It may be too early to start handing out Academy Awards, but I’ve got a candidate who has to be considered the favorite: Robert Richardson, cinematographer for Quentin Tarantino’s new epic film The Hateful Eight, presents us with magnificent vistas of the movie’s wintry Wyoming landscape that prove breathtaking at times (in fact, the film as shot at Wilson Mesa in Colorado). The awe-inspiring beauty and power of the terrain are a perfect subject for the much-hyped 70 mm film Tarantino chose to use with this picture, using the same celebrated lenses William Wyler chose in shooting Ben-Hur 56 years ago. If you are able to see the 70 mm special roadshow—and you would only have been able to do so if you live in a city with a theater that has 70 mm projection capability—you are sure to agree with me about the sweeping experience of the film: It makes the vaunted 3-D screenings of most of today’s blockbusters look puny by comparison. Richardson, who shot Tarantino’s last two movies—Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained—on film as well—already has three Oscars (for Hugo, The Aviator and JFK). I think it’s time to start polishing off the mantle for the fourth one.
Which makes it curious to consider that the vast majority of this film—all but the opening half-hour and scattered images throughout—is set within the rustic stagecoach stop called “Minnie’s Haberdashery.” In that sense it is not unlike Tarantino’s very first film, Reservoir Dogs, whose story for the most part plays out in the abandoned warehouse. The fact is Tarantino did not initially envision his script for The Hateful Eight as a movie: It was first presented as a staged reading in Los Angeles in April 2014, with a number of Tarantino “regulars” reading the parts. The response was so positive that Tarantino decided to turn the script into a film, but the end result bears many of the marks of its origin: the action essentially takes place in a single location and the characters have significantly more dialogue than is common in today’s films—a fact that the actors seem to relish, particularly Samuel L. Jackson, whose soliloquies at times reach operatic crescendos. As for the 70 mm format inside the claustrophobic Minnie’s Haberdashery, the vivid close-ups and popping colors within the cabin are brilliantly portrayed. The cinematography, truly, is worth the price of admission.
But hold on, there’s also a story here. The tale, as is characteristic of a Tarantino script, makes use of non-linear narrative, and contains a number of twists and surprises, particularly in the last half-hour or so of this three-hour epic. Since I don’t want to include any spoilers, I’ll just limit myself to the exposition of the situation and its characters, which Tarantino labors over for some time: We open on a stagecoach hurrying along a mountain road in a post-bellum Wyoming winter, trying hard to outrun a blizzard. In the coach is John Ruth (Kurt Russell), a famously rough and somewhat brutal bounty hunter, known for bringing his prisoners in alive to make certain they hang. He is cuffed to the coarse and unrepentant murderess Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), whom he is aiming to bring into the town of Red Rock to collect a $10,000 reward. In a scene clearly intended to remind us of John Ford’s first great western, Stagecoach, the stage is forced to stop for a lone man blocking the road and looking for a ride. In Ford’s film, portentously, it was John Wayne. In Tarantino’s, with equal significance, it is Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson plays Marquis Warren, himself a bounty hunter, though he prefers to bring his bounties in dead (he has three corpses he wants tied to the top of the coach). Warren turns out to be a former Union Major, hated in the South for an alleged atrocity I won’t divulge here. After some negotiating and a lot of distrust on John Ruth’s part, Warren gets his ride, but soon the stage comes across another lone traveler, who claims to be the new sheriff of Red Rock, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins). Ruth recognizes the name, and is hesitant to extent the courtesy of his stage to Mannix, whose father had led a renegade troop of Quantrill-like raiders, committing their own atrocities, particularly on freed blacks, after the war had officially ended.
When these four (and their driver) pull into Minnie’s just as the blizzard hits in its full fury, they are surprised to be met by Mexican Bob (Demian Bichir), who says that Minnie and her consort Sweet Dave have gone off for a visit on the other side of the mountain, and have left Bob in charge as caretaker. Once in the shelter of the cabin, they find three other guests, apparently stranded there by the storm as well: One is a rather oily British fellow, Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), who claims to be Red Rock’s hangman—the very person whose responsibility it will be to hang Daisy when the time comes. Another is a reticent cowboy named Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) who claims to be going home to see his mother for Christmas. The final character is a taciturn old man wearing a faded confederate uniform who, we soon learn, is General Sandy Smithers, formal rebel officer who, as it turns out, has incidents in his own past that most men would not be particularly proud of. Thus as in Ford’s Stagecoach, we are presented with a group of characters, each of whom has some secret in his past that will influence the development of the plot once the characters are forced into a confined space for a time.
But there is also an Agatha Christie feel to things as the plot develops. Somebody—and maybe everybody—is lying at Minnie’s Haberdashery, and somebody is apparently trying to spring Daisy before Ruth can collect his reward. Ruth and Warren make an alliance to protect their bounty hunter profits, and meanwhile Mannix and General Smithers bond over their undiminished devotion to the grand old “Lost Cause”—and their vehement hatred of African Americans, here epitomized by Major Warren. It’s easy to see that this collection of characters make Minnie’s place a powder-keg just waiting to blow.
Tarantino creates eight well-drawn parts for a theater troupe, and his actors respond with gusto in this film. Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell lick their acting chops and compete in the “play it big’ department as they both chew the scenery with abandon. They are a riot to watch. Bruce Dern and Michael Madsen go the other direction and are notably understated. Jennifer Jason Leigh is perhaps most impressive as she is by turns feisty, demure, pathetic and horrifying. Tarantino’s script makes us sympathize with her at times, especially when Ruth brutally “corrects” her whenever she fails to do what he wants, but there are times when we may be certain we should sympathize with Warren, although that becomes more and more difficult to do the more we learn about him.
So, the film is terrific looking, has a plot full of twists and turns that keeps you guessing about a lot of things until the end, boasts an impressive cast at their best, and oh, by the way, has a fine epic score by five- time Oscar nominee and three-time winner Ennio Morricone (Days of Heaven, The Mission, The Untouchables). So what’s not to like?
Well, this is Tarantino we’re talking about, after all, and one thing that the Morricone score does is allude to his score of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, and remind us that it isn’t John Ford that Tarantino ultimately emulates, but Leone and his introduction of graphic violence into the movie western in that film and his Clint Eastwood “spaghetti westerns,” as well as Sam Peckinpah’s brutal The Wild Bunch from about the same time period. But Tarantino takes the violence of those films and raises it to prodigious heights. If you are unsettled by graphic film violence—if you were turned off by the brutality depicted in Tarantino’s last few films, Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained—then I’m telling you as clearly as I can that you do not want to go to this movie. If you have children under 17, I would suggest that the R rating on this film is indubitably appropriate, and you should consider that.
Which raises a serious question: To what extent is this kind of film violence justified by the narrative, and to what extent is it simply gratuitous and included for its shock value? Does Tarantino have a purpose in mind—is he showing in these characters the pattern of violence in America since the Civil War, and suggesting historical roots for the gun violence we currently face? Or is he simply seeing how far he can push the envelope? It is worth considering the fact that Greg Nicotero gets credit for special makeup effects in the film. Nicotero, best-known for his zombie effects on T.V.’s The Walking Dead, has created in that show horrific “walkers” so ubiquitous that their horror loses any shock value and we see them simply as background noise. Is that what Tarantino’s films do? Does the violence of these kinds of visual effects so inure us to brutality that we become blasé about the violence in real life? When does the film stop being about the violence in American life and become simply one more meaningless example of that violence?
Maybe Tarantino wants us to ask these questions as we watch the film. In any case, I suggest you do so, if you decide you want to experience the film. With some trepidation, I give the film three Tennysons, for its cinematography, its story, and its acting. As for its violence, you’ll have to work that out for yourself.