2015 was a banner year for westerns. The genre, once one of Hollywood’s most profitable and now one of its least – the financial disaster of 2013’s unjustly reviled extravaganza The Lone Ranger was the final nail in that coffin – seemed doomed to fade into obscurity. However, rather than living on solely through the occasional indie curiosity – though 2015 gave us two of those as well, Slow West and Bone Tomahawk, of which I preferred the latter – the western came roaring back to the forefront of cinematic conversation with Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant and Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, both lavishly mounted two three-hour epics that double as major awards contenders. (Although Iñárritu has, with characteristic prickliness, insisted that his film is not a western.) Of the two, only one has received a nomination for Best Picture, and I would like to respectfully submit that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has made the wrong choice: while The Revenant is a technically impressive but prodigiously vacuous motion picture that needlessly wallows in ugliness, The Hateful Eight is a masterfully crafted piece of work that purposefully uses its characters’ very hatefulness as the lynchpin in a scathing and very timely bit of social commentary.
I approached neither film with high expectations. Quentin Tarantino is an undeniably talented filmmaker whose work has often left me cold. His previous films have struck me as impressive but largely hollow stylistic exercises, low art executed with the finesse of high art. There’s nothing wrong with this, per se, and there are passages of Tarantino’s cinema – I’d point to Inglourious Basterds’ opening chapters as his finest work to date – that have engaged me on more than an aesthetic level. Yet on the whole, I’ve found the visceral but indulgent “fun” of his films distancing rather than engrossing, feeling calculated and cold and not infrequently morally problematic.
The Hateful Eight, despite the snow permeating its frames, is anything but a cold film.
With their special brand of feel-good historical revisionism, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained were slickly indulgent fantasies set against the backdrops of the darkest chapters in human history. They reshaped difficult truths into narratives that offered vicarious satisfaction where history offered none. This artificial sheen, to my eyes, betrayed a subtly glib detachment from the actual events; I didn’t walk out of Basterds feeling as if Tarantino actually cared much about the Holocaust, nor did repeated uses of the “N” word in Django convince me that he was brimming with righteous anger over slavery. The Hateful Eight is different. The troubling glee is gone, replaced by an appropriate mix of anger, sadness, and resignation. It’s the first time I’ve been convinced that Tarantino really cares about the subjects he’s discussing. Beneath the impeccable artifice, there is deeply felt rage and despair here. And every time the “N” word is used, it stings.
In an odd paradox, The Hateful Eight – shot in Ultra Panavision 70, a format used historically, and only a handful of times, to capture the epic scale of extravaganzas like Ben-Hur and How The West Was Won – is arguably Tarantino’s smallest film yet. At the very least, with its story set almost entirely within the claustrophobic confines of a snowbound haberdashery, it contends with Reservoir Dogs for that distinction. Yet Tarantino uses the format to startlingly good effect, visually emphasizing the distance between characters separated by gaping ideological disparities despite their physical proximity. Those characters, the titular eight, live up to the titular descriptor; they’re a motley bunch of racists, misogynists, murderers, and generally ugly human beings. It’s a cast brought to life by excellent writing and performing, leaning into archetypes of the genre before adding and stripping away layers until each emerges as a complicated creation.
By now, though, there’s little need to go over tired ground by praising Tarantino’s abilities as a storyteller. The Hateful Eight is more of the same, with a few significant stylistic tweaks: Ennio Morricone, the revered composer of spaghetti westerns, contributes the first original score to a Tarantino film. Unsurprisingly, it’s excellent. The cinematography is gorgeous as always, lucid and patient, less flashy than usual. Tarantino has claimed to hate real-life violence, but many critics have suggested that his films give the lie to that claim. The Hateful Eight doesn’t. The bloodshed here is stark and brutal; the usual Tarantino excess of blood and gore, but without the usual sense of winking fun. Even the trademark “violence set to anachronistic music” sequence is quieter and sadder than ever – contrast the upbeat “Stuck in the Middle With You” from Reservoir Dogs’ infamous torture scene with The Hateful Eight‘s aptly titled “Now You’re All Alone.” On the whole, the effect is that of a filmmaker dialing back his usual quirks, drawing less attention to the personal stamp that has become so recognizable over the course of his career.
The end result feels less like Tarantino indulging his usual compulsions than pressing them into the service of a story that is straightforwardly compelling but also functions as a serious allegory, positioning its characters as a microcosm of post-Civil War America – an America that bears a startling resemblance to its modern-day counterpart. Kurt Russell (channeling John Wayne) plays John Ruth, a bounty hunter nicknamed “The Hangman,” as a towering symbol of classical American masculinity – the kind of man we’ve become accustomed to lionizing. Samuel L. Jackson’s Major Marquis Warren, the lone African-American in the group, carries around a letter from Abraham Lincoln himself as an assurance that he is ready to accept his place in the reconstructed America. Walton Goggins’ Mannix, ostensibly the newly appointed sheriff, is a former Confederate and unapologetically racist officer of the law. Tim Roth’s Oswaldo Mobray is the Englishman who thinks himself above the rest. Demián Bichir is Bob, often referred to derisively as “The Mexican,” another subject of racial tension. Jennifer Jason Leigh is the only woman, routinely on the receiving end of the others’ abuse. And so on, and so forth; each character represents some facet of American society, all of which seem like they can get along peaceably enough until they inevitably start for each other’s throats.
The Hateful Eight suggests that the American dream – of a melting pot where all walks of life can coexist in peaceful harmony – is unattainable, or at least seriously and perhaps irrevocably hamstrung by the darker side of human nature. As the film progresses, dynamics shift in a way that is masterfully plotted and deeply cynical: shaky alliances form, are recontextualized by ugly truths, fall apart and are replaced by equally shaky alliances. During an early exchange, Roth’s Oswaldo Mobray, ostensibly the town hangman, intones, “justice delivered without dispassion is always in danger of not being justice.” Like most of the ideals espoused at various points throughout the film, Mobray’s justice, so appealing in theory, is nowhere to be seen in practice. Although every character who dies undoubtedly “deserves it,” there is no shortage of hateful passion here. The point is clear: there is no justice in Minnie’s Haberdashery.
Various critics have decried the film as nihilistic, and no one can deny that, in the end, The Hateful Eight is shot through with a vicious cynicism. But this is not cynicism of the glib, posturing variety espoused by those films that think Being Dark And Gritty is the same as Having Something Important To Say. (Let me again point you to The Revenant for an example.) No, this is the raging, despairing cynicism of someone who truly cares – of someone who wants so desperately to believe in an ideal that they are crushed by its impossibility, of someone who loves people but hates what they do to each other. This poignancy is what makes The Hateful Eight worth watching: it’s an endurance test, yes, but one with a point to it. (Compare this – for what I promise is the last time – to The Revenant, which offers no compelling reason to slog through its miserable runtime.)
Throughout the film, Warren’s Lincoln Letter acts as a symbol of American idealism. Early on, he lets Ruth read it, and it nearly moves the usually stolid man to tears. Later, though, it’s revealed to be a fake, a sham. In the film’s closing minutes, as the last surviving characters lie bloodied and at the point of death, the Lincoln Letter is brought out again, and read in its entirety. And although we, and the characters onscreen, know there’s not a lick of truth to it, the earnest delivery and Ennio Morricone’s sweeping score catch us up into a moment of near-transcendent beauty – only to be brought crashing down to ugly reality once again. It’s a marvelously fitting ending statement, an aching cry for hope amidst the ruins of the American dream.
And then, in what may be the most inspired musical choice in a career full of them, Tarantino has chosen Roy Orbison’s soulful rendition of “There Won’t Be Many Coming Home” to accompany the end credits and drive the tragedy home. It’s a lament over the Civil War, but in this context, it’s more than that – it’s mourning over the cost of all senseless violence, a plea to consider the value of every life, and a perfect closing to a near-perfect film.