The Hateful Eight is the meanest movie Quentin Tarantino has ever made.
There are probably more elegant ways to put it, but that feels most accurate. It’s been lingering with me like a stomachache since I watched it, a few weeks ago now, that sensation of having gorged on something irresistible and terrible that you know is going to make you sick. It’s about the thrill of watching people destroy one another, its eponymous eight (plus one surprise guest) working their way up to attempting to kill each other in the snowbound confines of Minnie’s Haberdashery, with great enthusiasm and no small amount of success, all for the audience’s entertainment. It’s a film that starts with a pair of characters chuckling about belting a woman repeatedly in the face — you know, old-timey fun — and ends with a pair of characters bleeding out together, the deep-seated enmity between them temporarily overcome by their enjoyment of getting to watch that same lady be hanged.
Tarantino didn’t get the Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination for The Hateful Eight that many were predicting, an award his last two movies — Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds — were up for (Django went on to nab him the win). The Hateful Eight didn’t get Tarantino a Best Director or Best Picture nomination either. Both Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds climbed to more than $100 million at the box office, but The Hateful Eight is fighting to get to $50 million. Patrick J. Lynch, the man behind the police boycott of the film that was prompted by Tarantino’s comments in support of Black Lives Matter, has claimed responsibility for the lower ticket sales. Anything’s possible, but what seems more likely is that people are staying away from The Hateful Eight because it’s such an uncomfortable film to contend with on many levels, from its length to its nastiness to its total moral queasiness.
Tarantino’s mean streak hasn’t changed over his years as a filmmaker, but he’s managed to acquire a new level of respectability by sheltering it inside borrowed historical atrocities. Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained couched their nastiness in fantasies of revenge against the giant, systemic horrors of the Holocaust and American slavery. They were summarized by scenes of vivid shock — Shosanna’s family being slaughtered under farmhouse floorboards, the men at Candyland torn apart by dogs or forced to fight to the death — that lent a righteous context to all the equally bloody retaliation that followed. Those forehead carvings and kneecappings could be safely enjoyed because they were positioned as earned, on behalf of the forces of good, against villains who could never be given enough punishment.
Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained were at least as sadistic as anything else Tarantino has ever made, but they were safer, reconfiguring all of the director’s well-known cinematic kinks into a frame of reference intended to make them go down easier. And there’s something sourly disingenuous about the retribution to which they lay claim, because it’s there to justify the bloodshed instead of the other way around. Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained blunted Tarantino’s most provocative, most unsettling, and, yes, most interesting quality as a filmmaker — the unapologetic, democratic pleasure he takes in violence, whether it’s being visited on characters we think might deserve it or on ones we like.
Tarantino has always made mean movies — virtuosic movies, bold, outrageous ones that are overstuffed and rife with references; movies that are sometimes brilliant and increasingly indulgent, but all of them with an unmistakable mean streak under the crackling conversation and the dark humor. It’s not just the violence, though that’s obviously part of it — it’s the way he treats that violence with equal potential for spectacle, no matter who it’s being directed at. Death can come for any character in his movies, and often does. Consider Vincent Vega (John Travolta), shot to death coming out of the crapper in Pulp Fiction. He’s a character we watched on the job as a hitman, on a complicated date with the boss’s wife, and doing some gruesome automotive cleaning — someone we invested in, turned in that scene into an quick, bloody punchline.
The movie’s jumbled timeline softens the blow of Vincent’s death by allowing him to be back for the finish, but Tarantino hasn’t always bothered to provide cushioning for his habit of creating big, colorful characters and killing them off — spitefully and zestfully. Christoph Waltz’s Dr. King Schultz dies abruptly and impulsively in Django Unchained. Most of the Inglourious Basterds characters get killed — as do, for more orderly reasons, most of the ones in Kill Bill. A whole set of women are introduced, established, and then brutally murdered off in Death Proof, and they’re replaced by a new, tougher set poised to retaliate against Kurt Russell’s Stuntman Mike and his specially rigged car. Death Proof treats the lap dance that Vanessa Ferlito’s character gives Mike with the same sensuality it treats the tire that grinds across her face — it’s all just more to watch.
People used to criticize Tarantino’s movies for their violence, though no one so in love with dialogue and savoring the ramp up to action could ever be the gorehound poster boy. Though Tarantino has gotten visibly exasperated about his place as the unwilling spokesperson for movie carnage, in a 2010 speech to the British Academy of Film and Television, he said, “That’s why Thomas Edison created the motion picture camera — because violence is so good. It affects audiences in a big way. You know you’re watching a movie.”
That last part, I think, is key. When Reservoir Dogs (1992) first played for crowds, the scene when Michael Madsen went from gyrating silkily to Stealers Wheel, to slicing off Kirk Baltz’s ear was enough to make some people up and flee, which seems almost quaint 24 years later. The camera demurely swings away when Madsen’s Mr. Blonde goes to work. There’s no close-up of a straight razor methodically sawing through cartilage to sear itself into your brain — by today’s standards, it’s downright restrained. If there’s queasiness, it comes not from how graphic the sequence is but from the way it aligns everyone watching the movie with a psychopath getting himself warmed up for a little casual torture.
That whole scene is built around Mr. Blonde’s anticipation of inflicting pain, not the seemingly doomed possibility that the cop might escape, or that we’d ever expect him to. Its suspense is all about how bad it’s going to get. Mr. Blonde is the one we’re invested in — charismatic and vicious, looming large in the frame like a performer on stage, his audience tied to a chair but also out in the dark of the theater. He doesn’t have any end goal in mind — he’s given up on trying to extract information. He’s just enjoying himself, and so is Tarantino. And so are we. Because why else are the rest of us sticking around?
The Hateful Eight is set in the past, like Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, but it feels just as close in spirit to Reservoir Dogs — about a group of justifiably suspicious people holed up together in one space, trying to figure out who’s going to betray who. Its era is there to explain how these people ended up so fractured and hard, the Civil War a mire of ugliness and death from which they’re trying to emerge — or maybe not, since these are the people who’ve made their way to the Wild West, where trusting no one and being quick with a gun can still be best practice. There are no good guys in The Hateful Eight, just a set of apparent innocents we see offed in a flashback. The closest we otherwise get, maybe, is Samuel L. Jackson’s bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren, and he’s not good, he’s just been the most wronged.
Fellow bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) makes a practice of malice — rather than tote corpses around like Warren, he takes his captives in because he likes to see them hanged, not because he’s reluctant to shoot them himself. Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is introduced chained up and assaulted, but she’s a ferocious convict herself, and while Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) may be the future sheriff, he’s also a racist and a former Lost Causer. And Bob (Demián Bichir), Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), and Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) are all harboring secret agendas. Meanwhile, Jody (Channing Tatum) is down in the basement, ready to blast Warren’s balls off.
The conflicts these characters have are fueled by years of war and animus, but they’re also personal, based on spite and contempt and the desire to hurt another person. There’s a mean-spiritedness that goes to the bone here, all in “GLORIOUS 70mm SUPERSCOPE” from that snowy opening shot, in which we’re dropped into the stagecoach with John and Daisy and squirmingly left to figure out whether we’re going to laugh when John decks her, and whether we’re supposed to. I don’t think that Tarantino is entirely clear, or is even interested in being that precise, which is part of what’s so agitating about the whole movie — is it about misogyny, or is it misogynistic? Is it about racism, is it racist, or does it fall somewhere in between?
Take, for instance, the use of the n-word, one Tarantino has a well-established and oft-criticized fondness for. But there’s a particular snap to its use in this movie, when the characters mean it as unambiguously hateful. And then there’s the story that Warren tells to former Confederate General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern) to goad him into drawing his gun, a story that may or may not be true but that we see on screen, revenge for the attempt on Warren’s life as well as for Smithers’ having executed captured black Union soldiers rather than sending them to the camps like white ones. It’s a scene that reads like a “come at me” aimed at bell hooks. It’s so fraught and loaded, with Warren making Smithers’ son crawl through the snow to suck on his “big black pecker” before killing him. The tale finds Warren playing on all of Smithers’ worst fears, but it’s also a goad for the audience, who are left to react to this scene of cartoonishly racialized sexual violence, one that realizes the old man’s bigotry and homophobia, but that’s also visualized with unfiltered gusto, Jackson laughing above that bobbing head.
The Hateful Eight is sadistic in all the lip-licking satisfaction it takes in every gunshot, poisoning, and strangulation it offers up, no matter who it happens to, but it’s intriguingly nasty to the audience too. It presents the potential to feel sympathy toward or see the humanity in a particular character, to lean toward him or her for a moment, and then it yanks the possibility away as foolish — most strikingly in the moment when Jody reveals himself as having come to the rescue of his sister, a lone flicker of sweetness interrupted by Warren shooting him in the head. At that point in the movie, the snicker it prompts is less complicated. He was a bad guy anyway, but then again, they are all, pretty much.
That’s why it’s so enjoyable and so revolting to watch these nine awful people fight and fall apart as they try to survive the storm when it doesn’t matter if any of them get out alive. If there’s any moral or larger meaning to The Hateful Eight, it’s the depressing conviction that facing oppression hasn’t made any of its characters more likely to have sympathy for the oppressed — it’s just made them hard. Mean. And we flow between them, nothing to root for except more violence, all of it carefully composed and timed.
We have, as an audience, become accustomed to watching violence that’s either outlandishly cartoonish — like the bloodless, building-wrecking battles at the end of most blockbusters now that feel totally meaningless — or violence that’s somberly graphic — like when the remnants of a dead soldier’s face are splayed on the controls of the tank in 2014’s Fury and we’re meant to reflect on the Terribleness of War. Tarantino chooses neither of these options. Instead he opts for visceral and gleeful, gruesome and exuberant, violence as a source of pleasure as unabashed and valid as the music on his soundtracks, the faces and bodies of the actors he casts, and his distinctive dialogue. He makes you feel it. It’s a deeply conflicting version of fun.
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