“The Hateful Eight,” which is the eighth movie by Quentin Tarantino is, like his seventh, a western. Sort of, anyway. It’s set in Wyoming, some years after the end of the Civil War, people ride horses and shoot guns, so it is, at least technically, a western. The opening credits are done over an outdoor, carved, wooden crucifix against a snowy background to some genuinely haunting Ennio Morricone music.
That snow seems to be part of the reason that bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) has lost his horse. He’s still sitting on his saddle though, perched atop of a pile of frozen corpses. Warren flags down a speeding stagecoach which, as luck would have it, has been chartered by bounty hunting colleague John Ruth (Kurt Russell). Ruth, whose professional nickname is “The Hangman,” is transporting a prisoner to the town of Red Rock to be hanged. Jennifer Jason Leigh, de-glammed to the point of feral, and virtually unrecognizable, plays his prisoner, Daisy Domergue, who’s quick to sass Ruth, despite the certainty of a knock in the teeth for her trouble. Warren, it seems, doesn’t have such problems. He never brings his quarry in alive.
There’s a storm coming, both meteorological and otherwise. The stagecoach is just barely keeping ahead of a blizzard, and making it to Red Rock before it hits is impossible. They agree to seek shelter at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a stagecoach stopover on a midway mountain pass. Enroute, they pick up another passenger – Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) – a Southern renegade who claims to be the new sheriff of Red Rock. When they arrive at Minnie’s, they are greeted not by the proprietress, but four unfamiliar faces: a Mexican named Bob (Demien Bechir), who claims to be minding the place while Minnie visits her mother, Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), the local hangman, a cow-puncher named Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) and a former Confederate General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern).
A quick headcount will tell us we’re already past eight. There is a coach driver (O.B., played by James Parks), after all, though he might not be hateful enough to factor into the title. It also bears noting that Channing Tatum, prominently billed in the opening credits, has yet to appear.
Once at Minnie’s, “The Hateful Eight” becomes as much sitting parlor murder mystery as it is a western. Clearly most, if not all, of these characters have something to hide, and it’s only a matter of time before somebody dies. The first big surprise is that it takes over an hour and a half. It isn’t a particularly dull hour and a half – this is a Tarantino movie and the dialogue is fascinating, albeit a surprising amount of it is anachronistic. “Window of opportunity” in the 1870’s? Really?
The characters are quickly divided by Civil War loyalties. Dern’s General Smithers still wears his uniform 12 years after the war, and has no use for black people. In fact, he was apparently responsible for the murder of a number of black northern prisoners after an engagement in which he and Warren were on opposite sides. Although there will be no spoilers, this is more a distraction here than a subtext, such as the racism implicit and inescapable in slavery which informed “Django Unchained.”
But although these issues do make the characters more, well, hateful, the real story is why these characters are here and whether any of them are telling the truth.
Tarantino’s go-to cinematographer Bob Richardson shot “The Hateful Eight” not only on film but in the old roadshow, super widescreen format Ultra Panavision 70 mm, not seen since the sixties. Epics like “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Khartoum” were shot on this, despite the massive cameras, and dear God, are the results gorgeous. Not only is the aspect ratio even wider than the usual theatrical widescreen, the clarity, the color, the resolution are just superb. Even here, where most of the movie takes place indoors, the results are remarkable. It’s ironic therefore that the editing is so amateurish. Tarantino crosses the proscenium so many times that even the most anally retentive technique purist will lose count. Continuity errors abound. This is meatcleaver and staple gun editing, and genuinely shocking on a lauded filmmaker’s eighth feature outing.
The roadshow format extends to including an overture and an intermission, a mercy given the movie’s epic two hour and forty-eight minute running time. Even here there are some typically atypical Tarantino touches. The director himself opens the second half of the movie with voice-over narration to catch us up on what’s been going on during the fifteen minutes we’ve been getting popcorn refills and hitting the restrooms.
As to the performances, Jackson dominates this movie with a hyperbolic energy that would swamp most movies but seems perfectly appropriate in a Tarantino film. Even without the evangelic tirades (“You will know I am the Lord when I lay My vengeance upon you…”) Tarantino wrote for him in “Pulp Fiction,” he gets most of the best lines. Kurt Russell, who though beginning to age still insolently refuses to show his age, seems such a natural for a Tarantino movie, it’s hard to believe this is only his second one.
The part of Mobray was clearly written for Christoph Waltz, missing his first Tarantino movie since “Inglourious Basterds.” Roth, deliberately dandy-fied to evoke Waltz in “Django Unchained,” runs with the part, albeit not with a German accent. Michael Madsen is doing more or less the same thing as he’s done in other Tarantino movies, particularly the “Kill Bill” movies. Jennifer Jason Leigh is somehow repellently seductive. Is acting with blood all over your face liberating for a woman? Tarantino seems to think so.
“The Hateful Eight” is a movie you can’t stop watching, even as you keep waiting for this movie to add up to something. Tarantino openly presents himself as the modern visual poet of the oppressed, and that his moral compass points in the direction of the underdog. You have to wonder about that assumption after watching “The Hateful Eight,” you really do. The title is apt, at least. If we’re used to Tarantino movies being populated by existentialist, New Wave-esque rebels who have at least some personal code of honor, “The Hateful Eight” is made of up of characters who are, well, hateful. Is this to justify the carnographic mayhem that dominates the second half of the film? Maybe the movie is too cool for such concerns. The stunt crew is literally bigger than the cast, if you’re still counting. Maybe all it’s supposed to do is reel off cool dialogue leading up to a literal orgy of carnival slaughter. Certainly the story comes to a head, but the point, if any, is an open question. Given the hateful ethics of the hateful characters, you might not like the answer.