The past few films of Quentin Tarantino have been concerned with the writer-director’s unique brand of revisionist history. Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds took Tarantino’s trademarked witty banter and infused it with his renowned pop culture sensibilities, but also presented a new streak of political thought into his films. These films also represented the biggest box office successes of his career. Never one to dabble in complacency, Tarantino is taking all his chips and cashing them in with The Hateful Eight, the director’s latest venture into the western genre. It contains numerous Tarantino signatures – the aforementioned clever banter, some non-linear storytelling, and some of the most startling and effective uses of violence that is found in modern cinema. But The Hateful Eight also brings Tarantino’s political streak further to the forefront, with a story that takes on the nation’s history of white supremacy and also further establishes that Tarantino is a master of suspense, something frequently lost when evaluating the tics that define Tarantino to many. The Hateful Eight is Tarantino at his most violent, it is also Tarantino at his best.
The closest comparison of Tarantino’s filmography to The Hateful Eight would be Reservoir Dogs, though the film also has a strong streak reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing. Starting out on a stagecoach in the snowy mountains, John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) encounters Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) waiting in the middle of the road, frozen bodies lying beside him, hoping to catch a ride to Red Rock. Though the two men are previously acquainted, The Hangman doesn’t trust anyone right now. He’s taking Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to hang and plans to collect the $10,000 reward. Marquis is allowed into the stagecoach, but further along the road Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) is also seeking a ride to Red Rock, where he claims he is to become the next sheriff. John Ruth lets everyone aboard the stagecoach piloted by O.B. (James Parks), but only after he’s disarmed them all. But a blizzard is coming to the mountain and everyone plans only to stay through the storm at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a local trading post en route to Red Rock. Upon their arrival, they learn that the Haberdashery is occupied with its own various group of rogues. There’s Gen. Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a former Confederate general; Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), the executioner of Red Rock; Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a self-professed cowboy; and Bob the Mexican (Demian Bichir), a hired hand of Minnie’s watching the haberdashery while Minnie visits her mother. John Ruth’s paranoia won’t subside, and he firmly believes that someone at Minnie’s isn’t who they say they are and are seeking to free the murderous Daisy Domergue.
At nearly three hours, the first two-thirds of The Hateful Eight is setting all the pieces in place before the bloodletting, which is mightily ample even for a Tarantino film. What is especially apparent in the film is just how adept that Tarantino is these days at building tension, a manner worthy of one of his idols in Brian De Palma. The central distrust of the story is borne out in all of its hateful characters, but driven by John Ruth’s distrust of everyone – whether he is right or wrong is a question best solved by actually viewing the film. But with its snowy setting and Kurt Russell in a prominent role, the aspects of The Thing are real without the angle of the supernatural, and only amplified by the wonderfully atmospheric score by the legendary Ennio Morricone. Needless to say, however, when shit goes bad it goes really, really, really bad for everyone involved.
As for the political angle, Samuel L. Jackson is the lone black man at Minnie’s Haberdashery, and is forced to deal not only with his reputation as a former Union soldier with a penchant for killing white Confederates, but is trapped in these close quarters with a couple of former Confederates, their prejudices still running rampant. But the character has to also deal with prejudices that remain buried. In one instance, a supposed ally in the confined quarters of distrust learns of a lie which brings forth a racist streak indistinguishable from the Confederates sitting across the room. Everything that builds on this front comes to a head in a chapter entitled “Black Man, White Hell.” But Jackson is as good as he’s ever been, hopefully good enough to where he’ll take home that Oscar that he should’ve won for Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown.
Shot in 65mm Ultra Panavision and presented on a 70mm print, The Hateful Eight is as gorgeous a cinematic experience that one will find this year. Cinematographer Robert Richardson brings a classical style of crisp overhead lighting in the indoor sequences, and the natural snowy vistas look so vibrant that you’ll feel a chill in your feet as if you’ve just stepped into three feet of snow. In this modern era of antiseptic digital projection, the Ultra Panavision presentation of The Hateful Eight is one that reminds its viewer of the beauty and majesty of celluloid, not only as a means for capturing but projecting images.
Aside from Samuel L. Jackson, who undoubtedly steals the show and has a moment that is so shocking that people will be talking about it for a while, the rest of the cast is stellar. Tarantino has always been a good actor’s director, and his crackling dialogue gives them ample room to play. Not only does he have the film’s best facial hair, Kurt Russell brings that swagger that he brought with him in those great Carpenter films and Tarantino’s Death Proof. Walton Goggins is having a blast playing up his Southern accent in unison with his character’s cold-blooded brutality. In the mini-Reservoir Dogs reunion, Michael Madsen is gruff and understated while Tim Roth brings a certain British smarminess to his executioner. The most pleasant part of The Hateful Eight is seeing Jennifer Jason Leigh once again allowed to give a strong, well-rounded performance as Daisy Domergue. She can be ruthless with her words and still menacing even though she spends most of the film shackled to Russell’s hangman. Of course, no film can have too much Bruce Dern and his cantankerous Confederate has some tense moments staring down Jackson’s Marquis. Finally, Demian Bichir’s Bob the Mexican is an enigma, a riddle only to be solved as the film draws closer and closer to its conclusion. Rounding out the cast is a small but surprising role by Channing Tatum – I won’t divulge anything else about his character.
For fans of Tarantino, The Hateful Eight is catnip, blending all the director’s signature styles in a lush cinematic experience that few others could possibly pull off. It’s a funny, tense film that culminates in a number of shockingly violent moments. Detractors of Tarantino beware – there’s nothing you will like about The Hateful Eight. This film is somewhat subdued in its setting, slowly adding layer upon layer before unleashing a barrage of bullets, but it’s that stunningly crafted tension that makes every shot fired in The Hateful Eight mean something for the characters on the screen and those in the audience. This is a bold, bloody film that only Quentin Tarantino could’ve pulled off. Glorious 70mm is right.