The Hateful Eight

Despite containing a diverse collection of settings, stories and characters, all of Quentin Tarantino's 21st century work has been united by a recurring theme: REVENGE. This streak began as a fun exercise in pop culture stylishness (the two-part Kill Bill saga), but turned increasingly serious-minded and political (while retaining much of Tarantino's gleeful “live action cartoon” aesthetic) as time passed: a group of women getting revenge on a misogynist killer, a Jewish girl getting revenge on the Nazis and an African-American slave getting revenge on white oppressors. In The Hateful Eight, Tarantino's obsession with the subject reaches its climax: here's a film in which everyone is seeking revenge on everyone for every damn reason available. It's a three-hour cinematic stew of long-simmering hatred and a bloody snapshot of America's fractured identity: call it QT's State of the Union address. In some ways, it's the apex of everything Tarantino has been doing post-Jackie Brown (which is still his masterpiece). Were it not for some surprising failings in areas Tarantino usually excels in, it might have been the year's best film.

The tale begins with bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell, Death Proof), who is transporting convicted killer Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hudsucker Proxy) to the town of Red Rock. The bounty on Daisy says “wanted dead or alive,” and most other bounty hunters almost certainly would have gone ahead and killed her to make their job easier. However, Ruth is a man of principle: he prefers to see people brought to justice the proper way, which is why people call him “the hangman.” Unfortunately, it looks like John's journey will be cut short by a blizzard, so the stagecoach driver (James Parks, Kill Bill) advises that they stop at a place called Minnie's Haberdashery and wait for the storm to pass.

On the way there, Ruth begrudgingly grants a ride to a couple of hitchhikers. The first is Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson, Pulp Fiction), a former Union soldier turned bounty hunter who carries a personal letter from Abraham Lincoln in his pocket and who happens to be a casual acquaintance of Ruth's. The second is Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins, Justified), a racist redneck who claims that he's the new sheriff of Red Rock. When this group arrives at Minnie's, they find a number of others waiting for them: elderly former Confederate General Sanford “Sandy” Smithers (Bruce Dern, Nebraska), eccentric British hangman Oswaldo Mobrey (Tim Roth, Pulp Fiction), weary cow-puncher Joe Gage (Michael Madsen, Reservoir Dogs) and a Mexican named Bob (Demian Bechir, The Bridge) who claims that he's in charge of the place while Minnie is out of town.

It doesn't take long for a wide variety of tensions and suspicions to start brewing among these folks, who will be stuck with each other for at least a couple of days. Ruth believes that someone in the building is secretly plotting to set Daisy free, which adds a heaping dose of fuel to a series of fires that were already burning bright: Yankee vs. Confederate, man vs. woman, white vs. black, intellect vs. simplicity. There's a lot of Agatha Christie in the film's set-up, though the atmosphere is far more nakedly hostile in this case. Tarantino doesn't try to force the metaphor too often, but it's clear that he intends Minnie's as a microcosm of post-Civil War America... which, not-so-coincidentally, often bears a striking resemblance to present-day America.

This is very much an ensemble film, but Major Warren is the closest thing the film has to a central figure. That's partially because he has such a commanding presence (Jackson once again reminds you that nobody knows how to deliver a Tarantino monologue quite like he does – there's one speech in particular that's as magnificent as anything the actor has ever done), and partially because, as the only black man in the room, he often becomes the main point of focus for the other characters (most of whom are openly racist to at least some degree – this is yet another Tarantino film in which the n-word flows freely on a regular basis). We're told that Major Warren once had a sizable bounty on his head for the sole reason that the Confederacy objected to a black man holding a position of power. “You don't know what it's like to be a black man facing down America!” Jackson snaps at one character.

Major Warren is required to endure a lot of oppression, yet he, too, is an oppressor: we hear tales of his sadistic behavior in the past, and learn that he once earned fame for slaughtering Native Americans on behalf of the U.S. government. Ruth's talk of old-fashioned decency and principle is sharply undercut by his cheerful willingness to beat the hell out of his female prisoner... and yet, any sympathy we might feel for Daisy is undercut by the fact that she is a truly vile human being. Eventually, we realize that there's no one to like here, merely varying degrees of ugliness engaged in a battle for superiority. The whole affair would be profoundly depressing were it not for Tarantino's skills as an entertainer: scenes of truly horrifying behavior inspire howls of laughter from the audience, simply because Tarantino has successfully managed to make us hate the people on the receiving end of that behavior. The film doesn't just depict hate, but feeds on it, using as the fuel it needs to get away with its most outrageous moments. Released in the midst of the ugliest, most hateful political season in recent memory, the film attains a darkly cathartic quality: here's the subtext of our national dialogue, bubbling to the surface in violently entertaining fashion.

It's a little amusing to see that Tarantino decided to shoot this movie – which often feels like a bloody stage play – on staggeringly beautiful 70mm film, using the very same lenses that shot the chariot race sequence in Ben-Hur. However, the decision is not a jokey stunt, but a deliberate artistic decision that pays off in both prominent and subtle ways: the vast 2.76:1 aspect ratio gives us a lot of information to process in each shot, and there are a lot of important little details and bits of business tucked away in the corners of the screen. More importantly, during the brief moments when the film suddenly decides to open up – as in a flashback sequence that occurs towards the end of the film's first half – the huge format suddenly feels as big as it is, almost bowling us over with its dazzling scope.

The 187-minute “roadshow” version of the film includes a few minutes of footage that won't be present in the standard theatrical release, but more importantly, it adds both a sensational overture (courtesy of composer Ennio Morricone, who has never sounded so much like Bernard Herrmann – particularly when it comes to his snaky, occasionally savage main theme) and a fifteen-minute intermission. I'm curious to see the uninterrupted version of the film, but the intermission comes at such a perfect moment that it feels like an essential part of the experience: it simultaneously says “okay, let's take a minute” and “suck on that!”

The cast is largely comprised of Tarantino veterans, and there are several performances here to admire. In addition to Jackson's superb work, I greatly admired Walton Goggins' turn as the bigoted sheriff. He begins the film as a cartoon, but becomes increasingly complex and human as the film proceeds. Russell is enjoyably blustery as the John Wayne-esque Ruth, spitting out well-worn credos like “Nobody said this job was supposed to be easy!” and assuming authority in every situation. Russell might be the only actor on the planet who can offer a satisfactory alternate version of both Wayne and Clint Eastwood (as he did in Escape from New York). Dern doesn't say much, but has one sequence in which his furious, terrified eyes are put to tremendous use. Leigh is also memorably terrifying, entering the film with an evil grin and a black eye and only growing nastier as her face gradually transforms into a bloody, toothless mess. Hell hath no fury, indeed.

Unfortunately, a surprising number of the characters feel underdeveloped and one-dimensional, which is odd given the film's exceptionally talkative nature and lengthy running time (not to mention Tarantino's usual knack for making even minor bit players feel real and essential). The central figures are terrific, but Tarantino doesn't seem to have given enough thought to a character like Bob, who gets a hilariously odd performance from Bechir but surprisingly little definition from the writer/director. Roth's Oswaldo Mobrey feels like a second-rate version of a Christoph Waltz character, and Madsen's lazy, vaguely sinister-looking Joe Gage never quite snaps into focus the way we're expecting him to. There's also a mystery figure played by a high-profile actor (his name pops up in the opening credits, but I won't reveal his identity here) who seems remarkably unqualified to handle Tarantino's dialogue: watching him feels like watching one of those earnest kids from The Wolfpack, enthusiastically but unconvincingly acting out scenes from Reservoir Dogs.

The film is divided into six chapters – the first three filled with slow-burning tension, the latter three filled with violence and mayhem. This is a tighter movie than Django Unchained (which, for all its strengths, still feels unfinished), but like that movie, it gets a little messy late in the game: the fifth chapter (titled “The Four Passengers”) in particular feels more lifeless than it ought to (a combination of Tarantino's mostly-stupendous direction losing a little focus and the aforementioned mystery actor coming to the fore). Still, the The Hateful Eight eventually works its way to an ending of warped beauty – cynical in one sense, but touchingly sentimental in another – that ranks among the loveliest moments Tarantino has ever written. America may be doomed to live out the rest of its days consumed by hatred and bloodshed, but sometimes it's comforting to share that noble, futile dream of what we could be.

The Hateful Eight

Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 187 minutes (Roadshow Version)
Release Year: 2015