For someone who would seem to primarily be a cult figure Quentin Tarantino has had incredible success over the course of his career, to the point where he’s only really had one out and out flop, a 2007 project called Gindhouse which he made with his BFF Robert Rodriguez. Death Proof, the film which was Tarantino’s contribution to that project, is a movie that a lot of people dislike. Personally, I think it’s an interesting little doodad of a film but it’s almost certainly a minor effort and noticeably lesser than the rest of Tarantino’s filmography but that’s beyond the point. What’s really apropos is what Tarantino and Rodriguez were trying to do with the project as a whole which was recreate a bygone film-going experience, namely the feeling of seeing a double feature at a grimey urban theater that specialized in exploitation flicks and didn’t have wonderful projection standards. I got what they were going through, but the general public clearly didn’t in part because it takes a very specific mindset in order to reminisce about a time when you were watching jacked up film prints and sat through trailers for movies with titles like “Werewolf Women of the S.S.” I bring all this up because Tarantino appears to be once again trying to recreate the viewing habits of a bygone generation of filmgoers with his latest film, but this time around he’s taking the opposite approach.
Rather than harkening back to the lowliest of theaters he’s harkening back to the loftiest of cinema-going experiences: the 50s/60s roadshow experience, an old distribution method where super-movies like Lawrence of Arabia would get limited releases of sorts in major cities and people would go to them as if they were going to the opera. They’d be given programs, there would be an overture and an intermission, and the film would not be accompanied by shorts or newsreels or even trailers. This distribution method fell out of favor early in the 70s but has come back every once in a while for extremely limited releases like Steven Soderbergh’s Che but for the first time it’s being given a fairly extensive run for a the limited 70mm run of The Hateful Eight. This would seem to be rather curious because, unlike Che, The Hateful Eight isn’t extraordinarily long. It certainly isn’t short but if you subtract the fifteen minute intermission (which is being included in the 187 minute running time that’s being posted in theaters) the movie is only about seven minutes longer than Django Unchained and the wide release version will be even closer to the running time of that earlier film so the intermission less a necessity than it is a statement about modern filmgoing.
It seems that by presenting the film on 70mm film prints and handing out color programs at the door and opening the film with an overture Tarantino is trying to make filmgoing more of an event, although I will say that the retro vibe of the whole thing is kind of diminished by the fact that the only theater around me playing the movie was a sixteen screen AMC multiplex at a shopping mall instead of one of the handful of single screen theaters that are in the area. Additionally, it should be noted that modern movie theaters were not built to accommodate the ultra-wide 2.76:1 frame of the film’s Ultra Panavision format, so rather than seeing an especially large picture you’re basically going to be watching an image that’s being letterboxed to the top of a standard 2.35:1 screen. Oh, and a lot of theaters aren’t terribly accustomed to working with film prints anymore so you’re kind of going to be at the mercy of your local projectionist’s skills and I also worry that a lot of younger audiences accustomed to digital projection (and older audiences who have simply forgotten) aren’t going to get why the images they’re seeing will have specks and other print imperfections here and there. So yeah, there are some drawbacks to the 70mm presentation but you’re not going to have too many chances to have experiences like this so I would encourage anyone to catch the Roadshow version if they can but also wouldn’t guilt anyone if they just went to the digital version either. Really I think the biggest drawback to the whole Roadshow experiment has less to do with the actual experience and more to with the fact that conversations about the movie have been dominated by discussions of film formats rather than discussions of the actual movie. And given that I’ve rattled on for 767 words about the presentation rather than the actual movie I guess I’m just as guilty as anyone.
The Hateful Eight is set about ten or twenty years after the end of the Civil War and in the snowy mountains of Wyoming. As the film opens a stagecoach driven by a worker named O.B. (James Parks) is driving to the town of Red Rock and desperately wants to get to shelter before a massive blizzard arrives. Inside this stagecoach is an infamous bounty hunter named John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) who is escorting a prisoner named Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Along the way the encounter another bounty hunter named Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a former Union soldier who is bringing the bodies of three wanted criminals to town and needs a ride in order to escape the storm. Ruth has met Warren before and is willing to bring him along and as they continue they find themselves also picking up a man named Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) who claims to be the new Sheriff of Red Rock and is also trying to escape the storm. Along the way it’s revealed that Mannix is the son of an infamous Confederate guerrilla fighter, a fact that quickly leads to tensions between him and Warren. Finally they arrive at the way-station which is being tended by a Mexican named Bob (Demián Bichir) and where a handful of colorful characters are already staying including an English hangman named Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), a former Confederate general named Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), and a cowboy (in the literal cattle-driving sense of the word) named Joe Gage (Michael Madsen). Because of the usual post-civil war politics of the situation things quickly become tense in the cabin, but even more tense once it becomes apparent that at least one of these Eight guys are in league with Daisy Domergue and may well be planning to pull something.
All that usual Tarantino attitude that we all know and love is here in his new movie. His signature profanity and violence are in full effect, as is his unique dialogue, chronological tinkering, and chapter headings. In fact it would be pretty easy to cut this whole review short by simply saying “Tarantino has done it again, if you like his work quit reading and go see this.” Tarantino has never made a flat-out bad movie and outside of Death Proof he’s never even made a movie that wasn’t somewhere on the spectrum of outright greatness. When you examine a Tarantino movie you go in ready to accept that he’s pretty much only competing with himself at this point and you’re just trying to figure out what makes this specific work different from the rest and where it ranks in his filmography and there are certainly some differences to be found. For one thing, the whole roadshow presentation thing combined with the fact that this was shot in an expensive film format is a hint that The Hateful Eight is something of a departure from some of the rest of Tarantino’s recent work in that it isn’t really rooted in grimy exploitation cinema per se. Unlike Django Unchained, which was pretty specifically meant to be rooted in Italian Spaghetti westerns, this is based more in westerns of the regular American variety. Even more interesting is that the film is something of a chamber piece, which harkens way back to Tarantino’s first completed film Reservoir Dogs. A solid 75% of the movie is set entirely inside of a single cabin and there’s a whodunit element to the film given that everyone is trying to find out who among them is in league with Domergue. Between that “who’s the traitor” setup, the fact that everyone’s trapped in one location by a blizzard, and the ominous Ennio Morricone score one can almost see a hint of influence from John Carpenter’s The Thing in the film.
Of course the film’s title is a take on the John Sturge’s The Magnificent Seven and such a title certainly places an emphasis on the ensemble which is split between Tarantino regulars and other actors the fit quite well with his troupe. If there is a main protagonist here it’s probably Samul L. Jackson, who is admittedly doing a take on his usual persona but given that the role was clearly written for exactly that that works just fine and it was cool to see him given such a large role to stretch into for once. Another actor being given one of the larger platforms of his career is Walton Goggins, who’s done a lot of strong work on cable television and has a lot of experience playing ignorant but intriguing hick characters that you hate to love and love to hate. Speaking of which, Jennifer Jason Leigh is here playing a playfully evil presence and she fits well within the Tarantino tradition of reviving the careers of actors you forgot you loved. A previous winner of the Tarantino career revival award, Kurt Russell, is also here and is doing some of his best work in quite a while. Bruce Dern would also likely be a beneficiary of the Quentin bump for his work here had Alexander Payne not beaten Tarantino to the re-discovery punch with the movie Nebraska. Damien Bashir, and Michael Madsen are also decent here, although they have slightly less challenging roles than some of their co-stars. If anyone is a weak link here it might be Tim Roth, who unfortunately kind of comes off like he was only cast in this role because Christoph Waltz was buy terrorizing James Bond, but I wouldn’t say he detracts from the proceedings too much either.
The Hateful Eight also fits into a trend of Tarantino films becoming increasingly socially relevant, albeit in a prickly way that many people will not find easy to digest. He started dipping his toes into these waters with Inglourious Basterds and then of course Django Unchained certainly tackled America’s legacy of slavery but did it in a way that could easily be seen as a simplistic revenge story where evil slave owners get shot up real good. This one is a little more complicated and I’d be lying if I said I had it entirely worked out on first viewing but I am pretty confident that this cabin in the blizzard is supposed to be a metaphor for the volatile powder keg that is the America of both yesterday and today. At least five of the eight principle characters seem to be divided by post-civil war racial strife: Warren and Ruth were both believers in the Union cause, Mannix and Smithers are both bitter Confederate loyalists, and while Domergue doesn’t seem terribly bothered by the Civil War itself she is clearly hostile towards Warren and is more than willing to throw around racial epithets. So, we have two good guys, three bad guys and three people who are some degree of neutral, right? Not so fast. All eight of these people have been labeled “hateful” for a reason and the metaphor isn’t entirely black and white.
Alright, I need to start going into spoilers in order to complete this analysis. Let’s start with Warren. He’s a strong and proud African American but a minority both in the cabin and in America and he occasionally needs to do slightly unsympathic things to survive. He sometimes chooses the exact wrong time to lash out at his oppressors (as was the case when he shoots Smithers) and he sometimes alienates his allies (as he did during the episode where it’s revealed that his Lincoln letter was a forgery). The film doesn’t judge him for his accesses and he does ultimately remain the closest thing to a sympathetic character even though his story torturing and raping Smithers son, if true, would seem pretty unforgivable. John “The Hangman” Ruth, would seem to represent white liberals. He’s a (sometimes uneasy) ally with Warren but often for his own reasons (it’s unclear how much his antipathy towards Manix and Smithers is rooted in a true disgust for their racisim and how much is rooted in the fact that they’re traitors to the Union) and he’s also a bit too smart and principled for his own good (if he’d just shot Domergue in the back like Warren would have they never would have had all these problems in the first place).
Mannix and Smithers of course represent the “red” side of America but in very different ways. Smithers would seem to represent the deep seated hatred of an older generation, although this is somewhat complicated by the fact that it’s later revealed that he’s essentially being held at gunpoint and may be acting with more hostility than he otherwise would have simply to shut down conversations which could give him away and get him in trouble. Still, that hatred is real and to some extent there’s no saving him or changing his mind. Mannix, by contrast, represents a younger generation of Southerners who have been taught racism but can still be changed. He parrots the racism he’s been told about but is also willing to put it aside when it benefits him and by the end of the movie he considers himself all but a brother in arms with Warren. And that brings us to Daisy Domergue and her gang, what do they represent? Well, Domergue talks like a racist, but does she really believe what she’s saying? I’m not sure that she does. I think she represents the “real problems” facing America that we’re too busy fighting culture wars in order to address. She’s wealth inequality, she’s polluting corporations, she’s the military industrial complex. She’s anyone who uses racial animosity to pit people against one another. I’m sure this was written before Donald Trump became a viable Republican candidate but good lord is he the perfect avatar for everything she’s supposed to represent.
Now, I’ll admit that this super-specific metaphorical reading of the movie is a lot to swallow, especially from a filmmaker who began his career making highly apolitical “pure cinema” but Tarantino has become more and more conscious since he famously told Michael Moore that he’d be voting for the first time after watching Fahrenheit 9/11 and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he’s now become an unlikely ally of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Of course if you follow that metaphor I outlined the film’s finale, in which Warren and Mannix finally combine their forces and hang the treacherous Domergue as an obscure Roy Orbison blares in the background, would seem to be a glorious victory. However, if you’re viewing the film simply as a straightforward story about eight angry people going through a psycho-drama in a cabin, this ending as well as the rest of the violence meted out against Domergue would seem to be rather harsh if not outright misogynistic. This is a rather tricky aspect of the film and could be viewed as something of a deal-breaker for some audiences. In interviews Tarantino has said “Violence is hanging over every one of those characters like a cloak of night… I’m not going to go ‘OK, that’s the case for seven of the characters, but because one is a woman, I have to treat her differently.” Or as the Tim Roth character puts it when asked if he has doubts about executing women for crimes “til’ they invent a trigger a woman can’t pull if you’re going to be a hang man you going to have to hang women” and I doubt that anyone would so much as raise an eyebrow if Domergue was a male character rather than a female character, so if women can be badass avengers in other Tarantino movies like Kill Bill why can’t they also be contemptable villains to be killed here?
There’s a certain logic to that, but I do think Tarantino might have erred a little in not giving the audience more of a reason to make Domergue a villain worth hating to the point where we think seeing her strung up is entirely deserved. Jennifer Jason Leigh certainly makes this character seem like a snake but what does she actually do in the movie that’s so evil? We certainly see her gang acting with great brutality in the flashback and we have every reason to think that she would support such behavior, but she doesn’t participate in it and couldn’t have directly ordered it. She doesn’t even seem to be the ringleader of the whole gang. Any other murderous behavior she exhibits can be easily dismissed as mere self-preservation, so why is she singled out for such animosity when every one of the other gang members seems just as guilty of everything she’s done? I feel like Tarantino would have solved this whole problem either by making it more clear that Domergue was the mastermind behind all this violence. Additionally, there are two other little problems with the movie that don’t quite sit well with me. Firstly, it seems awfully strange that Warren would choose this of all times to provoke a gunfight with Smithers right in the middle of a rather dangerous standoff with a dangerous criminal who may or may not have agents in her midst. I outlined a thematic reason for this earlier, but on the surface this altercation didn’t seem to come about entirely organically. Additionally, it’s kind of a major plot point that the proprietor of this waystation despised Mexicans and would have been irrationally hostile towards Bob the Mexican, and yet this never seems to come up during the flashback when Bob arrives at the waystation as one of the four passengers. That’s maybe not a deal-breaking plot hole but given that everything else connects beautifully in the movie that kind of stands out.
So, where does The Hateful Eight stand in the Tarantino cannon? If you had asked me immediately after I’d left the theater I would have told you “somewhere in the middle, maybe towards the back half,” but the movie has already grown on my quite a bit and I can’t wait to see it again. Trying to directly rank Tarantino’s movies has become increasingly difficult because this back half of his filmography is proving to be a lot different than the first half. As a technical filmmaker he’s grown significantly and his movies have sneakily become increasingly substantial in his last trilogy of period pieces. You wouldn’t know it from a surface reading but he’s showing increasing wisdom about American history and society and the fact that he expresses this in a very Tarantino way makes the films exciting and avoids the didactic traps of other more conventional films. The man is a one of a kind artist, one who’s doing things that no one else is doing, at least not on the big stage of accessible movies that have large audiences like this and its hugely refreshing in a world filled with cookie-cutter product.
**** out of Four