With the exception of Death Proof, his contribution to the Grindhouse double-feature, Quentin Tarantino’s 21st century films have taken on various genres on an epic scale. Kung fu, westerns and war films provided the basis for his largely hit-driven run this century. So with The Hateful Eight, which stays close in genre and time period to 2012’s Django Unchained, being filmed and promoted in its 70mm film format, with a special Roadshow cut of the film complete with overture and intermission premiering in limited markets on Christmas before expanding a week later in a more conventional format, it would stand to reason that Tarantino’s latest film would take his epic features run to the next level.
Instead, The Hateful Eight marks a return to the more verbally-driven features Tarantino made in the 1990s. On a basic level, The Hateful Eight most resembles Tarantino’s debut, Reservoir Dogs. It’s a dialogue-driven feature that’s largely confined to one space, and relies on ratcheting tension between characters to propel the story. Stretching over three hours in its Roadshow form, it’s a testing choice for its audience. But Tarantino’s unique ability to create repugnant characters who are undeniably watchable, and casting veteran actors in favor of “names” who can really dig into the characters, make The Hateful Eight a captivating film.
Set in an unnamed part of the West in the years after the Civil War, The Hateful Eight shows signs of confrontation early on. John Ruth (Kurt Russell), a bounty hunter also known as “The Hangman” for his insistence on bringing his captures back alive to hang for their crimes, is traveling with a prisoner named Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) when his wagon comes across Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a fellow bounty hunter attempting to catch a ride for himself and his baggage – a pile of dead bodies. Ruth and Warren have an uneasy and fragile trust, and it’s tested as the trio try to outrun a blizzard before stopping at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a stop filled with shady characters.
After getting to know the strangers with whom he’s stuck, Ruth announces to the room that he knows at least one of them is working with Daisy with the goal of setting her free. While there’s no tangible proof to Ruth’s claims, simply looking around the room at least makes Ruth’s claims viable. Some are more suspicious than others. The blatantly bigoted Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), the Rebel Renegade-turned-possible Sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) and the unusually quiet cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) certainly seem like viable threats, though even the town hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) and the man running the haberdashery for Minnie, Bob (Demian Bicher), aren’t above suspicion. Knowing that whoever is helping Daisy won’t reveal himself until the storm passes, Ruth works to uncover the partner, while the rest of the group reveal their own connections to each other.
The title of the film is accurate; all eight are horrible on some level, and they have plenty of hateful things to say to each other. Critics of Tarantino’s propensity for creating characters fond of racist and sexist language will recoil at the visceral ways both are on display here, but it’s hard to deny their effectiveness in making these characters vile. When paired with the actors playing these characters, it’s apparent that most, if not all, of them were created with these specific actors in mind. They’re paired perfectly, with each one contributing something of substance to the film. Given the dialogue-driven nature of the film, that level of connection makes these scenes as visceral as the bloodshed that eventually unfolds in the film’s second half.
Speaking of those actors: Tarantino has assembled a fascinating ensemble that mixes veterans of his films with newcomers, all of whom click together. Russell is at his brash best, Jason Leigh makes Daisy as venomous as anyone else in the male-dominated film, and Goggins provides an unbelievable amount of levity just by running his mouth. The most pleasant surprise, though, is how Jackson dominates the film. He’s the actor Tarantino has used most across his films (including cameos and voiceovers, every film after Pulp Fiction except Death Proof), but this is by far the biggest role he’s had since Jackie Brown. He ends up being the best scene partner for any of the actors, and his extended monologue explaining just how he knows Smithers is a high point in Tarantino’s filmography.
As puzzling as the choice to shoot The Hateful Eight in Ultra Panavision 70mm might seem, given the nature of the film, it works surprisingly well. For the outdoor sequences, largely set in an oncoming blizzard, this isn’t a surprise. For the interior shots that make up the film, though, the expanded aspect ratio helps capture the entirety of the haberdashery, showing just how close these characters are to one another and adding to the growing tension. It’s an aesthetic choice that adds to the film in surprising ways, and sets The Hateful Eight apart as one of the director’s more notable visual accomplishments.
While Tarantino is certainly not for everybody, The Hateful Eight may surprise fans who came on board with Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds or Django Unchained. It’s an intentional throwback not only to a film style that’s been dormant for decades, but to the director’s own work from years ago. The Tarantino conventions are largely there (except for the score, an original one by the legendary Ennio Morricone), but they’re displayed in a way that may not sit well with the fans who aren’t as familiar with Reservoir Dogs or even Jackie Brown. No matter. The Hateful Eight shows that Tarantino is still more than capable of creating a fascinating film – even when it’s relentlessly cruel and evil.
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