By Adam Nayman
If we can begin with a parlour game—and on the evidence of The Hateful Eight, our American Psycho laureate Quentin Tarantino is lately beloved of such Funny Games—let’s play Six (not Eight) Degrees of Separation. The score for QT’s al dente spaghetti western was originally written in 1982 by Sergio Leone’s house composer Ennio Morricone for John Carpenter’s The Thing, which was a remake of a 1951 movie directed (in all but name) by Howard Hawks, whose John Wayne-starring westerns—the pinnacle of which, Rio Bravo (1959), was semi-remade by Carpenter as Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)—had set the Hollywood standard against which Leone contrasted his nasty, brutish and increasingly distended oaters.
What makes Carpenter’s version of The Thing so fascinating is how it schizophrenically splits the difference between its official source material and the template of the Hawksian western. With its all-male ensemble fending off a deadly interloper from inside a remote facility in the Arctic, it doubles down on Assault by once again evoking the basic siege scenario of Rio Bravo (minus the Angie Dickinson analogue Carpenter had included the first time out), but inverts it: instead of battering against the walls from outside, here the threat hides in plain sight by burrowing within a succession of human hosts. Once again casting his perpetual muse Kurt Russell as a swinging-dick Wayne/Eastwood manqué (following his sneering turn as Snake Plissken in Escape from New York ), Carpenter paid homage to his Old Hollywood godhead Hawks even as he followed his own nihilistic voice by having the besieged defenders tear each other apart (literally) rather than band together. It’s an act of simultaneous veneration and mutilation that turns The Thing—a film that is already richly suggestive of an era’s encroaching social and biological perils—into a commentary on itself.
To circle back to the matter at hand after this very Tarantinian digression: one possible way to approach the pachydermous beast that is The Hateful Eight is as a hybrid tribute to/remake of Carpenter’s The Thing, complete with Kurt Russell doing his Duke act once again in his role as a grizzled bounty hunter. Which, by the logic of assimilation, means that Tarantino’s film contains the same basic DNA as its primary host, as well as the assorted inspirations that that host had imbibed in its turn—not to mention a whole other raft of references, homages and imitations that Tarantino has harvested from scores of other literary and filmic sources, the listing of which could well take three hours and seven minutes, which is how long Tarantino’s film runs (overture and intermission included). And one possible way to look at Tarantino at this point is as the artistic equivalent of Carpenter’s parasite: an unscrupulous shape-shifter who will throw on any disguise that suits his purposes before moving on, leaving the host party hollowed out as he proceeds on his relentless mission of conquest.
Twenty years after Pulp Fiction (1994) won plaudits for its supposed deviance from Hollywood business as usual, Tarantino stands as perhaps the most powerful—and, in a heavily qualified way, the most free—studio-backed filmmaker in Hollywood. He’s the new Spielberg (or at least his lantern-jawed, Gen-X doppelgänger), and ever since his counterfactual Holocaust corrective Inglourious Basterds (2009), he’s made a comparable bid for “seriousness.” If The Hateful Eight is in many ways the exact opposite of the sort of film Steven Spielberg would make, it is, paradoxically, precisely the sort of movie that only a Spielberg-sized titan could ever get made in the first place. The money men behind it clearly trust QT’s track record—which might be foolish, since, leaving the question of the film’s overall quality aside (and perhaps open forever, like an uncauterized wound), this is Tarantino’s most audience-alienating film to date. A line from The Thing springs to mind: “I don’t know what the hell’s in there… but it’s weird and pissed off, whatever it is.”
The Hateful Eight’s three-minute overture (surely it could have been eight, but who’s counting) holds on a slightly abstract, hand-drawn image of (eight) snowy mountain peaks underneath Morricone’s creepy, repeating (count ’em) eight-note piano figure—a defiantly old-school manoeuvre that is clearly intended as an invitation for the initiated and, perhaps, a screw-you to those ignorant of the history of exhibition. The first live-action images are scarcely less languorous: widescreen landscape shots of Wyoming (courtesy of Robert Richardson) cut in a magisterial rhythm by Fred Raskin until settling on a carved stone figure of Jesus on the cross, a lonely marker on the side of the mountain road travelled by Russell’s bounty hunter John Ruth and his captive Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) en route to the town of Red Rock, where the latter will be hanged for murder. In their path stands Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), who is looking to hitch a ride on their stagecoach—a transaction that, naturally, requires extensive discussion. When the newly formed trio picks up another straggler—Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), an ex-marauder turned aspiring small-town sheriff—further long, drawn-out negotiations are elicited, to the point that the stagecoach driver, O.B. (James Parks), has to insist that they pick up the pace before the whole party is engulfed by a blizzard.
This is surely a knowing joke on Tarantino’s part: whatever else he may be lacking in, he is certainly not bereft of self-awareness. In Basterds, Tarantino’s verbal over-indulgence was nicely tied to the story’s emphasis on masquerade and linguistic deception; in Django Unchained (2012), the form/content equation was similar but the language was baggier and more florid, perhaps to make up for the comparative lack of compelling narrative complication. The twin revenge plots of Basterds, elegantly paralleled for two-plus hours before converging, for maximum self-reflexive impact, in a cinema on fire, represented Tarantino’s best-ever storytelling, whereas Django’s slow, processional structure felt a bit like goldbricking. For The Hateful Eight, Tarantino adopts the form of a chamber piece: after Ruth and his passengers reach a humble haberdashery on the edge of Red Rock to wait out the storm with a quartet of guests already ensconced there, the film stays in one place for two hours. This leaves the characters with precious little else to do but talk, and, trapped along with them, the viewer is compelled to listen to their chatter to such an extent that the stir-craziness onscreen starts to become contagious.
Said talk is, of course, on the hostile side, as Tarantino has divided his dramatis personae so that they represent a duly contextualized cross-section of 19th-century western types. Jackson’s Warren fought with the Union against the South and made a habit of killing good ol’ boys even after the surrender, which irritates Goggins’ goofy hick and infuriates the physically frail, retired Confederate general (Bruce Dern) who’s plunked down by the fireplace like an old piece of furniture. “Bob the Mexican” (Demián Bichir) is communally shunned (by Warren as well) on account of his south-of-the-border background, while Ruth’s comparatively enlightened racial attitudes are undermined by his vicious treatment of multiple murderess and wanted gang member Daisy, who is first glimpsed sporting a black eye and takes no end of physical (even more than verbal) abuse from her captor during the journey and for most of their stay—an extended Punch-and-Judy routine that feels as if Tarantino designed it as a test of his audience’s delicate modern sensibilities.
I suppose that one of the big questions about The Hateful Eight is whether Tarantino is exploiting his retrograde period setting as an excuse to indulge in more multi-directional political incorrectness than ever before, or if he’s seriously trying to comment on the iniquities of American history—or, in a reading even more attractive for the sympathetically minded critic, he might be projecting a vision of our own regressive present through the lens of the past. A case can be made for all sides, and that strategic ambiguity gives Tarantino licence to draw out and amp up the unpleasantness like never before. As in Django, Tarantino seems to revel in having a costumed cast of movie stars hurl the N-word around willy-nilly, with Jackson once again on hand as a kind of walking get-out-of-jail-free card; Leigh, meanwhile, is so relentlessly tortured and terrorized that viewers of any gender could be forgiven for bailing even before the various plot turns confirm that, in the pitiless, kill-or-be-killed universe being conjured up here, her Daisy is hardly an innocent. And yet when the toothy Brit Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) suggests reducing the tension by dividing the space into locations representing different areas of the country (i.e., the bar is Philadelphia), the microcosmic implications are immediately resonant, and hardly because they seem to belong to some safely stowed-away past.
On the contrary: The Hateful Eight is a film about what its maker sees as eternal verities of division and disagreement. And if, in the absence of profundity, QT offers up only heaping portions of provocation, it’s also possible that these two items can become one if mashed together hard enough—or else form some sort of flailing, half-ingenious, half-ludicrous monstrosity (some thing). Suffice it to say that Spike Lee might actually explode, John Cassavetes-in-The Fury-style, if he were to watch the last scene of Act One, an extended monologue by Jackson directed at Dern that mobilizes racial and sexual paranoia in a baldly confrontational way. The bullseye of this precisely targeted tactical strike, by the way, lies offscreen, and it’s as big as Tarantino’s fan base. It’s a moment as discomfiting (and brilliantly acted) as Jackson’s Uncle Tom turn in Django, but, seemingly emboldened by that film’s success, Tarantino goes even farther here, to the point that some will have to laugh it off while others will insist that that’s impossible. (Another line from The Thing, for when things really start to go crazy in the snow: “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me.”)
So this is the other big question of The Hateful Eight: Is Quentin Tarantino fucking kidding us with this thing? This hugely scaled 70mm roadshow presentation that’s mostly close-ups of people sitting indoors? This showboating cavalcade of callousness that actually pauses at one point—long after the nasty talk has been replaced by actual physical violence, but still with plenty of time to go until the final curtain—to introduce a whole new set of characters whose status as slaughter fodder is sickly apparent from the word go? This inventory of appalling actions and notions in which the dramatically legible motivations of the blackguards and brigands in Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Jackie Brown (1997) are twisted into misanthropic abstractions? There are no entry points here for the audience; these people (including Michael Madsen, QT’s original, ear-slicing inquisitor, and as such a terrifying presence in Hateful despite his character’s apparent passivity) are all unrelievedly, implacably awful. It’s like Carpenter’s The Thing except here, everyone is already infected, and as such expendable—though their gradual whittling down doesn’t even elicit the nasty satisfaction of seeing them what deserves it get theirs.
If there is an ultimate boogeyperson here, though, it’s Daisy—and I suspect that whereas Warren’s speech at the end of Act One is an example of Tarantino’s mastery of shaggy-dog jokes that bite, the increasing emphasis on Leigh’s (amazing) performance, in which lyrical longeurs (she sings a song like Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo) coexist with a fury barely contained inside the character’s increasingly flayed, stained and disfigured skin, is where Tarantino’s real anger (or is it derangement?) lurks. It’s truly ugly, and it demands explication. And if Tarantino is not a moron—which he almost definitely is not—then it’s curious and crucial to consider why he pins this entire teetering edifice on the (frankly unforgettable) image of a broken but ferocious woman facing down two men who must literally pull together in order to withstand her assault.
The reference points for this final act are endless and probably intentional: at different moments, Leigh-as-Daisy could be Linda Blair in The Exorcist (1973) or even poor, scapegoated Sissy Spacek in Carrie (1976), to name two other terrifying, bloody avatars of feminine power. Like Carpenter, Tarantino brings the horror movie into the terrain of the western as a means of re-landscaping genre cinema, but he also sticks closely to The Thing by faithfully reproducing Carpenter’s and-then-there-were-two climax with a white guy and (spoiler, I guess) black guy as the last ones standing (or staggering)—except that he also actually gives us a stand-in for the great, insidious, unknowable threat that the earlier film could only embody as a Lovecraftian FX obscenity.
It’s hard to say if The Hateful Eight would be a better or a lesser film if it deigned to clarify the meaning of this substitution, or of having this unfathomable tableaux (which rhymes with that early shot of Christ) followed by the reading aloud of a letter first referenced in the early stages of the film—originally attributed to Abraham Lincoln—describing the sacrifices, compromises, and promises of America at the end of the Civil War. It’s hard to say if this scene, and the film itself, is more offensive and/or politically astute if that letter (which keeps having its veracity challenged) is authentic—thus rendering the Great Emancipator retrospectively short-sighted in his optimism—or a forgery, which lets Honest Abe off the hook while showing how easily his legacy can be twisted by opportunists. Either way: screw you, Steven Spielberg.
It’s also hard to say if I really truly believe any of the above, or if Tarantino the alien finally operates, like the Thing, by turning critics into his gibbering mirror images, passing on grandiloquence that makes us talk around what we really think. Which, in this case, is that The Hateful Eight may really be sort of terrible. But here’s the thing: I’m also thinking that the only thing harder than enjoying or even respecting this grotesque, disturbing, potently affective and probably commercially unviable endurance test of a movie is dismissing it out of hand. So I defer, one last time, to The Thing, specifically its final lines: “Why don’t we just wait here a while, and see what happens.”