Welcome to John Brhel’s “Once Upon a Time In Tarantinoland” — a look back at all eight of Quentin Tarantino’s feature films, in anticipation of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s July 26 wide release.
In the past, Quentin Tarantino has directed long movies. Jackie Brown is 160 minutes. If you consider Kill Bill to be one film, that’s four-plus hours. But his films are always so snappy — zipping from one character to another, back and forth through time — that the length isn’t noticeable (e.g. Pulp Fiction is nearly three hours in duration, but it’s edited in such a way that it never feels that long). The Hateful Eight, on the other hand, really does feel like a three-hour movie. It’s a Western set in one small location. It’s practically a chamber play, and it takes a while to pick up. A. While.
This isn’t to say The Hateful Eight is a bad film. It bears some of the director’s best trademarks — graphic violence, punchy dialogue, dark humor, evocative music — and finds Tarantino stretching his wings. It’s really his first mystery/whodunit. But after a long string of innovative and iconic films, it feels like a slight step back.
Smaller in Scope, Longer in Length
It makes sense that The Hateful Eight was originally conceived as a follow up of sorts to Tarantino’s 2012 picture, Django Unchained. That film found the director sticking to a genre — in this case, the Western — like he had never done before, and The Hateful Eight takes the same tact. It’s not some crazy mashup of genres like, say, Kill Bill — it’s a Western in look and feel, minus a few anachronisms here and there, and featuring violence and language you’d never see in an actual Western. It’s set in a rugged, remote location. The characters are outlaws, lawmen, bounty hunters. There’s revenge, treachery and plenty of pistol-cracking action.
The Hateful Eight sure looks and sounds authentically western. Cinematographer Robert Richardson, who did a bang-up job on Django Unchained, returns, capturing the beauty and desolation of the rugged Colorado landscape on 65 mm film (though the movie so rarely leaves its small confines, there’s not too many exteriors to revel in). This was also Tarantino’s first film to feature an original score, and he hired the legendary Italian composer Ennio Morricone, the music mastermind behind films like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West. The music is dark, mysterious and gives the film some much-needed oomph when the story hasn’t quite picked up yet. Morricone actually won a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for his work on The Hateful Eight, deservedly so.
But Tarantino’s commitment to the genre is also a detriment in this case, because The Hateful Eight, for the first half at least, is a slog. Sure, it’s a whodonit. You can’t just rush into action without setting up characters and building a mystery, but Tarantino more than takes his time. It doesn’t help that all of the action takes place in a small cabin, and one wide open space at that. It’s a chamber play, which actually makes for an interesting departure in terms of his filmography, but it could have been cut tighter, made just a hair faster. There’s a big turning point at the midway mark, courtesy of Samuel L. Jackson, but it takes a loooong time to get there.
Tarantino had never populated his film with the most savory, virtuous characters. Heck, even The Bride, the character to root for in Kill Bill, is a former assassin. The Hateful Eight might feature his most despicable, deceitful cast of characters yet. The title is never explained, but it’s quite obvious what it’s referring to. Some are more awful than others, but these are all awful people.
With The Hateful Eight, Tarantino offered his first real mystery, where it’s never quite known who’s a good guy, who’s in cahoots with somebody else. Even the character one might refer to as the “protagonist,” Major Marquis Warren (played with panache by Jackson), is a duplicitous bastard. He regales several characters with a letter addressed to him from Abraham Lincoln. However, it’s later revealed that the letter is a fake, something Warren wrote himself to curry the favor of untrusting white folks. This really sets the tone for the deceitful shenanigans that will encompass The Hateful Eight, because Tarantino reveals that Marquis isn’t the only one telling half-truths, or all-out lies.
In my Vague Visages piece on Inglourious Basterds, I discussed the tense scenes that defined that film, scenes in which characters were hiding info from others, and Tarantino again turns out some tense scenes in The Hateful Eight, leaving viewers guessing as to who’s telling the truth, who’s really who they say they are. An early scene in which Marquis and Bob are inside a barn is one prime example. Marquis is suspicious of Bob, a Mexican who says that he is watching over Minnie’s Haberdashery while Minnie is visiting her mother. Marquis questions Bob about Minnie, who was never the sentimental type. Bob provides reasonable-enough answers (he even knows what kind of cigarettes Minnie that smokes), but it’s obvious that Marquis knows Bob is lying and that Bob knows Marquis is wise to his shenanigans. These kind of scenes are fun; they’re just too few and far in between.
Over the Top Violence
The Hateful Eight is not for the faint of heart. Blood and violence have always been a hallmark in Tarantino’s work, going all the way back to Reservoir Dogs. With Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, Tarantino plumbed new depths of brutality and gore, and he continued that streak with The Hateful Eight. While it’s a Western in many ways, the violence on display is beyond cartoonish. At one point, Marquis blows Bob’s head clear off with a couple of pistols, full-on spatterpunk style. When John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and O.B. (James Parks) ingest a pot of poisoned coffee, they don’t just vomit blood — it shoots out like something you’d see in a low-budget horror flick, which makes perfect sense when you realize the makeup work was done by The Walking Dead’s Greg Nicotero.
What’s probably more striking is the violence inflicted upon Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). While it’s revealed that Daisy is a violent gang member, the blows she takes from John Ruth and other characters throughout The Hateful Eight are actually quite shocking. Tarantino wanted Domergue to be dealt the same level of violence as the other characters and to show the rough and tumble nature of the west, but there are scenes throughout that seem gratuitous. Some might say that abusing this woman is indicative of a misogynistic streak, while others might find that it makes Domergue an equal to her peers — she’s not a damsel in distress. Either way, it’s out of step with most of Tarantino’s output, and only serves to make The Hateful Eight an even more outlandishly violent film.
The Hateful Eight marks the end of Tarantino’s brief Western phase, though it’s likely he’ll continue to use Western tropes in his movies. And while it’s sluggishly paced and small in scope, it does feature incredible music an a fantastic cast (Tim Roth chews up the scenery in the best way, and Jackson is funny and dangerous). When looking at Tarantino’s filmography, The Hateful Eight doesn’t hold a candle to works like Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill, but it’s an entertaining film nonetheless — if you don’t mind the runtime.
John Brhel (@johnbrhel) is an author and pop culture writer from upstate New York. He is the co-author of several books of horror/paranormal fiction, including Corpse Cold: New American Folklore and Resurrection High, and the co-founder of independent book publisher Cemetery Gates Media. He enjoys burritos and has seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom way too many times.
Categories: 2010s, 2019 Film Essays, Crime, Drama, Film Essays, Mystery