What you make of Quentin Tarantino’s latest genre genuflection The Hateful Eight will really come down to one thing: how many times can you tolerate a woman getting hit in the face?
The gauntlet is thrown down early: Kurt Russell’s ursine bounty hunter John Ruth smashes his captive, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Daisy Domergue, full in the face when she speaks out of turn. She gets a lingering close-up courtesy of Tarantino’s vaunted “glorious 70mm” frame, seething with fury through the blood.
I lost count of how many times Domergue gets slapped, thumped, and punched, but I’m comfortable with saying it was “a lot.” It is aggressively distasteful provocation, calibrated to leave no viewer on the fence. The film is deliriously violent, but these moments of intimate, inescapably loaded abuse cut just a little deeper than the piles of exploding heads and bloody vomit.
For anyone assuming Domergue will get her exploitation-flick revenge, I advise tempering your expectations. The Hateful Eight is something new for Tarantino; he’s visibly trying to Say Something Big. Inglorious Basterds smartly kept its commentary diffuse, and Django Unchained found time to render slavery in vivid, brutal strokes, but The Hateful Eight is a vicious examination of post-Civil War America. And, also, exploding heads.
Tarantino introduces his characters as archetypes first: Russell as John Wayne, Walt Goggins as an embittered ex-Confederate, Tim Roth as a mincing, proper British caricature. Then, over three meticulous hours, he complicates and enlivens them at every turn. This is Tarantino’s stagiest script, bar none; it’s set in a single location (give or take a few snowy trails) and lays out one verbal confrontation after another.
The conversations are knotty, and always reveal character in ways both subtle and obvious; they’re a far cry from the interminable wheel-spinning of 2007’s Death Proof. Tarantino’s no stranger to flashy talk, of course, but here it all matters. The film feels tight, though naturally your mileage may vary here; despite its three-hour runtime it moves with purpose, with little of the bloat that weighed down Django.
That’s not to say Tarantino’s peccadillos aren’t on full display, because oh, are they. The score lifts from unused compositions by Ennio Morricone for John Carpenter’s The Thing (itself a riff on the ethos of Carpenter’s idol, Western auteur Howard Hawks), and the plot echoes The Thing in its broad strokes. The snowbound setting, costuming, and florid style nod to Spaghetti Westerns, particularly Sergio Corbucci’s downbeat The Great Silence from 1968. A slow-motion close-up of horses galloping through a snowstorm conjures the surrealist limbo of Lars Von Trier’s recent work. You get the idea.
But this is far more than a game of spot-the-reference, as Adam Nayman incisively teases out at Cinema Scope. Working with his frequent DP Robert Richardson, Tarantino lets the cinematography play operatic counterpoint to the meaty script. He uses a series of four split diopter shots—a technique using a deep-focus-made-easy lens, resulting in a characteristic blurry line down the center of the frame; epitomized by Brian De Palma as well as, hey, Carpenter’s The Thing—to track two characters’ shifting relationship, linking them visually before they themselves are fully aware of what’s happening. The ultrawide 70mm also allows Tarantino to do things like neatly tuck a coach and entire train of horses into a single composition, or pull off a gorgeously staged musical interlude that uses nothing more than a stationary camera and shifting focus.
Of course alongside all that impeccable craft we have a baroque, sexually violent centerpiece monologue prominently featuring the word “dingus,” an absurd voiceover done by the director himself, castration-by-gunfire, an embarrassing White Stripes needle drop, and the abrupt bloody murder of the film’s few legitimately innocent characters—but also a razor-sharp summation of living under the yoke of racism, snow-draped, quietly beautiful vistas, and fleeting moments of grace. This is insane, scattershot cinema; it’s like some lost Italian epic from the 70s, coursing with bad taste.
The film is inescapably rough and confrontational; all the more so for this ragged juxtaposition of form and content. And, most troubling of all, it hangs its thematic hat on the increasingly battered Daisy Domergue, played with feral abandon by Leigh. Domergue’s treatment throughout the film is repulsive. Yes, she’s a criminal. Yes, it’s called The Hateful Eight: hateful. And yes, things end terribly for pretty much everyone. But Tarantino wrote Domergue as a woman; he wrote John Ruth to repeatedly brutalize her. Why? It demands that you make sense out of it.
Early on it’s almost a punchline, if you’ll pardon the pun, as if Tarantino wanted to actively turn viewers off. But what a film does and how you interpret it may be two very different things. Film isn’t a one-way transmission of Good or Bad ideas. Because Mad Max: Fury Road (for example) is a movie about women struggling against an oppressive patriarchy does not immediately mean it’s a movie about feminism or, worse, a “feminist movie.” It’s easy to passively receive messages from media; we have to do the work of dissecting those messages.
And it’s no secret that Tarantino comes from a film tradition that prides bluntness over everything else; exploitation films don’t mince words, and they don’t cut away. Remember the Goodbye Uncle Tom ferocity of Samuel L. Jackson in Django Unchained? Nothing in 12 Years a Slave matched that guttural, discomfiting contradiction of a character. That’s the essence of exploitation. The austerity of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring became the brutality of Wes Craven’s The Last House On the Left, and perhaps the stately middlebrow dress-up of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln begat the splattered-brain mess of The Hateful Eight.
Tarantino slowly brings together two unlikely partners over the film: Walt Goggins’s former rebel Chris Mannix and Sam Jackson’s ex-Union Major Marquis Warren. Mannix claims to be the sheriff of nearby Red Rock, and indeed it seems he has some twisted respect for justice: he is bound and determined to see Domergue die for her crimes. But it’s not justice that battered her, nor justice that sees her foot blown off, nor justice that sees her meet her end from the rafters of Minnie’s Haberdashery. It’s misogyny.
Domergue’s continuous abuse is the natural outcome of a frontier—and country—built on cruel, rapacious masculinity. John Ruth brutalizes her, but also believes she deserves to be hanged, not summarily executed. In this world, Ruth’s conviction passes for a sense of decency; when he’s gone, the mantle of hanging Domergue is taken up to Mannix and Warren. They honor Ruth, not show mercy to Domergue, by their actions.
As a murderer—an unrepentant one, at that—Daisy Domergue encroaches on the violent territory of the Western man. Natural order is huge in Westerns. If the hero has to kill the bad guy, he leaves town and returns to the wilderness. It’s all heightened drama, played out at mythic scale. By and large, with the rare sort-of exception like 1971’s rape-revenge hybrid Hannie Caulder, women in Westerns don’t get to enact violence. They either witness it, or suffer it.
With the inclusion of a brief coda featuring a forged letter from Abraham Lincoln—the great unifier, lest we forget—Tarantino suggests that America, in the land-of-the-free all-men-are-equal sense, is a lie built on hatred, pure and simple. It’s as much a myth as the white hat cowboy gunning down the black hat cowboy to make everything better. This is hardly a fresh idea, but Tarantino makes his point fiercely, alchemizing several different genres and hundreds of years of American social strife into a potent climax. A beautiful thing happens when both Union and Confederate, black and white, put aside their differences: they can come together just long enough to hang a woman.