By Alan Mattli
There are two moments – or rather, one moment and one motif – in Quentin Tarantino’s latest film that revert back to the more unsavoury aspects of his filmmaking; those instances of glorified machismo that make a movie like 1992’s Reservoir Dogs tough to enjoy with a 2010s sensibility towards racism and misogyny. One involves a scene of homosexual rape that is played for laughs; the other revolves around the impression that the film seems to take an inordinate amount of pleasure in its violence against its one major female character.
Although the former, being a story told by a marked liar with the aim of riling an opponent, may well be a fake, the scene nevertheless casts Tarantino’s stance on both rape and homosexuality in a somewhat dubious light. It certainly is the more disruptive element of the two, as the latter can be read as a warped attempt at postfeminist gender equality, especially since the violence does not seem to be directed at the character as a woman but as a criminal. In short, however, The Hateful Eight is not exactly a beacon of progressivism – but then again, there have been far worse examples in Tarantino’s oeuvre.
That is not to say that one should sweep these problematic parts under the carpet and never talk about them again. On the contrary, they should be discussed, analysed, critiqued, and put in the context of the rest of the Tarantino canon. (One interesting point of reference might be 2012’s Django Unchained with its confused take on which kinds of violence are acceptable and which are not.) But one should note that these are by no means aspects that permeate and drive the film. Indeed, they constitute the occasionally jarring anomalies in the fabric that perhaps keep the end product from being a masterpiece.
After mashing up two B movie genres, blaxploitation and the spaghetti western, in Django Unchained, Tarantino semi-returns to the experiment, holding on to a black protagonist and the theme of race relations whilst adhering to a more classic western setting and structure this time around.
Accompanied by the outstanding original music from veteran composer Ennio Morricone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West), The Hateful Eight opens somewhere in the wilderness of post-Civil War Wyoming. Shortly before a heavy snowstorm, the black bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) chances upon a stagecoach carrying John Ruth (Kurt Russell), another bounty hunter, who has arrested wanted criminal Daisy Domergue (the rightly Oscar-nominated Jennifer Jason Leigh) and is on his way to the next town to see her hang.
However, the weather forces the trio, who pick up the Southern separatist and prospective sheriff Chris Mannix (a brilliant Walton Goggins) along the way, to hole up in a general store in the middle of nowhere. Along with the Mexican store clerk Bob (Demián Bichir), they find themselves elbow-to-elbow with former Confederate general Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), and loquacious Englishman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth in a delightfully wicked comedic turn). As can be expected, it doesn’t take long for tensions to arise.
Whereas Django Unchained, and to a lesser extent Kill Bill: Volume 2, felt a bit like Tarantino parroting the conventions of the western genre without a greater sense of purpose, The Hateful Eight feels much more like the real deal. This is not a mere appropriation of 1970s genre chic, but a refreshingly contemporary take on that era of film history. To put it in more simple terms: by holding back his trademark eclecticism to a certain degree, Tarantino has created a film that is not so much like the style he pays homage to as it conscientiously adapts said style, making this a retro work steeped in Leone and Corbucci but with a firm grasp on the present – a near-perfect postmodern revisionist western.
Tarantino brings the epic sense of scope typical of the genre to a film that celebrates spatial stasis in an outrageously entertaining way. The majority of the Agatha Christie-esque story, which is divided into six chapters, is confined to a single room, the narrative drive hinging on lengthy pieces of dialogue, generously furnished back-stories, assorted flashbacks, and details that, in a series of marvellously ironic breaks in the otherwise flawless western illusion, are pointed out by an unseen narrator, voiced by Tarantino himself.
His regressions to his more infantile past notwithstanding, it seems more than possible that Tarantino has reached some kind of career peak here, as The Hateful Eight sees the convergence of him as a storyteller who entertains his audience – which, he claims, is his main goal as a filmmaker – and him as a cinematic artist. As the film engagingly combines the overarching western theme – topped off by Morricone’s music and Robert Richardson’s excellent work behind the camera – with playful slapstick, an utterly comical abundance of blood, and genuinely gripping mystery elements, it comes across as a satisfyingly sustained stylistic whole. There is a clear directorial method behind the unfolding madness, both structurally and narratively; the picking and mixing of influences never becomes overbearing; the typically wordy dialogue seamlessly clicks into place.
If one is partial to westerns, The Hateful Eight works a treat, offering a consciously ironic, ultimately bleak, but fundamentally enjoyable spin on the fabled cynicism of Sergio Corbucci. With a script that hits most of the right notes – it must be, if one doesn’t want a 170-minute-movie to end –, the film poignantly re-enacts Reconstruction Era America as a chamber play featuring a host of disagreeable yet arresting characters with shifting principles and allegiances, whose sole common ground is their hate of other people. A more ardent disciple of Tarantino might call this one of his best films. As an avowed sceptic of the man, however, this critic calls The Hateful Eight his best, full stop.
★★★★★½ (out of six)
For more reviews (in German), visit www.facingthebittertruth.com.