Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. And I love watching people suffer.
by Thom Yee
I love Death Proof.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say that. Theatrically released as the second half of the Grindhouse double feature in 2007 and following Robert Rodriquez’s first part with Planet Terror (towards which I’m fairly indifferent), most people I’ve heard from don’t seem to care for Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, and when compared to the rest of his output, the tale of misandrist women, the men who want to sleep with them, and the stunt men who want to kill them stands out like a sore thumb. In a bad way.
But I love Death Proof.
I mean, it’s so dumb. It’s stupid at the most visceral level, it’s nonsense; every part of you resists what’s happening onscreen, every part of you wonders what the point is as you watch and wait for something of substance or meaning to happen, and then the biggest, dumbest thing happens (twice!) and somehow, in some way, it was all worth it despite itself. Without getting too deep into the plot, we meet a group of women as they’re first allowed to give in to their individual proclivities but are then suddenly confronted with an unwanted outsider who seems to eventually let them go before chasing them down in in a high-speed car chase. And then he does it again! Some characters have deeply self-indulgent conversations, other characters die horribly and graphically, other characters are badly, painfully beaten, and that’s the movie. It’s like the best parts of staring at a car wreck in real life combined with the fantasy of knowing that that car wreck you’ve been staring at was full of people you really want to see get into a car wreck. What’s not to love?
You can’t rightfully quantify the quality of a movie with as crude a metric as money, but you can rightfully point out that (in conjunction with Planet Terror) Death Proof’s box office earnings only amounted to $25 million, whereas his two post-Death Proof releases, Inglourious Basterds and Death Proof, have both gone on to considerably greater financial success, $321 million and $425 million respectively, almost $300 and $400 million more than Death Proof, almost thirteen and seventeen times what Death Proof made, and both movies were received with much more fanfare and critical acclaim. And now that we’re here at the release of the director’s eighth movie, The Hateful Eight, it might not be that important to mention that it’s the director’s lowest grossing movie since Death Proof, but it should at least be illuminating. If not… well, I guess then that reading these last few paragraphs may have been a massive waste of time.
What’s it about?
On the road to Red Rock to collect his reward for capturing the criminal Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) picks up fellow bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), the supposed new sheriff of Red Rock, both of whom had become trapped out in the wild during an unexpected blizzard. As the blizzard worsens, the quartet, along with their stagecoach driver O.B., are forced to seek shelter at Minnie’s Haberdashery where they find themselves in the forced company of four other men, each of whom may have their own intentions on Miss Daisy.
If you’re anything like me, you weren’t old enough to see Pulp Fiction soon after its release [on VHS], but you saw it anyway because your parents just left it out in the open along with the rest of the family movies. If you’re anything like me, you then showed it to all of your similar-aged friends, each of whom absorbed the movie with varying levels of immaturity and misunderstanding. And if you’re anything like me, you all universally loved the scene where John Travolta’s Vincent Vega, haphazardly brandishing his gun in the middle of an otherwise cordial conversation, accidentally blows Marvin’s head off into the back of the car they were riding in. It’s a shocking and brutally funny moment and, if you were like me, it showed you that anything can happen if you’re watching the right movie. But if you’re anything like me, you may have loved the scene that follows, with Winston Wolfe calmly defusing the situation, even more.
The one single element I enjoy most in a Quentin Tarantino movies, and it’s something he never leaves out, is the level of detail the director brings to every moment, minor or major. Every scene you watch plays with such loving precision that you feel like you’re there, watching something you can’t take your eyes off of, whether it’s Christoph Waltz pouring a set of beers and carefully shaving the foam off of each, Travolta scooping Marvin’s brains out of the deepest recesses of the back seat of the car, or watching O.B. and Chris Mannix lay out wooden markers so they can find their way to the outhouse in the middle of the blizzard. Tarantino lets every one of these moments live and breathe in their own space, and as a result his movies come alive and convince you that they’re real in a way that few other movies ever do, even if they’re also moments that help cause most of his movies to lean closer to the three hour mark than the two. In The Hateful Eight, You can feel the desolation these characters find themselves in, you can feel the utter relief these characters feel when they burst into the cabin after escaping the terrible cold, and the whole bloody affair looks like a horrible situation in a way that that you feel deep inside.
All of this flourish and detail is especially important in The Hateful Eight as the entire movie is essentially a Tarantino bottle episode. Though we begin with beautiful, sweeping shots of wintery landscapes all shot in super-wide 70mm, pretty soon everybody is assembled in one spot and nobody wants to go outside if they can avoid it. Even six of the titular eight principal characters are played by actors who’ve appeared in and have become regulars of Tarantino’s previous works. None of it comes off as cheap (though it seems clearly economical), and you’ll more than likely find the fact of this single location somewhat obfuscated by the energy of the overall situation, but Minnie’s Haberdashery as the single locale does stand in sharp contrast to the expansive, countrysides of Django Unchained or the vast array of urban settings in Pulp Fiction.
Is It Any Good?
There’s an extent to which you don’t really question a Quentin Tarantino movie as the director has managed to carve out a place for himself relatively free from conventional forms of criticism. Put another way, if you’re gonna compare a Tarantino movie, you compare it to every other movie ever made… wasn’t made… by Quentin Tarantino. Is he an artist, an auteur, is he breaking the rules even as he’s reinventing them, or has he just been indulging himself and somehow getting away with it? I enjoy his work, critics enjoy his work, and he’s become well known for turning out quality movies that at least verge on a very specific type of genius, but at the same time his entire ouvre, when viewed through a certain lens, might look like a joke he’s pulled on everyone if you’re no the type to pick up what he’s been putting down for the past twenty-five years.
However you may feel about his work, the movies for which Tarantino has lost the most favour among even his supporters tend to be the talkier ones, especially the aforementioned Death Proof, but also including the second half of Kill Bill and Jackie Brown, and The Hateful Eight is definitely a movie that falls into that talky category. Like I said, it’s a bottle episode of a Tarantino movie, and there are a lot of elements of the situation, characters, and setting that need to be laid out, explored and provoked before everyone can start killing each other. It’s a western movie, but it doesn’t play as a typical western so much as it’s explicitly set in a western time and place where people are only allowed to play certain roles. Taking place at a time that’s after the end of the American Civil War but still directly influenced by its resolution, every one of the principal eight seems to have a particular reason to hate everyone else gathered at Minnie’s, and as things progress, the less confrontational the individual is, the more suspicious they become in terms of the overarching plot. Particularly problematic is the relationship between Samuel L. Jackson’s Major Marquis, a former Union soldier (and black man), Bruce Dern’s General Sanford Smithers, a former Confederate soldier (and racist), and Lost-Causer Chris Mannix (who’s also a racist).
Starting off on the road to Red Rock is important in establishing the type of hard world these characters live in where it’s fully illustrated the harsh physical cost of travelling, trusting others, and even everyday existence, not to mention the station of women, black people, and Mexicans. Racism is at a particular fever pitch and that’s just something that our characters either have to or get to live with, and it colours all of the events of the movie without necessarily having that much of an influence on the movie’s eventual outcome.
Broken down into six discrete chapters, there are moments that will make you laugh out loud, like the multiple cases of abuse between John Ruth and his captive Daisy Domergue, moments that might make you want to throw up, like when some of our heroes are suffering the effects of poisoning, and moments that will appeal to people who just like to watch people’s heads get blown off, like… when some people get their heads blown off. Unlike many of Tarantino’s previous works, however, it’s a movie that doesn’t scream at you. It’s not a lightning rod of a movie and its dialogue at times feels a little dialed back, a little simplified, and the tension just isn’t quite there the way it is in a Django Unchained or an Inglourious Basterds. But for one slight trick of non-linearity, it’s storytelling is very straightforward, and easy to put together, and if there is a twist, it’s unfortunately a twist that’s not built on any intimation or foreshadowing.
So Should I See It?
The last time I wrote a review of a Quentin Tarantino movie, Django Unchained, I pointed out that some of his movies have a tendency to grow in the back of your skull even if you’re sometimes a little underwhelmed watching them the first time through, and I think that’s very much the case with The Hateful Eight. I know I haven’t actually said that much about the movie itself, but to go much further is to give up everything that makes these movies worth seeing in the first place.
The camera work, the character work, the way the scenes are laid out, the music (especially the music), all of these usual Tarantino tricks (Silly Rabbit) are on full display with The Hateful Eight, but it’s all a little more self-contained than many of us are used to with his movies, and that works against it in its first viewing. For me, it may be his least consequential work, and it may even be the least important of his movies, but I’ve still seen it twice already, and I wouldn’t mind seeing it again soon. I even think it has an important message, and it’s kind of the message of most of Quentin Tarantino’s movies when you think about it:
When there are so many good reasons to hate each other, why would anyone ever be racist?
Thom’s The Hateful Eight final score
On the Edge
- The 70mm thing makes for an interesting experience, but considering that the vast majority of the movie takes place inside a cabin with people talking, that widescreen presentation doesn’t really mean that much.
- Actually, if I could choose to see any Tarantino movie in 70mm, it would probably be Death Proof.