The Hateful Eight (2015)

The road to the big screen has been long and fraught with peril for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.  The script leaked in 2013 after it was announced that it would be his next film.  The leak led to a lawsuit (later dropped by Tarantino) and caused him to say he wasn’t going to make the film.  He soon had a change of heart after a live-table read in early 2014, and filmed it in early 2015, presenting it in glorious Ultra Panavision 70mm, filmed in 65mm film, and featuring the first western score by the legendary Ennio Morricone in 40 years.

The Hateful Eight is set in a snowy winter in Wyoming a few years after the Civil War.  With a blizzard bearing down on them, a group of eight strangers seek refuge in Minnie’s Haberdashery, a stagecoach stopover on the way to Red Rock.  John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) is a bounty hunter transporting Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a fugitive with a $10,000 bounty on her head, into Red Rock to hang.  On the way to Minnie’s, he and his driver O.B. (James Parks) pick up two stranded passengers, a former Union war legend and fellow bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and purported sheriff-to-be of Red Rock Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins).  When they arrive at Minnie’s, they’re greeted by more weary travelers waiting out the storm in Oswaldo Mobry (Tim Roth), the hangman on his way to Red Rock, Bob (Demian Bechir), who is caring for Minnie’s place in her absence, Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a cowboy on his way to spend Christmas with him mother, and General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a Confederate general on his way to bury his son.  Ruth is hell-bent on getting Daisy to Red Rock, and doesn’t trust anyone in the cabin.  Slowly, things begin to transpire to confirm his suspicions that not everyone is who they claim to be.

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The film is a wonderfully self-contained period western.  Having all of these unsavory characters holed up together in one location for the majority of the film feels like a callback to Tarantino’s directorial debut, Reservoir Dogs, right down to having Tim Roth and Michael Madsen, a Tarantino regular, involved.  The film also plays out a lot like an Agatha Christie mystery drama, and given the snowed-in elements and the presence of Kurt Russell, I also couldn’t help but be reminded of the atmosphere of paranoia in John Carpenter’s The Thing.

Tarantino is a great script writer, loves wearing his cinematic influences on his sleeve, and has never been afraid to reference this influences and put what he loves about pop culture into his films.  He has taken a noticeable effort to restrict himself from these tendencies in his last three films, beginning with Inglorious Basterds, and I think he has become a more refined filmmaker in the process.  His scripts have always been great, but there is less showmanship and flourish in his dialogue here than you’d normally find, even though there is the typically great Tarantino dialogue and some especially great monologues, particularly for Samuel L. Jackson.

While the dialogue is a bit more restrained and the location is largely restrictive, Tarantino allows himself some visual flourishes in which to indulge.  Choosing to shoot the film in 70mm makes for very wide shots and he indulges himself in the process of making this film.  Like many other films shot in 70mm, it is a visual treat.  Approximately the first 30 minutes of the film take place in a stagecoach on its way to Minnie’s, and the landscapes look amazing.  The 70mm presentation of the film gives it two added bonuses.  First, it gives a great sense of space inside Minnie’s Haberdashery.  Given the amount of people who are holed up in one slightly cramped location, it does a great job of keeping everyone’s proximity to each other in the mind of the viewer.  Second, it enhances the sense of environment and location; you sense the enveloping cold of the blizzard raging and the chill in the bones of the characters.  I felt acutely aware of the environment that these people found themselves in and it is conveyed as well as or better than any other film has done in that regard.

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Almost everyone feels like they were right for their parts.  Russell has always had a hint (sometimes more) of John Wayne in his delivery and here he starts off heavy with it and you think he will be the hero of the film.  Tarantino quickly subverts any notions the audience has of that, making him one of the more unsavory people of the bunch, degrading the only major female character in the film.  He’s also a jerk to everyone he meets, and never hesitates to let them know who is in charge (he is) and that he’ll confront anyone who’s got a problem with it.  Samuel L. Jackson continues to be the best gift God ever gave Quentin Tarantino.  Major Marquis is a great character and a great performance and Jackson is the perfect mouthpiece for Tarantino’s words.  Jennifer Jason Leigh gives a fine performance as Daisy, reveling in the role of the woman who is as foul as any of the men on the screen.  The real standout for me, though, is Walton Goggins, who gets to play a former confederate soldier who gets probably the best character arc of the entire cast.

It’s a surprisingly prescient (or lucky) film in that it comes out at a time where issues concerning minorities and women have become a hot button issue in this country again as certain events in 2015 have caused the long, dark shameful history of racism and gender politics in this country to bring emotions bubbling up for a lot of people.  Given that this was written before a lot of this became headlines in 2015, it is interesting how the film is meeting the culture it is being released into as we head into 2016.  It’s especially interesting given some of the criticism that Tarantino himself has received in the past for the pervasive use of the “N-word” in his films, something he doesn’t shy away from and has a bit of commentary on in the film.

Also, while the film grows exceedingly violent as the story is propelled toward a blood-soaked end, it’s worth noting that Tarantino’s violence has meaning and impact, maybe not as much as some but certainly more than most.  Nothing is whitewashed for audience sensitivities.  Killing results in blood and guts and viscera.  Tarantino is one of the rare filmmakers who can have his cake and eat it too in terms of having these things have impact while also seeming to take glee in portraying them.

Quentin Tarantino films have a tendency to gain in my estimation over time or after repeat viewings.  As much as I like The Hateful Eight, I can easily imagine liking it more when I see it again.  Tarantino has crafted another top-notch film, one with less commercial appeal Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, but one that anyone who is a fan of the visual medium of film will enjoy and appreciate.  While it is a little self-indulgent with the art form of shooting in 70mm and its long runtime, it is nonetheless impressive to watch someone refine their craft and make a film’s release feel like an event, not just because of the spectacle on screen, but because of who is making it and how they are releasing it, and that makes seeing it worthwhile, unlike a lot of the 3D releases that are so popular nowadays.  70mm is expensive to shoot in and reproduce and ship, and not a lot of companies use them, and even fewer theaters have projectors for them.  But Quentin Tarantino has reached a point in his life where he can attach his name to something like that and make it happen.

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Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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