The Hateful Eight
Director / Script: Quentin Tarantino / Editing: Fred Raskin / DoP: Robert Richardson / Music: Ennio Morricone
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson / Kurt Russell / Jennifer Jason Leigh / Walton Goggins / Demián Birchir / Tim Roth / Michael Madsen / Bruce Dern / Channing Tatum
Billed as ‘The Eighth Film by Quentin Tarantino’, The Hateful Eight comes with a certain amount of baggage that even casual followers of QT’s career might’ve come to expect by now, so I’m happy to report that few will watch this epic tale and be disappointed on at least that score.
At this point, QT is able to make what he wants (within reason) thanks to a long-standing partnership with the brothers Weinstein, for whom he’s made a fair return on their investment, over the years. In an era when superhero franchises infest the big studios like a plague, I can’t think of many writer/directors allowed to play with toys such as (expensive) 65mm film stock, vintage lenses and the like; Christopher Nolan maybe, but few others.
His writing has generally revolved around the Crime genre, with occasional shifts in period, as in his last two films, Django Unchained (deep South USA in and around 1850) and Inglorious Basterds (WW2). For those coming to his work fresh, QT’s obvious skill lays in his dialogue. There’s a rhythm to it; a structure that gives actors a freedom of expression that’s almost poetic. I’m constantly surprised that, as a writer, he never made the transition to theater. There are few writing today with his wit, verbal dexterity or sheer chutzpah. The only rival that springs to mind is Aaron Sorkin but comparing their work directly, is like trying to compare apples to oranges. Instead, we should note the ebb and flow that makes listening to their work, as pleasurable as watching it.
To business, then. As the screen flickers into life, the first thing that strikes us, is the sheer width of this picture. QT used vintage 65mm lenses, last used on a Cinerama picture (Khartoum, if you’re interested) and this gives him so much scope for composing his frame, that his opening titles (golden yellow, in a period ‘P.T. Barnum’-like font) merely hover over glorious panoramas of snow-bound Wyoming. Jeez, there’s even a title card and logo proudly telling us it was shot in ‘Super Panavision’, as if we needed reminding. And what’s this? Score by Ennio Morricone? We really are in a vintage-correct pastiche of a Spaghetti Western, aren’t we?
We enter ‘Chapter One: Last Stage to Red Rock’ with a dilemma for John Ruth ((‘JR’) Kurt Russell). He’s aboard the aforementioned stage-coach, with a prisoner manacled to his wrist: Daisy Domergue ((‘DD’) Jennifer Jason Leigh), bound for the town of Red Rock, where he intends to hand her over to the law and claim the bounty of $10k that’s on her head. The dilemma? The stage has been hailed by one Major Marquis Warren ((‘MW’) Samuel L. Jackson), who’s trying to take a bundled stack of three bodies to the same town and with the same objective: he and JR are potential rivals, with a healthy, mutual distrust. Bounty hunters, right?
In the end, the bodies end-up on the stage’s roof, though we’re not shown how; no matter, for there’s a blizzard closing-in, that’s giving our expanded party fresh impetus to seek shelter. QT lets Morricone’s lush score swell at this point, as he dwells on a slow-mo of the two lead horses, like he’s recreating the opening of The Big Country. Ignore the wintry milieu: this is a QT western, so the snowfields and endless pine trees are his inversion of sand dunes and the iconic Saguaro cacti from way-back. It’s just as foreboding and as barren, just colder. At some point, JR elbows DD in the nose to shut her-up and she starts licking the blood as though she’s enjoying it; a trait that unnerves MW, especially as she slips him a coy smile, as if to intimate a secret… Given that JR is committed to seeing her hang (not for nothing is he nicknamed ‘The Hang Man’), the odds seem stacked against DD: so what does she know that they don’t? Oh, and let’s not forget the result of her defiling MW’s ‘Lincoln Letter’; a piece of business that never gets old.
‘Chapter Two: Son of a Gun’ introduces a third traveller to the party: Chris Mannix ((‘CM’) Walton Goggins). Another enigmatic stranger emerging from the snow-blanketed forest, CM claims to be Red Rock’s new Sherriff; his predecessor recently gunned-down. It’s hard to validate his story’s authenticity, but board the stage he does and proceeds to taunt MW who, it turns out, was once a prisoner-of-war in a Confederate jail. We know this, because CM tells us that his dad used to run a Confederate raiding party (‘Mannix’s Marauders’) and that MW’s history was notorious. Why so? Because MW burnt the prison to the ground and escaped – an admission MW wears lightly, despite CM’s accusation that many young soldiers and prisoners alike died in the blaze. As a result, a few Southern families banded together to place bounties on his head.
However, that was then. Nowadays, MW is himself a bounty hunter, known for killing his contracts (preferring the ‘Dead’ bit of the ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’ as-seen on the posters). One result of this binary Modus Operandi, is that few who come looking for him, get to enjoy old age. As the old Chinese proverb has it: ‘When setting out on revenge, first dig two graves’: a maxim that debonair MW lives by…
It only took us thirty-five minutes to reach ‘Chapter Three: Minnie’s Haberdashery’; a laughably remote inn that has echoes of Andre de Toth’s Day of the Outlaw, with Minnie’s place standing-in for the village. In interviews after the film’s release, QT also revealed that he’d drawn inspiration from John Carpenter’s The Thing, which isn’t as great a leap as it appears. Think about it: a remote Antarctican research station in a raging blizzard, with any hope of escape removed. Its various outbuildings are all spaced-apart, so that the ravaged, suspicious cast had to follow markers to get about… Now, strip-away the sci-fi and the monster, plonk it into the 1880’s along with original star Kurt Russell and add an intriguing mix of characters whose allegiances (not DNA) are being tested and you get The Hateful Eight. As in the earlier film, such is the blizzard’s savagery that it becomes as frightening as the monster, hence why all the action stays indoors.
Inside, we meet Bob (Demian Birchir), the urbane Englishman Oswaldo Mobray ((‘OM’) Tim Roth) and enigmatic Joe Gage ((‘JG’) Michael Madsen). Oh, and there’s a cracking part for Bruce Dern, as retired, embittered Confederate General Smithers (‘GS’); now an elderly man, he’ll soon propel things forward, though at this point in proceedings, I don’t see a General but Mr. Burns from The Simpsons.
Then an interesting exchange. CM and MW have gone-off to stable the horses with Bob and OG (their driver), leaving JR to lead DD into Minnie’s. The first words spoken? They’re by DD of all people: ‘New Sherriff of Red Rock is travelling’ with us’. This, despite the ongoing threat of reprisals from JR, is loud enough that everyone in earshot can hear… OM then pipes-up, revealing to JR that that’s a happy coincidence, for he’s the town’s new hang-man; he even produces a business card to prove it, before asking to see JR’s warrant.
Cut to: The Barn. As the work gets done, MW’s suspicions about Minnie’s apparent absence grow deeper as he questions Bob. QT allows Morricone’s eery piano and strings to swell, before cutting abruptly back to Minnie’s; a great, bold edit, this one. Now, OM gets to chew-over a great speech about the differences between the rule of law and ‘Frontier Justice’: ‘The good part of Frontier Justice, is that it’s very thirst-quenching. The bad part is, it’s apt to be wrong as right.’ Whether we know it or not, this little homily is directed as much to DD as to us, the audience; Mobray is foreshadowing what’s to come. QT then moves the camera up into the rafters and has it track JR from above as he crosses the floor to meet a laconic JG. My first thought on seeing this? As above, so below…
CM then enters, fresh from the stable. ‘Oh I get it. Haberdashery. That was a joke…’ There’s then business as he exchanges (more) bonafides with OM; QT wants the audience to believe that these two (the Sherriff & the Hang Man) will be doing official business together ‘soon’. Which brings me to another point: so far, in a yarn this chock-full of secrets, it seems as though QT’s spent most of his time, having one character validate himself to another. It’s almost Hitchcockian in how it all plays-out. Each inter-relationship , each character, for that matter, is like an onion that unpeels layers only as QT wields the knife. If it feels slow at times, it’s only because QT’s enjoying the process, not because he’s dropped the ball.
So, we get MW reveal a grudge against GS, that plays into a revelation about his involvement in the death of GS’s son. Yet there’s more to this, as GS has already confessed to murdering coloured Union soldiers, rather than take them prisoner. As a black ex-cavalry officer himself, it’s understandable how MW might want revenge. Thanks to a prior admission, we also know that his ‘Lincoln Letter’ is a fake, which is QT’s way of telling us that not everything or everyone can be trusted. So, as the lurid details about the killing of GS Jr emerge – and the more MW is seen to be enjoying the telling of it – so it is all the more likely that the now-enraged General will seize the pistol already given to him by MW; such murderous intent long-anticipated by MW who then shoots him dead ‘in self-defence’. It’s a revelatory moment, for not only does it show the lengths MW will go to, ‘to exact justice’ (as he sees it), but it echoes OM’s earlier comments about Frontier Justice…
‘Chapter Four: Domergue’s Got a Secret’ begins with QT revealing in a voiceover, with all the authority of absent omniscience, that DD has just witnessed someone poisoning the coffee: and she’s not telling who… Instead, she picks-out a mournful dirge on a guitar, ending with the words ‘And you’ll be dead behind me, John, when I get to Mexico’. Ah.
What follows is an exaggerated blood-bath that wouldn’t shame Dario Argento, as both JR and OG spew copious amounts of blood in their death-throes. Oh, Quentin…
This leaves MW to turn all Poirot on us, as he joins-the-dots. His initial deductions lead to Bob having his head explode like a ripe cantaloupe and to CM and MW being shot, from a hitherto-unknown person from under the floor. Like I said earlier: As above, so below. It’s a trick QT used before, when he had the Jewish family hide under the floorboards in Inglorious-B, so we can’t say we didn’t see it coming!
‘Chapter Five: The Four Passengers’ has our villains arriving at Minnie’s earlier-in-the-day and laying the ground for the ‘Last Chapter: Black Man, White Hell’ to unfold. Only CM & MW remain alive of the original party and they (just about) take care of outstanding business, including dealing with Jody (DD’s brother and basement-lurker, played by Channing Tatum). That leaves just DD. In homage to JR’s reputation, our two stricken heroes manage to string her up there and then, inside Minnie’s. It’s OTT, ridiculous and yet… Watching her twitch her last, with JR’s severed arm dangling at her side, is an image so provocative, it could only have come from QT’s imagination and his capacity to understand the power of The Image. Moreover, the addition of a pair of snowshoes on the wall behind her, makes DD’s blood & gore-spattered visage look like a fallen angel; a demonic presence finally quelled by, yep, you guessed it: thirst-quenching Frontier Justice…
As with every QT film, details keep emerging days after watching it. Yes, it’s not his best film, taking too long to get going BUT, it’s stylishly designed, looks fantastic in Panavision and has a sterling cast, obviously revelling in their dialogue. It’s influences are numerous, but QT controls the show, allowing-in just
what’s needed what he wants. Yes, it could lose some, if not all of the schlock and maybe thirty minutes of its padding, but then it wouldn’t be the film he wanted, would it?
QT once revealed in an interview, that he sees his films as forming a cohesive ‘canon’ of work that can be read as a whole, once he’s done with film-making and moved-on to something else. Viewed in such self-regarding terms, it’s little surprise that the films he now directs, have transcended their origins to Form Their Own Genre… If you’re in any doubt as to whether QT has now become one of those very auteurs he once feted, as he toiled away in that video rental store, then watch this picture and doubt no more.
The Hateful Eight is more than a Western or The Eighth Film by Quentin Tarantino. Rather, it’s a testament to FILM as a story-telling art-form and a spectacle that only reminds us that they really don’t make films like this, anymore… And that maybe, just maybe, they should.
When ‘The Hangman’ catches you, you don’t die by no bullet.