Tarantino famously cribs and pays homage to other films, and while I lack the encyclopedic knowledge necessary to notice all the allusions, there are certainly recognizable cinematic flavors in Hateful Eight. The close quarters nature of the setting evokes Hitchcock, with each character functioning as the famous ‘bomb under the table,’ ready to explode at a moment’s notice. The hidden identity aspect, along with the presence of Kurt Russell and the wintery weather, brings to mind The Thing. There’s also a Bogart twinge to the film, or what I imagine Bogart movies to be, in which a character acts as detective and accuser, breaking apart likely motives and potential saboteurs. Jackson’s Warren plays this part, with the added rub of a black man, shortly after Emancipation, putting the question to a house full of whites, several of whom very recently fought to keep men like Warren in bondage. As if the above examples weren’t enough, and there are certainly more that I missed, Ennio Morricone composes the score, placing every spaghetti Western ever made in the viewer’s frame of reference.
The premise and the influences are intriguing, but Tarantino, often a wizard of characterization, miscalculates here. As far as who to root for, there are no clear answers. Domergue is a force of chaos, and though she spends much of her time under lock and key, it’s clear that she is not averse to violence, and seems to enjoy being on both the receiving and dispatching ends. It’s easiest to root against her, but from there, it gets more complicated. Smithers and Mannix are unrepentant Confederates, but the former exudes the gravitas of military tradition while the latter is appealingly clever. Mobray and Gage are more subsidiary characters. Warren and Ruth, landing on the right side of history, are easy go-to’s, but Warren’s war record is deeply sketchy and Ruth is generally unpleasant. The added complexity and unwillingness to paint in monochrome is welcome and necessary, especially in a genre that often relies on Manichean archetypes, but it’s hard to reconcile that complexity with the squishy glee that Tarantino takes in inflicting pain on his characters. It feels muddled when a juicy squib explodes in one of the Eight’s extremities after Tarantino has spent many minutes humanizing that same character. The result is a dull feeling of ugliness, a novel sensation after his livelier, earlier works.
While the tone of The Hateful Eight lends some dissonance, Tarantino’s penchant for getting strong performances out of his actors is unaltered. In the most fruitful collaboration of both their careers, Tarantino and Jackson are again well-suited to each other. The closest thing to a protagonist the otherwise ensemble film has, Jackson’s Warren is a thrill to watch in action. He’s a gifted storyteller, a keen observer, and quick with his draw. Warren is also the source of an interesting, if on-the-nose observation about race relations, in which a black man is always suspect until a white man vouches for him. As the definite antagonist, Leigh is delightfully unhinged as Domergue, the only character from Hateful Eight definitely deserving to sit in Tarantino’s pantheon. She is by turns despicable and charismatic, child-like and vicious. Leigh has constant crazy-eyes throughout this three-hour film, and it’s impossible for the viewer to take theirs off her.
The Hateful Eight is by no means a bad film, but it does suffer from high expectations. I consider Tarantino to be a purveyor of pure, visceral cinema, a maestro of the art form, and therefore, I come into his movies expecting them to be on the caliber of a Pulp Fiction or my beloved Kill Bill. The Hateful Eight simply didn’t put me on edge or force a smile onto my face, despite Tarantino’s and his team’s technical prowess functioning at full capacity. With supposedly only two more films left to make, I hope this is a slight blip instead of a limp to the finish. B