical, dialogue-driven parlor drama (with a sadistic twist). And that spectacular 70-mm camera, made for the broad, epic outdoors, is used to create a small, interior, human-face epic, depicting a brutal, cabin-fever-dream that is sweating with saturated details.
Does this story offer an insightful socio-political look into the heart of America – then and now? Is it saying, as Matt Singer writes, at Screen Crush, that America is “a melting pot where everyone gets burned”? Or is it a giddy, gruesome mess full of miserable mayhem, that goes on for way too long? Yes. And Yes. And toss in a few more theories, and it’s those as well. It’s a gluttonous feast of rich genres and saucy conceits– just in time for the holidays, where gluttonous feasts are the way we roll.
Click: Tarantino talks about how TV Westerns were his inspiration, more than movies, especially in terms of the guys-trapped-in-a-room storyline. – interview at Deadline (4th paragraph)
Part Three: Abraham Lincoln is a BFF
Introduce Samuel Jackson and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and you need not even mention any of the other excellent cast members (although they all kick ass); these two steal the show. One highlight is when Samuel Jackson delivers a long, slow (+ slower, + longer) monologue that is increasingly horrifying and devastating and ultimately beyond-beyond shocking and unbearable. And it is magnificent. I don’t think I can reveal the big, shocking element without spoiling it. But I will say that it is a deadly monologue. Jackson literally destroys a man with these words. And you see that man – a one-time great army General, melt down in front of Jackson, like the Wicked Witch melted and burned when Dorothy poured the lethal bucket of water on her. It’s one of the most astonishing speeches I can remember hearing – masterfully written and masterfully delivered.
I don’t think I will be spoiling anything by revealing that Jackson’s character, Major Marquis Warren, a Civil War ex-Union officer turned bounty hunter, is a brutal and pitiless man. We learn early on how he burned down an entire jailhouse where he was imprisoned, killing both his captors and his fellow soldiers, so that he himself could escape. And this Major Warren carries with him, throughout this Civil War interbellum (turmoil-continues) story, a letter written to him by Abraham Lincoln. That letter is reverently kept inside Warren’s breast pocket, close to his heart.
During the course of the film, the letter is admired, spit on, chased through the snow, and so on. Then, in what I will call the last great moment of the film, after Warren has completed a series of bloody, ruthless acts, the full letter is read aloud. And as I watched Jackson’s face – silent and listening, I felt myself tear up. Minutes before, Jackson had wreaked ferocious havoc, and with a quick shift, I was deeply moved by and for him (and by Tarantino’s poetic writing). That’s the way this movie goes; it is savage and then touching and then hilarious. And Samuel Jackson plays a major role in all of those emotional leaps and pirouettes. It is a stunning performance.
“It’s a big, splashy thriller, and a wild ride.”
And then there is Jennifer Jason Leigh. If she doesn’t win an Academy Award for this role (and she won’t), there is simply no justice in the world (a truth that Tarantino woefully keeps telling). She plays Daisy Domergue, a spitting, snarling, murderous outlaw-turned-prisoner who begins the movie with a swollen eye that has been punched purple. Kept in chains, she continues to be arbitrarily and mercilessly beaten and abused throughout the movie; her teeth are knocked out, her nose is broken, and her jaw is fractured. Eventually, she is covered in blood – both her own and the blood of others, and even has some brains splattered on her, yet she remains magically (black-magically) defiant. She can take a punch and come back seething. She is terrifying, she is sympathetic, and she is funny. And no, I don’t believe that because Tarantino makes the only female character the punching bag of the movie, he is a misogynist. Daisy is the smartest character in the movie. And the most fascinating. And Jennifer Jason Leigh plays the Hell out of her.
Just for fun: Compare Jennifer Jason Leigh in Hateful Eight to Sissy Spacek in Carrie. below:
Click: There is an actual thing called Quentin Blood! Fake movie blood is a niche specialty. Ethan Sacks at New York Daily Newsexplains the range of colors and viscosity that different directors want in different films and for different purposes.
Click: A Brief History of Fake Blood, including a pro’s movie-blood recipe, plus Tarantino asking for “Samurai blood” in Kill Bill, Vol. 1. – Forrest Wickman, Slate
Part Four: The Bull Doesn’t Really Die
The details of who kills whom and when and how and why… it’s Quentin Tarantino. Why say more? People will always argue about the issue of gratuitous violence in Tarantino’s movies, no matter what. Nonetheless, I want to add: It’s no spoiler alert to say that far more people die in the new Star Wars movie than in Hateful Eight. But no one will ever accuse Star Wars of being overly violent.
Yet, more-criticized, the violence in Hateful Eight is better, because it is cathartic. It’s stylized and perverse and comically outrageous, but still – you feel it, and deeply. (That’s why it’s so repulsive to so many people.) Spaceship battles in the sky may be entertaining, but they are not cathartic. In Tarantino’s film, blood gets on you. And that redeems it. It elevates the film (despite its apparent depravity).
Let’s review our Aristotle: Catharsis is an emotional purge through which one can achieve a state of moral or spiritual renewal or achieve a state of liberation from anxiety and stress. By watching an exhibition or imitation of fear and violence the audience is able to cleanse themselves of their own repressed fear and violence. Aristotle used the term to explain the impact of tragedy on audiences, saying that catharsis was the ultimate end of a tragic artistic work and marked its quality.
For me, Tarantino is like a watching a bullfight. Consider the bazaar, stylized reality of a prized bull being stabbed for mass entertainment, and bleeding and falling and dramatically dying. And yes, bullfights are controversial too, largely because there is never any doubt that the bull will die; it doesn’t have a chance. It’s the same. There is never any doubt that people will die in a Tarantino film; it’s only a matter of how and when. And it may indeed be unfair to the bull, and inappropriate for modern life, but I don’t think a solid argument can be made against the tragic catharsis that the audience experiences at a bullfight. It’s something that people have felt and acknowledged for centuries. However, the wonder of art is that you can imitate violence and get the same emotional cleansing. In a movie, the bull doesn’t really die.
“There is an actual thing called Quentin Blood!”
And no one understands this better than Quentin Tarantino, who is constantly reminding his audiences that they are watching a movie; what you are seeing is not real. It is a make-believe game that nonetheless has powerful effect. And Tarantino loves to play with that paradox – the tension between what you know is not real and what you really feel. And he takes that to the most extreme and extraordinary places he can go. He’s outrageous, but he’s mindfully so; he knows what he’s doing. And that’s what his fans love about him. He’s smart. His movies are smart, even when they are low and dirty and ugly. (And yes, even because they are low, etc.)
Plus, in modern American life, we have “evolved” to a point where we are numb to so much ordinary and expected violence. It has lost its potency. So we need something more frightening and more terrible to help us achieve that catharsis. And art can offer that, while still being safe.
So, when Tarantino stages a bullfight, you feel as if you are right there, watching the real thing, and then, just as the bull is about to die… suddenly the most unpredictable and terrifying and absurd thing – the thing you could never imagine… happens. And that’s when you get that crazy, horrifying-and-also-satisfying shock; that’s when you gasp your heart into your lungs. And I challenge anyone to watch The Hateful Eight and not gasp in full at least twice.
Conclusion: It’s Sexy
I’ll go one step further and say, not only is it cathartic… it’s sexy. This is not late-breaking news: sex and death go very well together. And even though the movie has no actual sex in it whatsoever, I think it’s a turn-on. It’s hot. And, btw, there was nothing sexy about Star Wars – romantic maybe, but not visceral. I’m just saying.
Epilogue: Killer Coffee Pot?
HelenHighly is Highly interested in the things in movies. I love it when an object becomes a key part of a film plot, or when it makes such an indelible impression that it changes the way people think of or feel about that thing.
Click: See my commentary on “Holiday Shopping in the Movies: Where to get the goods to make your classic Christmas-movie memories come alive,” in which I write about iconic Christmas gifts that were defined by movies.
In Hateful Eight, there is an object that is central to the plot – the blue-speckled cowboy-style coffee pot, and investigation uncovers an amusing irony. I won’t say exactly how the pot enters into the film’s intrigue, but I will wonder aloud if the pot’s infamous history was an inspiration for that detail of the story (and I’ll give a small clue).
“People started to become suspicious of poisonous ingredients.”
The type of pot used in the movie, which was historically accurate, is called enamelware. It was invented in the mid-1800s, when people wanted a way of coating iron to stop metallic tastes or rust from getting into food. They wanted something acid-resistant and easy to clean without laborious scouring, and something more durable than the tin linings used inside copper. So, manufacturers of kitchenware started coating everything from cast iron to steel with enamel. When fired, the enamel glazed, creating a non-porous surface that was easier to clean than exposed metal. Plus, it had a smooth, glossy finish that looked appealing. Originally, enamelware was bright white because it looked most sanitary. Then, speckled blue became popular because it was more cheerful.
But: Were enamel-lined pots really as clean and safe as they seemed? After a while (actually, Helen is Highly amazed at how many years it took) people started to become suspicious of poisonous ingredients leaching into their food. Unfortunately, it turned out, enamel surfaces were prone to cracking, which would expose the metal beneath, causing it to rust. Ultimately, consumers were scared away from both the metal and the enamel, due to claims of lead, antimony, and arsenic turning up in their food and coffee.
Today, modern science has solved the poison problem, and enamelware is still used in country kitchens and vintage-chic homes. And because they can handle a direct flame and don’t require electricity, enameled coffee pots are still a staple at well-equipped camp sites. (Just don’t ever let Quentin Tarantino anywhere near your coffee pot.)
Yes, we have just crossed the three-hour mark. And I will stop writing. But Helen Highly encourages YOU to drink some strong coffee (maybe with a shot of booze in it) and high-tail it over to your local theater and see The Hateful Eight. It’s a big, splashy thriller, and a wild ride.