Earlier this year at San Diego Comic-Con, I was in that cavernous airplane hangar they refer to as Hall H when Quentin Tarantino said that he’d one day like to be considered a great Western director—such as John Ford or Sergio Leone. And indeed The Hateful Eight filmmaker has toyed with the conventions of this quintessentially American genre many times in the past, from the katana-meets-High Noon stoicism of Kill Bill Vol. 2 to the Southern Fried Spaghetti found in Django Unchained.
Yet, it wasn’t until the strings of Ennio Morricone’s Hateful Eight overture swelled that it felt like this loquacious auteur had made good on his promise. Many of his films have featured Western elements before now. But whether due to geography and period (Django is set in Antebellum Dixieland, not the post-war West) or simply Tarantino’s own mischievous sensibility, never has he so thoroughly and earnestly embraced a genre and all its grand hallmarks as he does with this Oater.
The Hateful Eight is just as much a Western in the classic sense as it is inarguably Quentin Tarantino’s eighth movie (assuming of course you count Kill Bill as one feature). And it is on that wavelength that it carries itself with a gait and patience that might surprise audiences. A strange and potent blend of Stagecoach and Reservoir Dogs, Ten Little Indians and The Thing, Hateful is a bloody unique cinematic concoction from one of Hollywood’s most iniquitous mixers. And it leaves a hell of an aftertaste worth savoring.
Set in the general aftermath of the Civil War, the picture is vague about how long ago the struggle ended. Yet, the effects of the fighting permeate every frame. Subversively trading in the iconography of a desolate Monument Valley or a sundried Spanish plain from his influences, Tarantino frames this story over a single day and night in the snowy landscape of Wyoming. And it is there that a blizzard causes nine strangers (eight of them ever so hateful) to seek shelter at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a mountain pass general store and way station.
That aforementioned war might be only a memory now, but the animosities it birthed still run as deep as the icy slush outside. In fact, Minnie’s has famed Confederate Gen. Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern) as a resident when Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) arrives. Smithers was the blood-thirstiest of Southern officers during the war, showing no quarter to African-American soldiers, and Mannix is the son of a Quantrill-esque rebel who continued his raids after the war ended, fighting for “dignity in defeat and against the unconditional surrender.” Thus neither have any love for Maj. Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a former Union cavalryman turned bounty hunter whose cruelty to the Confederacy is as infamous as his special pen-pal relationship with the late President Abraham Lincoln.
Such hostility cramped together in a single room with Warren’s presence dividing the other lodgers—including Englishman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), rustler Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), and Bob “the Mexican” (Demian Bichir)—along North and South lines is volatile enough. But the real powder keg is big John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), a bounty hunter who always brings his prizes in alive to hang, and his shackled prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
Domergue is apparently a real piece of work worth $10,000 “dead or alive,” and she is rumored to have a great many friends. And the boisterously loudmouthed Ruth is convinced that one of the other residents at Minnie’s is secretly one such fellow—once the murders begin, it turns out he might not be that far off.
The Hateful Eight is both Tarantino’s largest and smallest film to date. Those aforementioned old fashioned Western affectations are immediate since the picture should best be viewed in its roadshow format—complete with an Ennio Morricone overture, an intermission, and the grandeur of Ultra Panavision 70mm, a presentation style not utilized since 1966. This is a throwback where Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson take a deliberate pace to soak in the majesty of the Colorado Rockies with the widest aspect ratio possible. The first half hour or so of Ruth, Daisy, Marquis Warren, and Mannix’s stagecoach ride through the powder is celluloid catnip for film purists.
But the story is much more intimate than its grand presentation might suggest. In actuality, this features the character biases and bigotries that made John Ford’s 1939 Stagecoach so revolutionary in its day but in the context of an Agatha Christie novel by way of gory Reservoir Dogs. The oncoming blizzard forces Ruth to reluctantly pick up Warren and Mannix, sparing them from an icy death, but when nine souls are assembled under one roof, rather than coming together, this is the most drawn out exercise in Tarantino’s infamous slow boilers.
The Hateful Eight is essentially a three-hour version of the writer-director’s densest dialogue-thriller scenes. Like the basement sequence in Inglourious Basterds, where Michael Fassbender’s English film critic tries to pass himself off as a German Nazi while drinking with the SS, and the dinner table highpoint in Django Unchained where viewers wait for Leonardo DiCaprio to lower the boom on Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz, the entirety of The Hateful Eight is the slow ratcheting of suspense by way of amiable conversation.
Consequently, the film is shot like a classic Western but is peppered with the kind of rich and indulgent characterization that only Tarantino can pull off with such slick aplomb. And perhaps at three hours, it is too slick and too indulgent. This is never as effective as either of the aforementioned scenes, nor does its violent release of tension feel as wholly satisfying as how those bloodbaths concluded. And yet, the film is nevertheless tighter than Django because it focuses only on building that nerve-obliterating sensation and always keeping the proverbial game of Russian roulette going for another round.
This also allows several of the actors to especially shine. Samuel L. Jackson as Marquis Warren, a cynical black gunman surrounded by too much white (including the snow), is pitch perfect in his world-weariness—and he also enjoys the best monologue in the film, which ends “Act One” with thunder. But perhaps the most memorable turn is Jennifer Jason Leigh as the smug and unbeaten Daisy. Despite being the only one destined to hang when the snow lets up, Leigh carries herself with affable malevolence, implicitly confident in the knowledge that she will at least be the lone lodger to see a sunrise again.
Russell is also quite fun as the most giddy revival of Western archetypes. It’s not hard to imagine that John Ruth might have been cousins with Ethan Edwards, John Wayne’s bigoted anti-hero from The Searchers. And at precise moments, Russell even seems to be intentionally channeling a bit of the Duke with his cadence and self-righteous bluster.
It really is an actor and writer’s showcase, almost preposterously shot in the same format and with the exact same lenses used on Ben-Hur. The fact that this is ultimately a gritty character piece in the vein of Tarantino’s first film while presented in the most grandiose fashion of classic Westerns is a contradiction that’s success might vary from audience member to audience member.
Yet, while it is not the masterpiece of Basterds or as gonzo as Django, the even longer Hateful Eight appears to be the most razor-focused of the auteur’s recent output; it’s the most complete in laying out its narrative while creating a paradise for grizzled monologues and lewd soliloquies. Digging surprisingly deep into the still heinous cultural divide among Americans, Hateful Eight is a shell game of lies, words, and ultimately blood splatters. And watching each of those elements unspool in 70mm might just be the most surprisingly good-natured and fun of this year’s holiday releases.
This review was first published on Dec. 16, 2015.