The Hateful 8
Film review by Robert Henderson
Director and narrator, Quentin Tarantino
Samuel L Jackson as Major Marquis Warren a.k.a. “The Bounty Hunter”
Kurt Russell as John Ruth a.k.a. “The Hangman”
Jennifer Jason Leigh as Daisy Domergue a.k.a. “The Prisoner”
Walton Goggins as Sheriff Chris Mannix a.k.a. “The Sheriff”
Demián Bichir as Bob (Marco the Mexican) a.k.a. “The Mexican”
Tim Roth as Oswaldo Mobray (English Pete Hicox) a.k.a. “The Little Man”
Michael Madsen as Joe Gage (Grouch Douglass) a.k.a. “The Cow Puncher”
Bruce Dern as General Sanford “Sandy” Smithers a.k.a. “The Confederate”
Tarantino is a very annoying director, not least because he is still playing the enfant terrible at an age when the thrill of provoking adults should be long past. The Hateful 8 contains all his filmic outraging stigmata: a great deal of bad and very un-pc language including numerous references to “nigger” from the white characters and a decent helping of “cracker” from the sole black character; much gory slaughter plus a new outraging element in the Tarantino canon, the frequent, brutal treatment of a woman including heavy punches to her face and her eventual death by hanging by suspension. If his works were classified as torture porn he could hardly complain.
The annoying thing is that despite his adolescent mentality and the predictability of the general content and style of his films, Tarantino makes films that are insidiously watchable. We know what to expect; we know objectively that we should not approve of the amoral world he creates, we know that there will probably be no character who enlists our sympathy or liking, but he still entices us in and we end up being drawn to what he produces as spectators are drawn to a motorway multiple crash. It is like watching Riyad Mahrez taking on a left back: the left back knows exactly what Mahrez will do – drop his right shoulder and go round him – yet it is odds on that Mahrez will sell him a dummy and send him the wrong way.
The plot of The Hateful 8 is simple in principle but complex in portrayal because the full facts of the situation are only gradually revealed. The time is not long after the end of the American Civil War. John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is a white bounty hunter who likes to take his captures alive to stand trial not because he has any concern for justice, dearie me no, he simply likes to see them hang. As a consequence he has earned the nickname “The Hangman”. Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson) is a black bounty hunter who takes the rule “dead or alive” to be best observed by the “dead” part of the injunction.
Ruth and Warren are bringing in wanted criminals with handsome bounties attached. Their destination is Red Rock, Wyoming. Ruth has a live woman Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in his custody while Warren is packing two decidedly dead bodies. Domergue is part of a notorious criminal gang headed by her brother, Jody.
The two bounty hunters meet when a stage coach with Ruth and Domergue in it is stopped by Warren who climbs aboard. Another passenger Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) is picked up a little later on. He claims to be the newly appointed sheriff of Red Rock travelling to the town to take up his position.
The stagecoach stops at a roadhouse called Minnie’s Haberdashery to shelter from an ever worsening snowstorm. Minnie isn’t there but Southern General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a seeming drifter Joe Cage (Michael Madsen) who claims to be a cowboy on his way to visit his mother, and an English conman and part-time hangman called Oswaldo Mowbray (Tim Roth) are in residence together with Bob “Marco the Mexican” (Demián Bichir) who claims to be in charge of the place because Minnie is visiting her mother. From the time that the stage coach arrives the action is set in or just outside the roadhouse.
So far so seemingly simple. Tarantino has created the West’s equivalent of a country house murder mystery, a cast of characters all neatly stacked in a tightly confined physical setting. He even uses the device loved by the likes of Agatha Christie whereby there is an examination of the suspects to a murder (in this case several murders through poisoning with a particularly toxic elixir of death) while all the suspects are together. However, unlike a country house murder mystery this is eventually a very bloody and violent film that can vie with Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds or Reservoir Dogs for its unashamed delight in gruesome killing and the infliction of pain.
But the seemingly simple is in reality anything but simple. Apart from General Smithers, none of those who are at the roadhouse when Ruth and Warren arrive are what they claim to be and even General Smithers is acting under duress. Even Warren shows himself to be a fantasist at best by falsely claiming to have a personal letter written to him by Abraham Lincoln.
The action in the roadhouse starts relatively quietly with the characters verbally fencing with one another, although from the start there is a heavy mist of mutual suspicion, before accelerating into the type of general mayhem that Tarantino loves. By the end of the film everyone is dead or dying. Goodies and baddies do not come into it because all the characters are seriously flawed moral beings.
With the snowstorm raging unabated outside, the story evolves with clever use of time shifting as the true nature and circumstances of those in Minnie’s Haberdashery when Ruth and Warren arrive is revealed through flashbacks. This gives the action a staccato quality, especially towards the last third of the film, as the immediate moment is increasingly interrupted by scenes from the recent past. But this does not matter because the film is not primarily concerned, as is common with Tarantino’s films, with a conventional plot. Rather, he is offering the audience a sequence of arresting scenes to constantly capture their attention and from which scenes the plot eventually emerges.
There is a high quality cast with Kurt Russell excelling as the self-sufficient frontiersman with a time-beaten face who used to be a staple in Hollywood Westerns. Jennifer Jason Leigh is stoical but also inexplicably calm until the story unravels to show the true purpose of those already at Minnie’s when Ruth, Warren and Domergue arrive. It is true that the main characters have an large element of caricature but that is all part of the Tarantino method, something Samuel Jackson especially honours at as he goes splendidly over the top with his character.
Is the film an empty vessel sounding loud? Looked at rationally the answer is yes because in the end there is no character that enlists the sympathy of the audience and as is common with Tarantino there seems very little overall point or meaning. He evidently subscribes to MacBeth’s lament that life “…is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” But the thing is cleverly done and intriguing spectacle has its place in the cinema – well worth seeing as a guilty pleasure.
ROBERT HENDERSON is QR’s film critic