I love Quentin Tarantino. I love his opinions on film vs digital. I love his love for cinema. Most of all, I love his movies. He’s my favorite director and probably the second best working director today (Spielberg probably takes that top spot. Let’s fight about it, Nolan fans). To me, Tarantino proves that movies can be fun (and violent, bloody messes), but still have something to say. In each of his films Tarantino is exploring a genre and a different theme. His previous two movies, Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, have both been revisionist history fantasies, fixing the stuff that history couldn’t. Basterds was a war movie in which a Jewish man got revenge on Hitler by shooting him in the face 5,000 times. In the Western Django, a former slave gets revenge on the plantation system that enslaved him (by literally blowing up the plantation). While The Hateful Eight is a Western in setting and time period, it’s similarities with Django end there. Tarantino’s newest film is pessimistic, angry and, for lack of a better word, hateful.
The film opens on Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), former Union soldier and bounty hunter, stranded in a blizzard. Warren waves down an approaching carriage which coincidentally contains another bounty hunter, John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his latest prey, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Ruth is known as “The Hangman” because instead of just killing his bounties, he enjoys dragging them all the way back to town and watching them hang; his own macabre sense of justice. This of course doesn’t stop him from beating his captive senseless as he violently and repeatedly abuses the handcuffed Domergue. Not long after they’re joined by another stranded man, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), former confederate soldier and newly appointed Sheriff. The men, trapped by the approaching blizzard, are forced to flee to the mountain rest stop known as Minnie’s Haberdashery. There they meet four more strangers (to complete our titular eight): local hangman Oswaldo Mobry (Tim Roth), quiet cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), former Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), and Señor Bob (Demian Bichir) a hispanic man put in charge of Minnie’s in the owner’s absence. Our Hateful Eight are now trapped together.
The characters in The Hateful Eight are monsters, every single one of them. Tarantino, with an acute understanding of both cinema and story, knows that the audience will automatically search for a character in any story with which to empathize. The film, expecting that, dangles characters in front of us to latch onto. But as soon as we reach out for them, it pulls away as that character commits an act so heinous we recoil from them in disgust. It does this again and again, and we’re forced to finally conceed that not one of these people is worth a damn. Which is especially hard to stomach considering just how good of a cast The Hateful Eight employs. To say that this is the best ensemble that Tarantino has ever assembled is a bold statement, considering the director’s previous work, but it is a true statement nonetheless. Each and every actor gives a performance for the ages and I could write a full article on each. Instead I’ll focus on the two real standout performances: Sam Jackson’s Major Marquis and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Daisy Domergue.
I’ve said this before about Christoph Waltz, but I don’t think any director/writer knows how to use Samuel L. Jackson quite like Quentin Tarantino does. Jackson has an intensity to his performance and Tarantino’s heightened dialogue just flows from his mouth as if he was born to speak it. Jackson’s Major Marquis is a justifiably angry man. He’s a former slave turned union soldier who witnessed horrors during the war. You at first think you’re supposed to identify with this man, that in this group of evil men Marquis remains the one honorable man. The actor’s natural charm charm suckers us into this. But Jackson can also play a bad guy, and Major Marquis is just as bad as his seven hateful friends.
Before Pulp Fiction, no one really talked about John Travolta anymore. But then the movie came out and suddenly Travolta’s career was revitalized. It became a thing Quentin Tarantino did with each new film, intentionally or not: bringing an actor from obscurity back into the limelight. The Hateful Eight has done it again with Jennifer Jason Leigh’s brilliant performance as Daisy Domergue. Daisy is almost evil incarnate, a furious witch of a woman that takes every hit she’s given with a sort of malevolent glee. She’s a force to be reckoned with and Leigh plays her with such an intense level of insanity that it makes me question the actress’ state of mind. Still, you can’t take your eyes off of Leigh. Even when she’s not speaking, but merely sitting off to the side reacting to the things happening around her, I found myself studying her performance. A lot of critics have cited what happens to Leigh as evidence of misogyny within the film, but I think they’re missing the point. Besides, Leigh’s Daisy is just as equally shitty as everyone else shacked up at Minnie’s Haberdashery.
Tarantino is known for his moments of tension and suspense, with each movie in his filmography usually employing a Mexican standoff moment. The Hateful Eight is 3 hours of Mexican standoff. From the moment all of our characters find themselves locked in the Haberdashery, tension begins to slowly ramp up. And it just keeps going, never letting up. The film is mostly just people talking to each other, taking place entirely in one room and yet the skill of Tarantino shows through. The dialogue is his typical heightened fare, gripping edge of your seat stuff. To me it doesn’t rise to the level of tension that was present in the opening scene of Inglorious Basterds, but it’s damn close. The Hateful Eight is structured like some sort of violent Agatha Christie mystery novel. One of the eight residents of Minnie’s Haberdashery is not who they say they are and as they try to ferret out the liars the tension boils over into your standard Tarantino-esque violent end. But also like other Tarantino films, there’s something else going on here under the surface.
In 2015, there have been two big movies that set out to discuss the issues of modern day race relations in America. Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq was a pointedly specific tale. An ancient play modernized to shine a light on the issues of black on black violence on the streets of Chicago. Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight is more nuanced, less obvious, but equally effective. It becomes clear early on that Minnie’s Haberdashery is a microcosm of America itself, or at least Tarantino’s nihilistic take on it. A group of people of different races, sexes, and creeds shoved forcefully into one place. They each have their own agenda, are untrusting of each other, and carry old grudges (and lots of guns). Everything quickly goes to shit. Over all of this looms the shadow of slavery. If the country is a melting pot than slavery is the fire on which it sits, America’s original sin. And that fire is raging just as much today as it was in the aftermath of The Civil War. With The Hateful Eight Quentin Tarantino declares this pot will continue to boil over into more and more violence and death. While Chi-Raq offered a hopeful outlook of the future, Tarantino chooses to show a more pessimistic (or realistic) viewpoint. It’s a depressingly accurate outlook on the current state of our country, especially in the days following the decision to not indict the officer responsible for the Tamir Rice murder. And it’s all cleverly masked within a fun mystery film.
I suppose I must touch on the 70mm roadshow performance that the movie is currently playing in. Tarantino, famed lover of the purity of film over digital, shot the movie in 70mm film and is projecting it on 70 for a limited two week engagement. For those of you that don’t know this is a super widescreen cinemascope projection (normal film is 35mm wide). The desired effect is that the movie envelopes you, draws you in and makes you feel as if you’re in there with the characters. It works wonderfully here. The super widescreen allows you to drink up the frame and there are parts of the set design and cast that you would completely miss if it was cut off short. Sadly I can’t speak as highly to the projection. I saw The Hateful Eight at the Cinemark theater in Plano, Texas. They shoved the film into one of the smaller theaters, on a screen that wasn’t built for a 70mm viewing (probably because of Star Wars), which caused a letterboxing effect as the bottom and top of the screen remained black. It didn’t allow the full effect of the widescreen to be felt. This movie and Quentin Tarantino deserved better. Still, if you’re a fan of film, I would recommend seeing the movie in 70mm while you can. The cut of the film is slightly different, drinking in scenery and holding establishing shots a beat or two longer. It also includes a beginning overture and an intermission, making the film seem more like an event than just another typical trip to the movies.
I enjoyed the hell out of The Hateful Eight, as I would any Tarantino movie. For all it’s powerful messages, disturbing imagery and disgusting (if well-acted) characters, the film is still an absolute joy to watch. I’m glad I took a few days to gather my thoughts before writing on the movie because it has grown on me since walking out of the theater. It will continue to grow on me, I’m sure, and I look forward to revisiting this film many times in the future. It is a movie by a filmmaker still at the top of his game and if you’re a fan of Tarantino films, I’m sure you’ll find something to love in The Hateful Eight.