The Hateful Eight: Elegance and tension in new Tarantino flick

The Hateful Eight, director Quentin Tarantino’s most recent film, is by its very nature difficult to review without spoilers. The central premise is simple; John Ruth (played by Kurt Russell) is a bounty hunter known for preferring to take his victims alive to have them hanged rather than simply shoot them on the spot.

He brings his latest catch, a criminal with a $10,000 bounty on her head named Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to a waystation in the midst of a blizzard, where he must spend two days in the company of seven other men, any of whom could attempt to kill him and steal his bounty.

Hateful Eight poster

This premise, due to its nature as a setup for tension, mistrust and deception, means the film is chock-full of twists that completely change the film, and that lead the audience to perceive earlier events in a different light. As such, I will endeavour not to reveal anything of such a nature, as the experience of having these moments unfurl both onscreen and in your own understanding of events is really something you should experience for yourself.

The premise itself provides the perfect stage for two things: tension and interpersonal drama.

The Hateful Eight delivers tension masterfully, although perhaps not as well as previous Tarantino films, particularly Django Unchained and Inglorious Basterds. However, the second aspect is where the film really shines. The setup of people sharing a small space with little to do except wait is perfect fodder for excellent interpersonal drama, mostly revolving around Samuel L Jackson’s character Major Marquis Warren, a former union soldier in the civil war and rival bounty hunter, transporting the corpses of three men whose bounties he plans on collecting.

The drama comes not only from the colour of his skin but also from his position as a former union soldier, and his actions during the war, which in particular set him on course to conflict with General Sanford Smithers (played by Bruce Dern), a retired general who fought for the confederacy and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), son of a confederate who went rogue following the war.

These conflicts are wonderfully done, developing over time and shaping and being shaped by the events at the waystation. It is fortunate, despite what the marketing for the film would have you believe, that these interactions and conflicts make up the bulk of the film. As much as one may expect over-the-top action from Tarantino (and it isn’t entirely absent), the film is far more focused on being a a tense puzzle for the viewer to work out. As options are eliminated and new truths are revealed, it becomes an interesting hybrid; not quite mystery, despite containing several, and not quite an experiment in tension, despite containing a fair deal.

Even with less action than his previous offerings, this film shows another of Tarantino’s strengths: thoughtful, witty, and well-timed dialogue. The Hateful Eight does an excellent job of showcasing this, as much of the action is men talking, be it idle chatter, ruthless taunting, surprisingly philosophical and topical musings, or discovering each other’s pasts.

All of this is delivered exceptionally without ever becoming dull due to the elements of mystery and tension mentioned earlier, all punctuated with brief explosions of action, serving to grab the attention of the audience and refuse to let go until the very end.

Beyond this there is one spoiler-free criticism which taints my view of this film. It is incredibly minor, but it strikes me as a basic mistake, so basic that I am genuinely surprised it happened. As much of the film occurs in a fairly dark cabin, the eyes of the audience become accustomed to this. At two points in the film, however, one more so than the other, the scene rapidly switches to a view of a bright, vast, snow-covered wilderness.

I have no objections to these landscapes or their use; in fact, their use in the opening scene combined with the opening music creates a picture that sets the scene for the film, sets out its tone, and even, for the careful observer, may hint at future events.

This picture, created by the music and landscapes and opening features of the first scene before we ever even see a person, is so perfect I doubt it could ever be done again or changed in any way that would improve it, and this work is partly done by the use of the beautiful desolate landscapes. It should therefore be made clear that the timing and lighting are the problem, not the landscapes.

When someone’s eyes have become accustomed to a dark scene, a rapid shift to a scene of a bright white snow-covered landscape is jarring, and can actually be painful. I want to give Tarantino credit by saying he knew this and planned on it happening, and that this discomfort is somehow part of the intended experience, but given the content of these scenes I don’t see how. So this criticism comes with a word of advice for the prospective viewer: feel free to close your eyes during these scenes as there is nothing especially important onscreen at this time, so you won’t miss anything by saving yourself the eye-strain.

Beyond this, there is little I can say without spoilers. With spoilers I could write for hours about the themes of this film, the foreshadowing and ways in which various events cause the audience to reinterpret earlier incidents in a way that is cascading and possibly beautiful in its own right.

It’s a very good film, sure to keep you thinking about it for hours, possibly days, afterwards. I’m not sure it is quite as good as some of Tarantino’s earlier films, but that doesn’t really mean much when those films are of such a high standard, and The Hateful Eight thankfully doesn’t really try and compete with them. Instead, it presents something a little different; rather than attempting to one-up his earlier work, Tarantino uses his skills to create something new,  fun, elegant and thought provoking, an attempt which seems to have been thoroughly successful.