The most important totem in Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” is a letter from Abraham Lincoln himself. It’s read at a couple critical junctures, like the Bixby Letter that George C. Marshall recites to a couple army officers at a critical juncture in “Saving Private Ryan.” Steven Spielberg, however, believed in that letter with all his heart; Quentin Tarantino’s Honest Abe missive, on the other hand, isn’t quite so honest. And in that deception lays “The Hateful Eight’s” very, very (very) hateful heart. This is a movie built on lies because America was built on lies, which is a fairly heavy-handed allegory that is absolutely nothing new, and yet Tarantino has rarely been an ultra-original. Rather he’s a loving pastiche artist lifting from films of the past to tell stories now. And like “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained” before it, Tarantino comes on like a deranged history professor, though this time less interested in settling scores on behalf of its persecuted. No, “The Hateful Eight” is a steaming stew of nihilism that makes you swim in it, and long after its shock and awe ended, I felt as if I still couldn’t wash it off. I’m sure somewhere Q.T. cackled with a gleam in his eye.
Tarantino has been building to this indoor epic all along. He’s long been fond of lengthy scenes, of course, dating back to his 1992 debut “Reservoir Dogs”, but his recent uptick in production and costume design and determination to wrestle in his own way with America’s fraught history has turned those lengthy scenes into mammoth set pieces, like the underground bar shootout in “Inglourious Basterds” which might have been the to-date most impressive standalone feat in his career. So impressive, in fact, that “The Hateful Eight” essentially cribs that sequence by concocting an entire movie out of it. Much has been made of “The Hateful Eight”, what with its title and original Ennio Morricone score, as being the Tarantino Western. And while the setting is the frontier, and while Tarantino deconstructs (tears the limbs off) many of the movie myths surrounding the frontier, structurally the film is not so much a western as Q.T.’s ode to Agatha Christie. Despite being filmed on massive Ultra Panavision cameras, this movie mostly forgoes visual splendor, aside from a few impressive sequences of a frontier blizzard, to remain situated indoors, as if on a stage, underscored by Tarantino’s usual chapter headings, like the closing and opening of the curtain, its make-believe theatricality wielded with a purpose after a lengthy wind-up.
The players are the worst Q.T. can imagine: John Ruth (Kurt Russell) who is carrying vicious outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the nearby Wyoming town of Red Rock to be hanged so he can collect a $10,000 reward. On the trail, however, they encounter Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), once a prominent major in the Union Army, who turned bounty hunter post-war and is trying to haul a few of his own dead bounties to Red Rock, and they encounter Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), proclaiming himself as the next Sheriff or Red Rock.
When the blizzard strikes, they stop off at Minnie’s Haberdashery, though its titular proprietor, who Ruth and Warren know well, has apparently gone off down the mountain, leaving Mexican Bob (Demián Bichir) in charge, which seems strange, but then a lot seems strange about the trio left behind. Bruce Dern remains completely immovable in a comfy chair as a Confederate general burning with arms-laid-down resentment; Tim Roth, as frontier hangman Oswaldo Mobray, performs a combined impersonation of haughty Christoph Waltz and English Bob that nonetheless becomes entirely, delightfully original; Michael Madsen plays Joe Gage but is really playing Michael Madsen in a Quentin Tarantino Movie, but that goes without saying.
Where “The Hateful Eight” goes, how it goes there, what it does once it gets there, is best left to each viewer to discover for his or herself, but suffice it to say there are numerous reveals and switchbacks and out loud inquiries by a locked-in Samuel L. Jackson who often gets to play Inspector. For much of this movie, Jackson claims center stage, always seeming to be one step ahead of everyone else, roaring with great vengeance and furious anger, even as you wish his monologues might roar with more jet propulsion. The film is built on the back of Tarantino’s dialogue, which is usually best when it is simultaneously digressive and cutting straight to the heart of the over-arching manner, but in this screenplay there is an awful lot of sussing out, which renders many of the monologues more flat and repetitive than joyfully florid.
The dialogue also is heavy with Tarantino’s favorite naughty word, intended to demonstrate the racist bile of a place and time so often held up as a place where enmity always succumbed to justice. Yet, in spite of that word’s overuse, most of the characters here, frankly, reserve the brunt of their vitriol for Daisy. Now Tarantino has put his beloved Uma through the ringer, certainly, but never as much as he puts Leigh through it, who is introduced with a black eye and then proceeds to get repeatedly punched (always by men), have her teeth smashed up, and covered in so much blood that by the end she resembles Ally Sheedy of “The Breakfast Club” dispatched into the land of torture porn. Worse, she’s often stranded on the edge of frames, forced to be reactive throughout, vicious in her own right but helpless, left at the mercy of these foul-mouthed men. You keep expecting Daisy to go the route of Django Freeman and Lt. Aldo Raine, unleashing hell on everyone unleashing hell on her. It never happens.
If “The Hateful Eight” ultimately quotes a movie most flagrantly, it is perhaps John Carpenter’s “The Thing”, the 1982 film in which an extra-terrestrial assimilates humans at a remote Antarctic base, turning everyone against everyone else. That film was dismissed by many critics at the time as bloody excess, a means to stage grisly demises, and frankly, “The Hateful Eight” often seems to echo those sentiments, with Tarantino taking it as a kind of gospel as every blown off head, every punch to the face, every eruption of blood stands for nothing much more than Tarantino’s inalienable right to take things too far. And with each successive plot maneuver, the more I suspected this film was no more real than that Honest Abe letter, that the ultimate Agatha Christie-ish reveal would prove Tarantino himself to be The Thing, assimilating all these fine actors doing uniformly tremendous work, rendering them as pawns rather than people, and that all these ribald fantasies were merely an explication of his own hate, and an excuse to unleash the macabre folly coursing through his demented imagination.