Editor’s Notes: The Hateful Eight opens in wide theatrical release Christmas Day.
The best movie epics offer different levels of storytelling as a way of maximizing their scale and sense of adventure. These mammoth films should transport the audience beyond the screen and allow it to experience many stabs, jolts and gusts of emotion, then leave us with the lingering feeling we just embarked on a wholesome, emotionally satisfying journey. Epics must be grand, but they also must never lose control of their tale’s intimacy – or the small character moments that, in the big picture, ring truest.
The star-studded cast is in tiptop shape, projecting Tarantino’s oratory dialogue with gnashing delight.
Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight is a big picture, indeed. Shot in the rare Ultra Panavision 70 anamorphic, on 65mm Kodak film stock, and screened in the ultra-wide 2:76:1 aspect ratio, the presentation format of the film (and, this time, it really is film) is a breed that harks back to the 1950s and 1960s when epics like Ben-Hur, Mutiny on the Bounty, and Lawrence of Arabia were screened as EVENTS to entice people out of their living rooms and off their couches away from the newfangled television. If you are lucky to witness The Roadshow presentation of The Hateful Eight, which is projected in 70mm and includes a 7-minute Overture and 15-minute Intermission, you will experience the film’s full 187 minutes how it – nay, all real movies (the new Star Wars not included) – should be seen. It is in your best interest to avoid the online indexes and catch The Hateful Eight in theatres to soak in its beautiful use of widescreen – you won’t get the same impact from watching it on an iPad.
I wax poetic here not as a Tarantino sycophant either. While I respect the Pulp Fiction director as a curator of film and for his old-school sensibility (he, too, is rightly skeptical of True Detective and the so-called “golden age of television”), Tarantino tends to take too much pleasure in the inhumane, overwhelming the screen with hyper-violence, tough-guy attitude and cruelty strictly as a vessel for entertainment. A movie like his last, Django Unchained, approached slavery in the antebellum South with a kind of jokey sadism that undercut the very issue – race relations in mid-nineteenth century America – Tarantino claimed to be reopening the conversation on.
While I initially groaned at the prospect of another Tarantino “Western”, it comes to my great surprise that The Hateful Eight is one of the director’s finest pictures. Despite its Magnificent Seven-inspired title, Ennio Morricone’s ominous percussion, and the flyover setting – postbellum Wyoming – The Hateful Eight is not much of a Western in any sense. The film starts out as a character drama confined to a horse-drawn carriage; eventually, it shifts to a chamber play ensemble piece that appears to explore the timely topic of the way civil societies break apart from or are balkanized by a distrust of powers. But before we can predict its narrative pattern, The Hateful Eight inserts a mystery, poking the audience now to ask whatisit AND whodunit – the latter becoming irrelevant in the final showdown, which is so beautifully over-the-top and justified by the narrative’s slippery slope.
This time, Tarantino’s ideas are cohesive and almost – almost! – complex. Above all, he is a craftsman and entertainer, and The Hateful Eight is an expert example of those qualities.
If you think that breakdown is in any way a spoiler, you have another thing coming. Tarantino’s screenplay is full of misdirection, hinting at small, often sinister developments only to abandon them without warning. For the first time in awhile, watching The Hateful Eight, I was uncertain what Tarantino was up to or what he was trying to pull off. For most directors, this would be a problem, but QT is too in control of his pace and tone. The humour, which is refreshingly subtle and not easy to read, gives the ridiculous plot strokes of grace and understated wit.
The star-studded cast is in tiptop shape, projecting Tarantino’s oratory dialogue with gnashing delight. Samuel L. Jackson (who does to Tarantino’s dialogue what Olivier did to Shakespeare’s) plays Major Marquis Warren, a former Union soldier and notorious bounty hunter, who hitches a ride with Kurt Russell’s “hangman” John Ruth. Caught in a treacherous snow storm, Ruth is towing fugitive Daisy Domergue (a spectacularly repellent Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock for hanging. Soon after, southern renegade Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins), the supposed new sheriff of Red Rock, inveigles his way aboard, which eventually stirs up racial tensions between him and Major Marquis.
For the first 45 minutes, The Hateful Eight is just sparring dialogue among these four. While its conversation is engaging, the script must contrive John Ruth as a lawman with, for his profession, an unlikely trust in strangers. This all starts to make sense though as The Hateful Eight peels back its characters’s secrets and lies, allowing this contrivance to speak truth to Ruth’s slightly-too noble character. Russell is, in fact, the least hateful of the eight, because Ruth has a moral compass along with a genuine, if prickly, ability for respecting others – which QT points out to be a tragic flaw.
When the four travellers hole up at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a so-called safe haven, the movie introduces a colourful array of characters: Bob The Mexican (Demián Bichir); Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth in the Christoph Waltz role); Joe Gage The Cow-Puncher (Michael Madsen); and Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), who have all cozied up in the establishment. Immediately, Ruth lays down the law, proclaiming that Daisy is his prisoner and no one will get in his way of condemning her to the smiling noose. Ruth’s first course of action is to seize the occupants’s guns – “for your protection”, Ruth assures one of them – the same platitude Democrats lull the American population with when advocating for gun control or, ironically, mainline Republicans use to justify military expansionism (and further ironic that Russell is outspokenly pro-gun). Distrustful of one another, Tarantino’s eight miscreants, based on political and personal allegiances, divide themselves into opposite ends of the room – similar to how today’s “social justice” issues, not necessarily without cause, foment anger and division among groups. Like Lord of the Flies, The Hateful Eight targets the corruptibility of civilizations.
With this, Tarantino’s recent political crusade starts to come into focus. The Hateful Eight is, indeed, his most genuinely political film; the nihilism that pervades his work is applied here to make sense of our senseless times, when ISIS, fundamentalism, and our own government has imposed on our civil liberties. Unlike The Hateful Eight’s trailer, which overplayed the film’s spy vs. spy gimmick, one may think the movie is a pretty standard game of oneupmanship, where characters betray and bump each other off in a war of attrition until there is a last man standing. The Hateful Eight does follow this narrative template, but not until over two hours into the picture. The truth is the film keeps changing genre disguises, flipping back and forth in time and perspective, and using narration (voiced by Tarantino himself) to recap events and drop a tidbit of unexpected information to raise the stakes.
When we think Tarantino is building to punctuate a political point, The Hateful Eight abruptly transitions into a total bloodbath, similar to Django Unchained’s explosive finale. Here it is more effective though, because the haphazard violence is delivered staccato, zigzagging to a twisted moral conclusion – one that is weirdly hopeful. Tarantino uses Roy Orbison’s aptly-titled “There Won’t Be Many Coming Home” to add triumph and catharsis to the culminating chaos – and an ironic sense of closure to America’s seemingly endless war on terrorism.
This time, Tarantino’s ideas are cohesive and almost – almost! – complex. Above all, he is a craftsman and entertainer, and The Hateful Eight is an expert example of those qualities. Part of the film’s success is the threat of violence it evokes, a dramatic device he used so well in Pulp Fiction’s last scene and Inglourious Basterds’s prologue. We are never ahead of this screenplay’s logic and always working to keep up with it and fighting our second-guesses. That is one of many reasons that The Hateful Eight is a thrill to witness. It is more than a bounce back for Tarantino; it may just be one of his best films.
The Hateful Eight is not only a triumph of film format, but one of storytelling as well. It is a film you really must see in theatres to get the whole experience; it also has a plot that you will be racing to catch up with and trying to anticipate. Additionally, it is Tarantino’s most political film, which is not to say its commentary is fully successful, but it is more earned than the one shoehorned into Django Unchained. It is also, you know, very entertaining.