The Hateful Eight, appropriately the eighth film from auteur Quentin Tarantino, dovetails his first film, fellow bad-guys-in-a-room thriller Reservoir Dogs with the Western genre with an added dash of Agatha Christie. Together, they combine for a surprisingly-sincere film with a powerful plea for racial tolerance. Like any auteur of Tarantino’s pedigree, the film’s wounds are self-inflicted, born of a lack of restraint and ego. Some people need a yes man; he needs a no man who can stop him from indulging his excesses.
Six or eight or twelve years after the Civil War, a stagecoach is chased by a blizzard across the wintry Wyoming landscape. It carries John Ruth (Kurt Russell), known as The Hangman because his bounties are always taken in alive. In this case, Ruth’s bounty is murderess Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). On the road, they encounter Maj. Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a former Union soldier and fellow bounty hunter, and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), the son of a Confederate soldier on his way to supposedly assume the sheriff’s position at their destination of Red Rock.
However, the worsening blizzard forces them to seek shelter at Minnie’s Haberdashery, which is run by Bob (Demian Bichir) in Minnie’s mysterious absence. Inside, they meet Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), the local hangman, mysterious drifting cow-puncher Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) and former Confederate general Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern). Soon after arriving, Ruth starts to suspect one (or two) of the trapped men are accomplices of Daisy. Holed up for days, tensions, racial and otherwise, boil over as old grudges and secrets are revealed.
The film’s bloat (it runs a hefty 167 minutes) weighs down the narrative rather than helps and while bloat filled with Tarantino propulsive dialogue makes up for the lack of narrative momentum, it’s still bloat. There are several points where Tarantino could and should have cut the fat from the story. By his own admittance, his interests in recent years have shifted away from film – his Kill Bill duology is his most accomplished piece of cinema – to novels, TV and theater as part of his oft-repeated promise to retire after his 10th film.
Case in point, this film began as a novelized sequel to his previous Western, Django Unchained with Django filling the role of Jackson’s Warren. It’s an easy extension for Tarantino, who likes to keep his Westerns in the American Civil War era to analyze what he feels is a glaring omission from Western films previous – slavery.
To that end, Tarantino’s infamously-liberal use of the n-word is in full-effect here. Racial politics have always been a part of Tarantino’s films but by dealing directly with the stain of America’s racial history, they’ve gone from the background to the foreground of his storytelling. While Django was open and broad, focused more on vengeance and bloody catharsis in the American South, Eight, as Jackson’s character says, “slows it way, way down” for a more introspective analysis of race befitting its cold, claustrophobic setting.
Given his first lead role in a Tarantino film since Pulp Fiction, Jackson proves how adept a performer he is, especially around Tarantino’s dialogue. Russell, the loud-and-proud Ruth, is having a resurgent year with roles in the billion-dollar grosser Furious 7 and the acclaimed indie Western Bone Tomahawk, as is Leigh who is also in Charlie Kaufman’s Anamolisa. Their relationship is oddly endearing at times and brutal at others. But the stand-out is Goggins who again the most enjoyable part of whatever he’s a part of (The Shield, Justified, Sons of Anarchy, Predators, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, American Ultra, etc.). Roth, Madsen, Bichir and Dern acquit themselves well with broader archetypes, in some cases subverting or averting typical tropes in true Tarantino fashion. Also, following in the footsteps of Jonah Hill in Django,, another 21 Jump Street star makes a surprising cameo that won’t be spoiled here. Suffice to say, the film, a study in the slow-slow-slow build, truly kicks off when his character makes his entrance.
Tarantino is one of the few people keeping film synonymous with cinema against the encroachment of digital, alongside Christopher Nolan and Steven Spielberg. To that end, he filmed the movie in Panavision 70mm (used to classic films like Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments) and the distributor The Weinstein Company spent millions collecting and refurbishing old as many as 100 70mm cameras for use also as part of a roadshow with an overture and an intermission. It hearkens back to the days when a night at the movies was an event, a show instead of a commodity. For Tarantino, today, it is too easy to just entertain (make no mistake, this movie entertains). He wants you to have an experience. He is a priest and the cinema is his church.
While Tarantino’s passion for cinema and its past is admirable, the 70mm film is oddly suited to what becomes a insular talk-fest. Beyond some opening scenery porn of the snow-capped Wyoming mountains, the 70mm is largely relegated to scenes within the Haberdashery. Still, each frame and each shot is so beautifully-staged, it mitigates the endless minutes the camera spends following horse-drawn carriages barrel through the snowy drifts or hovering on actors’ faces or feet (another Tarantino favorite).
Whether it’s because it’s the first time Tarantino has revisited a genre, especially back-to-back, or because he’s running out of things to say, much of The Hateful Eight feels like treading water. There’s little here Tarantino hasn’t already covered in more iconic or original ways previously. Thing is though, even middling Tarantino is better than 90 percent of the films in the marketplace. So what you’re left with an impeccably-shot murder mystery filled with character actors from Tarantino’s trusty stable of performers chewing and savoring his delicious dialogue.
A.k.a. a good time at the movies.