Everything about The Hateful Eight is a provocation.
The new Western from director Quentin Tarantino provokes through its content. The N-word is tossed around liberally, mostly by white people, and after Tarantino has courted controversy numerous times in the past because of it. The one major female character is constantly getting beat up, like she's more of a rag doll than a human being, and the people around her mostly act like this is hilarious. The violence is blood-soaked and gory, owing far more to splatter horror than the Western.
The film provokes through its filmmaking. The story, mostly set in the interior of a remote roadhouse in the middle of a blizzard, has been filmed in glorious 70 mm, a big-picture film format usually reserved for sweeping epics. (The most famous example of a film shot in 70 mm is perhaps Lawrence of Arabia.) Tarantino employs it primarily for close-ups of his actors' faces (though he also uses it to capture as many players in a single frame as possible). And, don't get me wrong, it's fun to see every pore on Samuel L. Jackson's face, but the contrast between format and function is utterly bizarre.
And finally, the film provokes through its politics, which argue that the United States is a sham, a system of corruption upheld by the corrupt for their own gain. If you had to name a "side" the film is on, it's probably that of Jackson's character, a black man trying to make his way in the post-Civil War Wild West. And yet one of the film's most reprehensible acts is reserved for him to carry out.
Tarantino is no dummy. He knows that each and every one of these things will stir up angry thinkpieces and post-screening arguments. And yet because of a few small errors, The Hateful Eight ends up being even more risible than it was likely intended to be — a nasty, ugly piece of business that never escapes its worst choices and seems like either a celebration of or a middle finger extended to the director's most hardcore fans.
It all starts with Jennifer Jason Leigh
Leigh plays Daisy, a murderer who's being transported to the town of Red Rock, Wyoming, to be hanged — and in that role, she crafts both the film's best performance and its most enigmatic character. Tarantino carefully stages The Hateful Eight so that she's at the center of most wide shots of Minnie's Haberdashery, the roadhouse where the titular group holes up to wait out the blizzard. This means she's always there, in the background, lurking, like the ghost or monster in a horror film.
How you feel about Daisy will most likely determine how you feel about the film. If you think she's a brutal sadist who deserves every ounce of punishment that befalls her, you'll probably love it. If you think she's Tarantino's attempt to say something about the historical treatment of women — something he doesn't really pull off — you'll probably find it interesting but fatally flawed. And if you think she's a thin vessel for misogynist resentment, you'll probably hate it.
I'm closer to the "interesting but flawed" camp than I am to the other two, but I'll admit there are numerous points in The Hateful Eight where it seems like Daisy is simply present so that all involved can work out some rage issues against women. The film all but suggests, for instance, that men of different races might be divided by racism, but can at least bond over a shared disgust with women.
What makes me think Tarantino is up to something is both his recent trend of making more political films (particularly Django Unchained, which wanted to force white Americans to confront the legacy of slavery via pop movie tropes) and the way Daisy is so often in the frame, skulking. Why is she there? What is Tarantino doing?
Pay attention to how the story works, though, and you'll find that Daisy is granted almost no backstory beyond the bare minimum needed to set (or keep) the plot in motion. We know she's a murderer — there's at least a semi-convincing warrant for her arrest — but we don't know anything about which murders she committed or why there's a $10,000 bounty on her head.
Instead, almost everything we learn about her is relayed to us (and the others in Minnie's) by a man, specifically bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell), who aims to get her to the hangman so he might collect that prize. And all of the other men in the roadhouse are more or less willing to accept whatever he says about her. Daisy doesn't get a voice in any story told about her, and the one time she has a small, personal moment, it's wrenched away from her in an angry outburst by a man. It's like she's trapped in a cabin full of internet commenters.
But then you come back to the outbursts of physical violence against her, which play more like comedic slapstick than anything meant to be even slightly horrifying. Tarantino doesn't seem entirely comfortable with really talking about how society treats women, so he tries to leaven things with jokey violence. The result is that he seems as animated as his characters are by Daisy's treachery — a treachery, again, that is never really explained or even hinted at.
Or maybe The Hateful Eight is a deeply political film about the failures of America
Without spoiling the film's ending, it's clear from the final scene that Tarantino wants to say something about the false promises of the American dream and/or US policies. He's remarked in interviews that the Western genre lends itself to telling political stories about America without being too overt, and he's probably right about that.
Also consider how the characters at Minnie's aren't necessarily Western types but, more broadly speaking, American types. Bruce Dern plays a crotchety old racist. Walton Goggins is a young up-and-comer held back by his family's past. Michael Madsen is a silent, stoic loner who very well may hide a dangerous secret. And so on.
Into this situation step Russell and Jackson's characters, the film's two bounty hunters, who represent twin sides of the Western code (as it's presented in movies) and, thus, ground the film in its desired genre. Russell plays Ruth as the closest thing the film has to a traditional American hero, with a moral code and desire to uphold it. (That he's also the character who dishes out the most abuse to Daisy hints a bit as to Tarantino's intentions, I think.)
Meanwhile, Jackson's Major Marquis Warren represents the Western hero who's willing to do anything to survive. In that case, making Warren black is probably Tarantino's smartest decision. No matter how hard the character works — and he was a highly decorated soldier in the war — he's going to be forced to live in a world with white men who regard him as inferior.
At one point, he informs Ruth that the only way for a black man to survive in a world full of white men is to disarm them, and he spends the entire film doing just that, both literally and figuratively. Jackson is one of Tarantino's most frequent collaborators — and probably a big part of why the director thinks he can get away with casually using racial slurs in his work — and Warren is probably the meatiest character Tarantino has written for Jackson since that latter played Jules way back in 1994's Pulp Fiction.
But none of it hangs together
One thing I didn't mention up top is that Tarantino has always been an intentionally provocative filmmaker. Sometimes he is successful in this regard, as when he staged the climax of Inglourious Basterds in a burning movie theater, with the characters killing Hitler and breaking from established history. Sometimes, it just feels like he's fetishizing his own creative process — as when The Hateful Eight's unnecessary "overture" features a main theme that boasts eight notes, played over a still image of eight mountain peaks, all for Tarantino's eighth film. And sometimes, it feels like he's rubbing viewers' faces in nastiness for the sake of being nasty.
And, sadly, too much of The Hateful Eight belongs to the latter category. There are lots of interesting things going on in this film, but the actual experience of watching it is like working on a puzzle that's missing a few of its pieces. You know what things are supposed to look like, and you have a pretty good sense of how the full picture comes together, but you're missing just enough information to feel like something's not quite right.
Ironically, for a film that is so steeped in the grand language of cinematic storytelling, the ideal format for the plot of The Hateful Eight might have been on stage — where the violence and gore would have an extra layer of remove that might allow them to play better as arch commentary on whatever Tarantino is trying to comment on. Where the confined, stir-crazy nature of the film's first half — oh yeah, The Hateful Eight is almost three hours long! — would feel a little more natural. And where some of the movie's less palatable moments (like one flashback in particular) would be left to the imagination, thereby casting more doubt on their veracity.
As it stands, The Hateful Eight is a beautiful film, filled with images and ideas that will stick with me for days. However, it never quite clears the bar it's trying to jump over. This movie has a lot on its mind, but it would rather smear its thoughts in the audience's face than force us to think about them for ourselves.
The Hateful Eight opens December 25 in limited release as a "road show" experience, complete with overture and intermission. A more conventional wide release will follow on January 1.