Quentin Tarantino’s hybrid Western-mystery flick builds to multiple crescendos of greed, betrayal, and violence.
The Hateful EightDirector: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kurt Russell, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, Demian Bichir, Channing Tatum, Zoe Bell, Dana Gourrier, James Parks
Studio: Weinstein Company
US date: 2015-12-25 (Limited release)
UK date: 2016-01-08 (General release)
A locked-room mystery masquerading as a Western, Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight at first looks a lot like his precious Christmas release, 2012's Django Unchained. Fans of that exploitation abattoir might be forgiven for wondering, as they hit the intermission in the close to three-hour new movie, just when the fireworks are going to start.
Of course they will start. Before then, however, viewers have to wade through an extended and talky build-up that demands something unusual in today's movies: patience. Over the course of a long stagecoach ride, framed by Robert Richardson’s rich 70mm cinematography and a beautifully squalling Ennio Morricone score, Tarantino introduces a pair of bounty hunters, one apparently psychotic criminal, a couple of ex-Confederate soldiers, a grumbling Mexican, and other oddballs, not to mention thousands of dollars of bounty money and a raft of post-Civil War racial tension. All this as a blizzard threatens to make forward movement impossible.
Primary among these players is a relaxed and commanding Samuel L. Jackson as Marquis Warren. A former Union cavalry officer turned bounty hunter, he first appears on a snow-covered road sitting on a pile of frozen corpses. Approached by the stagecoach, he asks, “Got room for one more?” This kicks off a lengthy calculation of risks and rewards with the high-paying passenger, John “Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), who isn’t crazy about picking up another passenger. Ruth is transporting his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the town of Red Rock for hanging.
Soon after he agrees to take on Warren, the two men agree to accept yet another, Red Rock’s new sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a little light in the brains department, and eager to make up for it with bristling pugnacity. Packed in tight, the four passengers steadily scratch at each other’s nerves, particularly once ex-Confederate soldier Mannix and the gleefully racist Domergue start going after a relentlessly calm but implicitly deadly Warren.
Tarantino takes his time with the stagecoach scenes, layering meandering conversation over a seething undercurrent of greed, racial violence, and political resentments. It’s his most purposefully literary film since Pulp Fiction, divided into “chapters” and restarted after the intermission by the filmmaker's own narration. It's possible as well to read the film's seeding the plot with minor character tics and innocuous details throughout as a novelistic gesture, expanding our sense of these people as people and not just props in a play by Agatha Christie.
The cast, too, expands, from the four passengers and driver (James Parks) to a second batch, once the stagecoach is waylaid by the blizzard at Minnie's Haberdashery. With everybody trapped inside, the movie's theatrical conventions escalate. Each character is assigned easily defining tics, from Oswaldo Mobray’s (Tim Roth) upper-crust British mannerisms to Rebel General Sandy Smithers’ (Bruce Dern) cantankerous bellowing and Bob’s (Demian Bichir) scruff-muffled truculence. The unlikelihood of this bunch coming together in such a remote place puts Warren in the Hercule Poirot role, pushing all the buttons he can in order to make whoever’s lying come out with it. That means a lot more jawing.
Nobody ever accused Tarantino’s characters of keeping their thoughts to themselves. From Reservoir Dogs on, they’ve been a garrulous bunch. That’s one reason his work tends to pushed its running time, like a child who just doesn’t want to go to bed. He might be a savant of the grindhouse fare that kept running times in the hour-and-a-half-or-less range, but Tarantino makes films that run close to twice that long, due less to an overabundance of plot than to his characters’ inability to shut their traps.
The Hateful Eight is no exception, and it’s one of the best things about the film. The characters have time to digress on subjects and ideas that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the plot, from the hard-nosed Ruth’s surprisingly tearful response to the personal letter from President Lincoln that Warren keeps close to his heart, to the plaintive old folk ballad that Domergue sings during a lull in the yelling and scheming. Such detours also allow actors to create full-blooded performances. In what could have been a goony hillbilly sidekick role, Goggins' work is masterfully broad and also nuanced, meshing perfectly with Jackson’s compelling cool. Leigh’s feral slyness is also impressive, introducing yet another wild card into the conclusion’s already heavily stacked deck.
Such richness of character doesn’t preclude Tarantino’s splatter-happy tendencies: by film's end, there is nary a body that hasn’t been blasted apart or coated in viscera. The many serial confrontations offer nods to the leftist commentary usually hiding behind spaghetti Westerns' quick-draw shootouts and massacres. Focusing our attention on the many indignities suffered by Warren, The Hateful Eight doesn't pretend the American frontier was a wide-open oasis of freedom. Here, it’s just another lawless land of bone-deep prejudices where money is made with canny, ruthless force.