'The Hateful Eight' Is A Total Circus, Right Down To Its Delusions Of Grandeur

16 January 2016 | 4:09 pm | Anthony Carew

Quentin Tarantino's eighth feature has big dreams and a big opinion of itself - not infrequently warranted - but ultimately feels like an overblown stage play


"The 8th Film by Quentin Tarantino" —as The Hateful Eight is billed in its opening credits— displays a genuine devotion to its projection. Shot in a forgotten 70mm format whose aspect-ratio is ultra-wide, the film has been screening at old picture-houses —exclusively!—before its release in mere regular (i.e. digital) cinemas. The Hateful Eight is three hours long, comes with a program, begins with an overture, and breaks for an intermission. It's theatre. It’s event. It's cinema as circus; a big-top spectacle to be treated with reverence.

Yet, for all its self-appointed status as cinematic occasion, The Hateful Eight doesn’t measure up where it matters most: on screen. All its wide-screen grandeur and sprawling running-time seem ill-appointed for what is, essentially, a one-room stage play. The film may begin with a classic opening-credits one-shot —a slow pull away from a snow-covered statue of Christ to reveal a stage-coach hurtling through the Wyoming wilds— but, soon, it heads indoors.

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Its setting is Minnie’s Haberdashery, a lonesome outpost on the trail to the nearest town, 12 years after the end of the US Civil War. There’s confluence and coincidence in who (there’s 10 people, really, not eight) ends up there. Like Samuel L. Jackson’s old Yankee Major, who just happens to have turned up in the same locked-up shack as Bruce Dern’s former Confederate General, an unrepentant racist he once opposed in battle. There’s a bounty hunter (Kurt Russell, moustachioed, macho, ornery) bringing in a wanted prisoner (a brilliant, bonkers Jennifer Jason Leigh, all scratchy lice, shot snot-rockets, browned teeth, and black eye), crossing paths with men who claim to be the incoming Sheriff (Walton Goggins, a garrulous, knee-slappin’ cracker) and hangman (Tim Roth, a dandy of supercilious poshness). They’re all liars and rogues, none to be trusted; trapped together in a snow-bound cabin that always resembles a sound stage.

So it’s, indeed, theatre, in a literal sense. The Hateful Eight first took to life as live script-reading, performed on stage. And it feels this way as it plays out, all hot air and bluster; Tarantino the director taking a backseat to Tarantino the writer. It’s not particularly a conversation piece, more —as is a favoured device of the stage— a battle of wit and words; its collection of comic back-and-forths, dramatic soliloquies, and hurled epithets (so many of them racial) feeling like salvos in an ongoing fracas.

More than anything, The Hateful Eight is a film about storytelling. Its most affecting moment comes when Samuel L. Jackson breaks into a tale of torturing in the lonesome mountains, and Tarantino breaks out of the room for a moment of vivid visual flashback set against pure-white snow. It’s the film’s centrepiece, dramatically, thematically, and structurally; serving as a hinge on which the film can turn.

It becomes clear, even mid-anecdote, that Jackson is an unreliable narrator, but when Tarantino follows his story with visuals, the director doubles down; the filmmaker himself an unreliable narrator. When the story ends, so does the film’s first half; once The Hateful Eight comes back from intermission, Tarantino has come on board, for the first time, as literal narrator, breaking the fourth wall by filling in the audience on unseen things and what’s happened in ‘the break’, pushing the film towards parlour-game, or radio-play whodunit. Later, the film breaks chronology for a chapter (Of course it does! And of course it’s told in chapters!) in the past, revealing another layer beneath the mystery.

Of course, that mystery is never quite so mysterious. Whether characters are who they say they are only holds a certain amount of sway. Given that they’re all pointing guns at each other from its beginning, you know that, for all its verbal intrigue, The Hateful Eight is heading towards a violent conclusion. This violence, when it comes, is gruesome and horrifying; Tarantino, once again, juxtaposing fancy words with bloody viscera, witty philosophising with brutal misdeeds. Its violence, and its virulent racism, is clearly a commentary on America, past and present: the old Civil War divisions of North and South just, these days, Democrat and Republican; the scars of slavery and segregation still evident, unhealed.

This makes The Hateful Eight a successor to 2009's Inglourious Basterds and 2012's Django Unchained, Tarantino’s best films; the two movies that radically broadened the auteur's vision, from the video store to the annals of history. Each, too, was a study of storytelling: Basterds about the power of propaganda (especially filmmaking) to shape public perceptions and cultural memory; Django an audacious riposte against the way certain stories are supposed to be told.

Yet The Hateful Eight is also a lesser film than either of its predecessors. Whilst its 70mm presentation and gala screenings suggest another Tarantino epic, in truth the film is scaled down in spectacle, scope, ambition, and pure cinematic thrills. Its celluloid format is rarely justified by its sound-stage setting, its lagging three-hour run-time really could’ve been whipped into shape (especially in its first half), and its ultimate pay-off doesn’t quite work. Ultimately, The Hateful Eight feels like a film that should’ve been made fast, cheap and out-of-control, a lesser Tarantino flick being marketed as if a major one.


Where The Hateful Eight’s 70mm screenings seem more like marketing angle, for those who love celluloid, Carol feels far more like an event. Shot by director Todd Haynes and DP Ed Lachman on 16mm, its every frame is alive with dancing grain. Haynes is fond of impressionist blurs: shooting through foggy windows, snow-covered cars, and glass partitions, refracted light foregrounded, figures pushed back beneath the breath and flutter towards soft-edged shadows. With flickering film-grain and artful fogs at work, even the quotidian and domestic can seem mysterious, distant.

This distance is out to capture the long-ago world of early-’50s New York, to do so without the glossy colours and freshly stitched wardrobes that normally populate period-pieces. Haynes had used those tropes with 2002’s Far From Heaven, a film that was, in many ways, about the devices of melodrama. Whilst Carol shares both a period setting and scandalous-affair/tragic-love plot with Far From Heaven, here Haynes strays far from melodrama, or any kind of pop-cultural nostalgia.

With its images so often opaque, thick, and fuzzy, he portrays New York not as Old Hollywood fantasy, but as distressed, dirty city still wearing the scars of the depression and wartime. Where many period dramas paint a prim, mannered version of the past to evoke their Puritan, repressive morals, here the murkiness creates a more realistic world, a more human milieu. It’s a distant time (where characters are named things like Harge and Rindy), with different social values, but it also feels close, tactile, tangible. Its thick, textured fabrics seem as if they can be touched; its feelings, in turn, as if they can be truly felt.

In this world, Rooney Mara’s 19-year-old department-store clerk meets Cate Blanchett’s glamorous society wife. She’s wide-eyed, shy, unsure of herself, with a budding interest in photography and an eager boyfriend (Jake Lacey) already dreaming of them moving to Paris, getting hitched. In contrast, Blanchett is worldly and world-weary, coming out the other side of a marriage, mid-separation from a controlling husband (Kyle Chandler) who’s only half-tolerated her string of affairs with women. Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Patricia Highsmith —initially published under a pseudonym, and out of print for years— it’s a tragic love story as they all are: passions oppressed by the conventions of the past; lovers kept apart by social mores and societal morals, gender expectations and judgments, and, more than anything, the law.

Highsmith was a crime novelist by trade, and, here, there are elements of the genre at play: never moreso than when, whilst on a relationship-defining road trip, Mara finds a gun in Blanchett’s luggage; a bit of Chekhovian foreshadowing that suggests the sense of escapism and forward momentum found on the road will prove fleeting. With the recurring legal motif of divorce drawn throughout, Carol is, in its own way, a crime movie but, instead of depicting a crime of passion, here, the crime is passion.

Mara and Blanchett communicate this growing passion in furtive glance and gesture, in a constellation of hesitations. Carol isn’t a sparkling conversation piece; the getting-to-know-you chit-chat of its women-as-lovers is more stilted than frantic, words meted out carefully. There’s far more revealed in letters; which, within this world, are the form via which people can say what, otherwise, cannot be said. Carol is a drama loaded with the unsaid, Haynes and his two leads lingering in those moments, drawing emotion from tentative silence. Eventually, those three immortal words are dared to be aired aloud, a fragile balloon let aloft in a thorny, spiteful climate; and they lead into a memorable final sequence in which Haynes seems enthralled by all he’s commanding, in love with actors, source text, and film stock.