Quentin Tarantino is a noted grandmaster at writing, directing, and editing dialogue. More specifically, there’s nobody out there who’s made such outstanding and prolific use of standoffs. His calling card is the scene of two or more people at each others’ throats — whether implicitly or explicitly — and we’re left in eager anticipation to see who does something awful and when.
So here we are with The Hateful Eight, which basically promised to be an eight-way Tarantino standoff scene stretched out to feature length. And sure enough, that’s pretty much exactly what we got. In 70mm photography, no less.
(Side note: A shout-out to my friends at the historic Hollywood Theatre in Portland, one of only two places in the entire Pacific Northwest that’s screening the film in 70mm).
Our stage is set just after the Civil War, so right off the bat, we’ve got several reasons for different characters to squabble and distrust each other. The premise begins with Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a criminal with a $10,000 bounty on her head. Nobody’s very forthcoming with any details as to why, but it seems that she murdered someone.
Anyway, Daisy has been captured by an especially paranoid bounty hunter named John Ruth (Kurt Russell), who’s obsessed with protecting his $10,000 payday by any means necessary. And despite the fact that Daisy’s handbill reads “dead or alive”, and despite the fact that Daisy would be a lot easier to transport as a corpse, John Ruth wants to bring her back into town alive. Why? Well, he doesn’t want to cost any honest local hangmen their livelihoods. Seems he does that with all of his captures.
En route to the Wyoming town of Red Rock, John Ruth, his captive, and his driver (O.B., played by James Parks) come across another bounty hunter (Major Marquis Warren, played by Samuel L. Jackson), who’s transporting three wanted corpses of his own. Warren’s horse couldn’t survive the terrain or the temperature, so he hitches a ride into town with Ruth and company.
The group is soon joined by Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins), formerly part of a rogue Confederate militia that kept on fighting after the Civil War was lost. He also claims to be the newly-elected sheriff of Red Rock, not that Mannix can prove it until they get back into town. But if he’s telling the truth, it would mean that Ruth and Warren have to get him back into town alive if they want to get paid.
The company makes a planned stop at an inn that’s been ironically named “Minnie’s Haberdashery”. Minnie herself and her husband, by the way, are nowhere to be seen. Instead, the inn is currently being occupied by four more individuals.
There’s the old Confederate war general (General Sandy Smithers, played by Bruce Dern), allegedly heading out to dedicate the symbolic grave of his long-lost son. There’s Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), a Brit with a particularly slimy disposition. Senor Bob is supposedly the near-mute Mexican help, except that he’s played by Demian Bichir. Likewise, even though Joe Gage might say he’s just a cowboy trying to get home for Christmas, he’s being played by Michael Madsen in a Tarantino movie. So you know something else is up.
Incidentally, Channing Tatum gets a small yet vital role that I don’t dare spoil here. And even though Zoe Bell gets nothing more than a glorified cameo, it’s always a pleasure to see her.
Let me give you an idea of how this cast operates: when we first meet Ruth and Daisy, he’s beating her senseless anytime she says a word. He demeans her and degrades her in every way he knows how, looking like the very picture of an abusive sexist asshole. It’s uncomfortable to watch. But then Daisy starts hurling racial invectives, hocking loogies at other people, and generally taking every opportunity to cause trouble, and it’s a lot harder to hate Ruth for slapping her around.
Put simply, there isn’t a single sympathetic character in this cast. The sole possible exception is O.B., but he’s more of an ineffectual ninth-wheel bystander. The more we learn about our Hateful Eight, the more we learn that every single one of them has done something unforgiveable. Even Warren, our de facto protagonist, is shown to have done something so indescribably evil that I don’t dare discuss it here. Though Warren goes on about it at great length, and with sadistic pleasure in the telling.
And these irredeemable bastards are all stuck together in the Haberdashery for two or three days until a blizzard blows over. Nobody can get in or out because the door is so broken that it has to be kicked open and nailed shut. Tempers run hot and hilarity ensues.
Tarantino has his own unique stamp seen on all of his movies, and this one is no exception. The director himself even shows up in a random uncredited voice-over to draw our attention toward a crucial story point. This was very clearly a holdover from when the story was being written as a novel — everything being told is essential and it would have worked beautifully in prose, but there was no way to get the job done well enough by way of cinema.
As for the dialogue, of course it’s a masterwork of elegant profanity. At least half the characters talk like they’re getting paid by the N-bomb, and the climax in particular features some very colorful synonyms for male genitalia.
Last but not least, we’ve got the shootouts and death scenes. Tarantino has always had a proclivity for violence, but there are at least one or two death scenes that are so gleefully messy and gory that they might have looked right at home in a Sam Raimi picture. What’s more, several of the shootouts are presented in slo-mo. It’s comical and it gets the point across, but it’s not nearly as powerful as the contained chaos of all hell breaking loose in a split-second (see: Inglourious Basterds).
Then we have the plot. The story is divided into chapters and presented in a non-chronological order, which should sound familiar to anyone who knows Tarantino’s work. In general, the plot does a wonderful job of weaving together so many diabolical twists and reveals in a coherent and satisfying way. Unfortunately, there are still some incredibly fortuitous coincidences, and some notable inconsistencies as well (one character’s on-again/off-again prejudice toward Mexicans comes to mind). But by far the biggest plot hole concerns… well, let’s just call him an “ace in the hole” who really should have been picked up by the other characters long before the big reveal.
Those nitpicks aside, the presentation is astounding. The 70mm photography provides us with some truly fantastic vistas of Wyoming winter wonderland. Moreover, even if most of the film takes place between eight people cooped up in a tiny cabin, the huge format helps sell the idea that these characters are larger-than-life personalities. Most importantly, the format shows how much effort is put into every single frame. It’s so much easier to appreciate Tarantino’s skill with a camera when every frame setup, camera movement, and cut is magnified by such a huge format. By a similar token, the characters are so much more fascinating to watch because every last detail of their performances is plainly visible on film, and the actors are all great enough to withstand such scrutiny. The costume designers, the prop designers, and everyone on the production design all had to deal with that same demanding attention to detail, and aside from maybe a couple of continuity hiccups, they all come out looking like champions.
Credit is also due to grandmaster Ennio Morricone his own fucking self to compose a beautifully tense cacophony of a score. There’s also a neat little musical break halfway through, courtesy of Jennifer Jason Leigh, to provide some levity against the backstabbing that happens in the background.
The Hateful Eight is gleefully immoral. There isn’t a single relateable character in the whole cast, which means that we can kick back and watch them all destroy each other with the satisfaction of knowing that every single one of them will eventually get theirs. The fun is in watching the whip-smart plot, the impeccable dialogue, and the remarkable performances as our eight main characters tear each other to bloody bits. Oftentimes, quite literally.
If that sounds like your idea of a good time, then go and have a blast. Fans of Tarantino’s canon should already have bought their tickets. But anyone looking for more inspiring and intellectual awards fare should probably stay far, far away.