Chase Branch has some very conflicting feelings about Quentin Tarantino’s new film.
Ain’t no way I’m spending a couple of nights under a roof with somebody I don’t know who the hell… so who are you?
–John ‘The Hangman’ Ruth
First things first: Let’s not pretend that Quentin Tarantino is aiming for the mainstream with The Hateful Eight. He never has. Tarantino has always been a genre filmmaker, moving from one niche to another. Along the way he’s made gangster films, a blaxploitation film, a two-part martial arts film, and a spaghetti western, imbuing each with his own personal stamp of rich character dialogue and bloody violence. I doubt Tarantino really cares how much money his films make beyond that figure’s impact on his next budget. He makes films for his own pleasure, and the pleasure of a small target audience. But if the mainstream decides to come to him – all the better. The Hateful Eight, especially in its 70mm Roadshow presentation form, is an incredibly fun and unique experience. But is it a good film?
I’ve sat on this review for two full days, because I keep finding myself unsure of exactly what to say about Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight — a film so confounding that I can’t decide whether I love it or hate it.
Set a handful of years after the Civil War, the film tells the story of three morally ambiguous lawmen and a prisoner forced to shelter for the night at a mountain pass haberdashery with four other unknown travelers during a hellish blizzard. The film takes its sweet time getting there, though, starting with just John ‘The Hangman’ Ruth (Kurt Russell), a bounty hunter who prefers to deliver his prisoners alive so as to not cheat local hangmen out of their wages, and his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) trying to outrun an oncoming blizzard with their stagecoach driver, O.B. (James Parks). Ruth, preferring the alive portion of “Dead or Alive,” is constantly suspicious of both those attempting to rescue Daisy and other lawmen looking to steal his bounty. They soon encounter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a fellow bounty hunter with no horse who asks to hitch a ride. They’re soon joined by Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a racist former southern rebel outlaw claiming to be the new sheriff of the town to which Ruth and Warren are headed to collect bounties. All three of the untrusting lawmen are wary about their fellow passengers, but the blizzard forces them to put aside their differences, however briefly, in hopes of escaping the coming snowfall.
When their stagecoach finally arrives at Minnie’s haberdashery, the quartet are forced to settle down with four more unknown characters already staying at the haberdashery. They’re joined by Bob (Demián Bichir), a quiet Mexican claiming to be in charge of the haberdashery while the owners are away; Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), a local hangman also headed into town; Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a cowhand traveling home for Christmas; and General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a former Confederate general. None of the men (including the lawmen) may be who they are pretending to be, and they all seem to be keeping secrets from the rest of the group. It’s a perfect mix for turning the haberdashery into an emotional powder keg as they’re all forced to bed down and wait out the blizzard. The only unanswered question seems to be who will shoot first and why.
No doubt you’ve heard of The Hateful Eight’s unique screening format. It’s the first film to be shot in the ultra-wide Ultra Panvision 70 format since Khartoum in 1966; the studio reportedly spent millions retrofitting projectors capable of showing the film in this specific, unique format, and the film is currently touring major American cities in an exclusive roadshow production before its wider release on January 1st. It’s the kind of unique project that only a film nerd with Tarantino’s clout would even envision, much less have the ability to pull off.
That’s the version of the film I saw, and it was obviously a labor of love for Tarantino. He’s quick to talk about his desire to recapture the experience of the films he saw as a child, and his pride in filming with the same lenses that captured Ben-Hur. The entire experience is undeniably fun, and I encourage anyone with the ability to see the film in this format to do so. The old school graphics look fantastic, and I especially enjoyed the overture (from legendary Western composer Ennio Morricone) that precedes the film and the booklet handed out to members of the audience. Tarantino’s roadshow provides an experience unlike anything else in film today. But, having seen the film in this format, I’m baffled as to why this was the picture Tarantino chose to attach it to.
The ultra-wide screen gets some great use in the film’s first half hour as the bounty hunters, the sheriff, and the prisoner make the passage through the Rocky Mountains. The snowcapped vistas are breathtaking, and whether cinematographer Robert Richardson is shooting from far away to showcase the characters’ minuteness in a vast landscape of snow, or gets close to use the actors’ faces as landscapes of their own, you’re convinced that this is going to be the visual showcase of the year. Jackson and Goggins (especially Goggins) have two of the greatest faces in film today, and Richardson is keen to investigate every crack, pore, and protrusion on them. Kurt Russell even grew an outstanding mustache to join the party. One of the film’s most beautiful shots is of Daisy Domergue, her face black and blue from being pummeled by Ruth, catching snowflakes on her tongue in the woods. I want more of that.
However, the majority The Hateful Eight is something else entirely. The largely plays out inside the haberdashery with the eight characters (or nine, if you count the stagecoach driver) waiting out the storm, and the format definitely loses its magnificence when it moves indoors. Tarantino’s technical abilities have only grown in the last decade, even as he has moved further and further away from the mainstream, but I don’t think that a film that’s largely a one-setting stage play was the right place to bring out these specific big guns.
Up to the intermission, I was fully onboard with The Hateful Eight. I still love the setup: a powder keg of mistrust set to the tune of Tarantino’s expert dialogue with an ample doses of the filmmaker’s trademark vulgarity thrown into the mix. Tarantino has no problem giving his characters the time and dialogue they need to fully develop, but all of that is shorn off completely in the hail of gunfire that makes up the film’s final act. What we’re left with is some of the thinnest characters that Tarantino has ever created. Both Michael Madsen’s Joe Gage and Bichir’s Mexican Bob get the short end of the stick. They’re seemingly only there to fulfil the title’s riff on The Magnificent Seven. It’s troubling that even after a three hour film we never quite understand why Daisy Domergue is such a valuable prisoner and such a supposed incarnation of evil.
Tarantino also steps up the gore in a way previously unmatched even by the garish limb removals of Kill Bill. That, at least, was cartoonish violence evocative of the kung fu genre he was aping. It seems wholly out of place in a western.
What’s so conflicting about The Hateful Eight is that I had so much fun watching it. Can I both wholeheartedly recommend that you see the film and tell you it’s among Tarantino’s worst? Only Death Proof is its inferior. That said, the trappings of the 70mm Roadshow are absolutely worth seeking out. It’s a must-see experience if it’s available to you. Samuel L. Jackson and Jennifer Jason Leigh both do fantastic work, with Leigh being yet another example of Tarantino pulling an acclaimed performance from an actor or actress that the rest of Hollywood had largely cast off.
Jackson, ever the Tarantino regular, reaches new depths, pulling depravity from what you thought was a heroic character and then shreds of honor even later. Hopefully you’ll pause to wonder why Jackson only gets the chance to show his greatest gifts when he’s working with Tarantino, and be thankful that, for all his obscenity, the writer/director is a champion of great roles for black actors. It’s about time Jackson got top billing after six collaborations with the director.
Still, the film left me wanting so much more. I wish it had something more to say than its bloody climax. There are those up in arms that Leigh’s Daisy Domergue is the victim of so much violence in the film. Should we be outraged that Russell’s Ruth backhands her in the stagecoach when she mouths off? Should better care be afforded to a woman even when she’s a criminal? I guarantee such questions never crossed Tarantino’s mind. His characters don’t stand for anything. They’re just there for the bloodbath like the rest of us.
Grade: B (see below)
[Update] But you know what? I find that I care about the film’s flaws less and less with every day that goes by.
I’ve seen the film twice now, and by any measure my second screening was the worse of the two. The film was stopped during the overture to fix technical issues, and then the projector broke again a mere 3 minutes from the film’s end.
And it was magic.
Despite the obvious jokes, this is the unique experience Tarantino wants us to have as viewers. There is absolutely nothing else like it right now at the cinema. I’ll swear on my life that the intermission makes the film better, yet I can’t wait to see how the digital version runs without it.
Knowing the film’s twists and turns, I found myself reveling in why certain characters make the choices they do in the film. Tarantino’s writing is perfect, leaving out specific details from the dialogue when necessary to make the film’s circumstances function. It’s amazing the difference that certain omitted words can mean to a conversation.
I’m also convinced that this is Tarantino’s best directing. The pacing is perfect. The visuals are perfect. Tarantino is obviously someone who’s put an incredible amount of time into how The Hateful Eight plays out, but the results seem effortless. The film is a visual feast, even when it moves inside (though my questions about his insistence on the Ultra Panvision 70 format remain). The mise en scène inside the haberdashery is exquisite. I love the stocked shelves, and the snow that falls through the building’s cracks, giving the illusion of interior weather. The blizzard is almost a character unto itself, ever-present even when the characters are sequestered against it.
A second viewing is essential, even if you loved it from the start. Sure, I still wish the film’s final act played out differently, but the film is just too enjoyable to care. Tarantino’s love of filmcraft shines through, and this time it had me engrossed. I’m prepared to fully embrace the mess.