The Hateful Eight (2015)

The Hateful Eight, Tarantino’s eighth outing, is a difficult film. Slower than nearly all his other films, particularly his recent efforts, the film plays on the ultraviolence we expect from a Tarantino film by being a slow burn for the majority of the runtime. Like Basterds and Django, The Hateful Eight has other things on its mind than just being a fun time, and it takes its time making its point. I’ve seen some call the film something to the effect of “surprisingly political”, but I think it’s a pretty clear next step after the messages in Basterds and Django. The film deals in racism, hatred, competing models of justice, the American ideal, and the idea of a civilisation greater than one’s self.
Note that this review contains spoilers.

Set nearly entirely in one set, a tavern of sorts, most of the runtime is dedicated to the eponymous eight stuck in the claustrophobic confines of Minnie’s Haberdashery. The choice to film in 70mm is inspired here; rather than use 70mm for epic vistas (picture the opening sequence of Django in 70mm), Tarantino uses it to get the widest possible view inside the cabin. The idea, presumably, is to let viewers let their eyes wander suspiciously over to everyone present, no matter who’s talking or what’s going on. It does wonders for the mystery plot of the film, and I appreciate Tarantino doing something inventive with the format, rather than just recreating how it was used.

While not a sequel to Django Unchained (although it was initially conceived as such), the film makes a great companion piece, not only because of the time period, but for offering a different sort of examinations of race relations. In post Civil War America, during the Lilcoln years, race relations are shifting – Kurt Russel’s character the Hangman talks of how a word used so often in Django Unchained is now considered offensive and in poor taste – and the different members of the eight have very different opinions on this. Samuel L. Jackson soars as Major Marquis Warren, I was honestly shocked by what a fantastic performance he delivered (on that note, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Walton Goggins were the other clear standouts).
One of my few critiques of the film would be that characters are set up that should have more interplay with the idea of race relations and the current state of America (I was particularly disappointed Tim Roth’s Englishman character and Demián Bichir’s Mexican character). While the film is already three hours, I think some material (especially the over-long flashback sequence) could have been cut to accommodate a wider focus there.

The film is heavily concerned with lies, telling lies, getting a reaction out of lies, and whether a lie can ever be a good thing. Was Minnie disliking Mexicans a lie, since she paid no mind to Bob in the flashback? Was Marquis’ story a lie to get a rise out of the general (I certainly think so), in a set-up that was a neat homage to The Great Silence? Was Walton Goggin’s Sheriff character truly the sheriff? Yes, Marquis’ letter was a lie, but that does that diminish its usefulness, power, and even beauty?

I have read a strong alternate reading though, that posits the ending as more of a cruel joke and the latter half of the film as more of a nihilistic view on human nature, that divides as deep as American racial divides in the wake of the Civil War can be overcome if a new, third, enemy comes into play to unite in hatred against (Daisyand the gang fulfilling this function). I admit to finding imagery in the two of them hanging Daisy disturbing, but whether this was me identifying with this reading or just squirming a tad at the violence of it and the spectacle of the women being hung, I am not sure. A second viewing may clarify my feelings on this reading. The cynical reading is to see Marquis and the Sheriff’s unison as a sad comment on how division may only be able to be overcome in pursuit of a new enemy to dehumanise and punish, but a more optimistic reading might be that through shared suffering and dialogue those divided can unify in pursuit of ideals and ideas beyond them as individuals.

I honestly found the final sequence moving, with the Sheriff and Marquis working together to try and implement some form of (twisted) civilised justice, setting apart their racial hatred and divisions, and finally uniting in appreciation of the Lincoln letter, that thought of a better America, a kinder America, a united America. I’m Australian and have no attachment to America, the American ideal, etc., but I think the theme of uniting (even – or especially – in vain), moving past racial and institutional disunity, over the thought of a better nation is eminently relatable. That belief in something better than one’s self is inspiring when it causes unity in such a way, and coming at the end of a film brimming with discussion of the ugly past of America, of senseless violence and vengeance, makes it all the more moving. Personally, I easily find it the most memorable ending of a Tarantino film.

I give it four shots of whiskey, and a carriage in a blizzard.

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