Quentin Tarantino’s love of genre cinema manifests itself in retention and expansion: while he understands that the homaged works were often built to hit a base instinct in their viewer, the respect he extends towards them is part and parcel of his desire to provide more, more, and more, to illustrate that these extreme expressions can and very well should be masks for genuine profundity. His eighth feature, The Hateful Eight, embraces the dime-store whodunit western on its surface without ever stumbling in its path to becoming a major exercise of Tarantino’s cinematic, cultural, and historical vocabulary. Moreover, limiting himself and the team of collaborators to a compact (albeit three-hour-long) tale serves as something of a provocation — a continually shifting Rorschach test for how fans and detractors alike measure the value (supposed or assumed) of his oeuvre.
Whereas the writer-director has often liked to begin with a bang, The Hateful Eight asks that audiences settle in. An Ennio Morricone piece — each of which, closer to giallo than Leone, introduce the atmosphere of uncertain-yet-identifiable dread — plays over a deep-red, three-minute-long overture card* and widescreen images (wider and more desolate than any Tarantino’s ever crafted) of snow-covered mountains and landscapes. More than an indulgence in the glory of 70mm film — though there is that, too — the compositional plays with depth perception in this whited-out environment (illustrated best by the slow zoom out of a horrifying-looking statue and into barren woods) are yet more on-the-nose signals: this will not end well, but it’ll certainly look pretty all the while.
Being a Tarantino picture, The Hateful Eight will have plenty of fun before turning into his bleakest picture by a fair margin. Offering a vision of post-Civil War, pre-industrial America — one in which this black bounty hunter is a bit more accepted, if only because authority can at least recognize that “darkies don’t like being called niggers no more” — it’s no less damning than Inglourious Basterds or Django Unchained. Whereas those forced an expansion of his canvas — moving between state lines, national borders, and the perspectives of clearly defined sides in historic conflicts — to offer criticism of war, racism, and parasitic capitalism, Eight fits every major theme of his career, at turns expanding upon others, within three locations (a stagecoach, horse stable, a haberdashery) and his smallest cast this side of Reservoir Dogs.
The movie will answer its mystery, and rather forcefully at that, yet the build to this unfurling is more laid-back — more Hawksian, I’d say — than fans may anticipate. Relegating action to a single room and projecting the results in 70mm carries a certain perversity to it, yet this is that rare filmmaking to harmonize uniformly diamond-sharp tenets — the space of and within frames, light, color, edit, sound, score, performance — while avoiding didactic rhythms, as if its narrative was geared towards the images and not vice-versa. Tarantino and now-regular cinematographer Robert Richardson have created a rare western epic that dispenses with is expected imagery before the half-hour mark, instead striving to respect the actor — their movements, their gestures, and the wide swath of expressions their face might convey.
When these grand widescreen compositions — and notwithstanding Tarantino’s insistence that we revel in its grandness, evidenced by the compositional emphasis on hats, horses, wagons, and wide spaces surrounding every figure — have been made and the story proper can begin, it does so rather simply. A stagecoach carrying a hangman (Kurt Russell’s John Ruth) and his latest acquisition (Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Daisy Domergue), to which he’s dutifully chained himself, stumbles upon a former Union fighter and current bounty hunter (Samuel L. Jackson‘s Major Marquis Warren), as well as a former Confederate soldier and supposed new mayor (Walton Goggins’ Chris Mannix) of their destination, Red Rock. Being that a hangman lives by his title and criminals & soldiers alike earn reputations through their intensity, there’s a shared understanding — sometimes too deep an understanding — among the members. Conversations, arguments, jokes, camaraderie, and punches are all exchanged on a short trip, which halts when a blizzard forces them and the driver (James Parks‘ O.B. Jackson) take refuge in Minnie’s Haberdashery, a business known to the involved parties.
They do not find Minnie, her husband, or any of her loyal employees. On the other side of this store’s mysteriously damaged door (an opportunity for one of several recurring gags) is a collection of men who either serve as a thorough collection of the genre’s archetypes or, as I suspect is more accurate, a sample representation of the western cinema’s waiting room in purgatory. More identifiable by business title and choice of dress than name, this set consists of another hangman (Tim Roth’s Oswaldo Mobray); a Mexican (Demián Bichir’s Bob); a cow puncher (Michael Madsen’s Joe Gage); and a former Confederate general (Bruce Dern’s Sanford Smithers).
Tarantino loves to plainly tell viewers what he’s doing precisely as he’s doing it, only making his affection of wordplay — doubling-back, repetition, playful contradiction, the not-even-half-hearted pretending to believe those you know are lying — and extended shots of conversation close partners with every suspicious scenario and motivation emerging from another. (I defer to another 21st-century western when I say that operations within Minnie’s Haberdashery pivots on the notion of “a lie agreed upon.”) The great irony behind this simple set-up of violent people locked in a room is that it will continues for so long only because its characters, each built concentrically around the presentations and behaviors of their peers, won’t behave as brash or impulsively as their selves should dictate.
Small pockets of interaction become its driving force, and the first half of this picture’s 187-minute runtime is an object par excellence in small-scale myth making. These interactions paint the then-current nation and its national consciousness with a deliberate brush: whether it’s the common ground on which people stand or the impulse to suss out that which they believe is hidden, there’s a conduit for nearly everyone to speak with the other in terms of personalized storytelling, and Tarantino only obliges this further by locking figures into two shots that cut off sight of nearly all else.
Shifts away from what’s been observed and toward a new set of dialogue will give little sense that we’ve missed anything, but are rather being presented events as the order of drama necessitates; as written, composed, performed, and aurally sculpted — this film boasts the best sound design of any Tarantino picture, from the howling wind of the outside blizzard to the clinks of objects to the punch of effects when violence is inflicted — nearly every action boasts of a self-conscious theatricality, even artifice. (I more than once thought that this is the closest he’ll ever get to a late Alain Resnais picture, though who knows how much he’ll pursue this in later works.) Richardson’s trademark stage-like, top-down lighting receives plenty of emphasis — sometimes when the illumination of a given environment has no reason to permit it, such as in the world’s most brightly illuminated stagecoach — while a persona’s movements are often telegraphed stress the smallness of a space. More than a fun way to build micro and macro exchanges, they double as a testing of the patience audiences must exercise before getting anywhere: wide shots will capture several players in various states of conversation before cutting to close-ups and selecting the new point of focus; a through-the-ceiling shot’s implication that some unseen player may be waiting above will be answered hours later by a visual opposite; and the carefully controlled cutting patterns will unite words, images, and figures, oscillating between the sides of a discussion, creating an equal space around and behind performers to emphasize commonalities as much as differences.
Except when a break-of-sorts can be had. Consider the first half’s climax, a tense conversation (as if there’s anything but throughout the three hours) complemented by the offscreen playing of “Silent Night.” This is scripted, like so very many of the writer’s scenes, as a back-and-forth exchange that culminates in a violent encounter, and the visual language mostly plays to that through a series of shot-reverse dynamics. Yet the camera, as if distracted by what it’s hearing, keeps returning to whoever is on that piano. At this critical moment — perhaps the most critical, as the second half’s opening voiceover (provided by Tarantino himself) will, again, plainly tell us — they’re photographed from an angle that emphasizes presence more than identity. As a rather insane story and visual are being teed up, precious time is keenly balanced towards the establishing of a scene, the creation of an atmosphere, and integrations — of diegetic sound, oddly angled framing, the particular tactility of objects (e.g. the wood of the piano, the dirt on the keys, the fur on the player’s coat), as well as the many ins-and-outs of offscreen narrative developments — moving towards a tremulous whole.
What will prove more contentious is how The Hateful Eight treats its characters, in particular those few who are non-white and / or non-male. Before taking any further steps, it’s most important to note that Tarantino is not overtly devoted to anyone of this octet. While there’s an evident joy in following the initial set-up, the whys and the whats and the whos of this scenario, and the ratcheting-up — just as there’s a relish to be found in the steps that allow this intricate experience to lock into place — the answers to that intrigue are violence, which is hardly a surprise, but violence of a new sort. If the aggression that’s being inflicted herein is of a different sort, look no further than the fact that Tarantino’s first post-Django feature features the killing of a Confederate general by a black bounty hunter that’s neither celebrated nor entirely justified; or think of the Basterds-like infliction on a certain body part that doesn’t simply end with a gunshot, but drags, sometimes via slow-motion, into the later stretches. This is not a work of glorification, but humiliation.
There’s an explosive quality to that unpleasantness, as if this film had at some point decided that it should take down everything in its sight. With the rearing of an ugly head comes the understanding that audiences have been tricked as much as anyone on the screen. We’re repulsed, but what did we expect? Haven’t we been invited from almost the first minute to watch this bomb tick down? And how the roiling tension boils over are not simply through verbal and physical lashings, but often (in the latter case more or less exclusively) angled toward the sole black man and the only woman. There are exchanges in which Jackson’s Warren is treated respectfully, and they’re peppered with nearly as many utterances of the n-word as in all of Django Unchained; and, for having been condemned to death, Leigh’s Domergue is almost never treated with a respect greater than the permission to stand on her own two feet without being clubbed to the ground — until she inevitably isn’t. What’s key here is that she’s the first and most considered object of violence.
This movie’s affections, such as they are, could be said to lie with these two, if only for the fact that they’re the sole players for whom it’s willing to stop upon, the sole players in whose perspectives and experiences Tarantino most wishes to anchor the drama. The initial stagecoach sequences make priorities known gently, through subtle moves of the camera, shots featuring both Russell and Leigh repeatedly shift from him and toward her, as if it’s incapable of observing anyone else; or roughly, when Domergue is quickly cut to upon being struck and time is taken to emphasize the sound of contact, close-ups of a battered face, her pain-racked screams; and, through the focus upon Warren’s means of ingraining himself with white men, with an unapologetic didacticism.
For the many moments where others are given their chance to stand front and center, there’s a continual return to this pairing. (And, more than another totem of frayed historical / racial / cultural standings, that object — which will appear at the middle and end points of the story — is conversely an opportunity for Domergue to show her unrepentant honesty and Warren to display his own aggressiveness.) They’re the most expansive of the ensemble, those who (in the case of Warren’s particularly vulgar flashback sequence) can divert us from the hermetic location or — in the case of Domergue’s single-shot, heart-stirring guitar-playing sequence, one of the few marked by a delicacy and one which Ruth concludes by brutishly proclaiming “music time’s over!,” then smashing the guitar — present excuses to take a respite from the scenario. When a late-game reveal finally pulls back the curtain and we at last have answer to what the narrative’s been building toward (or, rather, from), The Hateful Eight crosses these paths to rather agonizingly illustrate that the answer to the divides between opposing American male forces — black or white, Union or Confederate, proud bounty hunter or proud law man — is a contempt for and desire to hurt women.
Tarantino’s visual vocabulary often plays as a hodgepodge of lifts from others and personal innovations that neatly correspond to the pacing and temperament of a specific scene. It’s here, however, where the lifts and personal innovations are also crossing paths. In essence, the locked-off scenario has created a fun-house-mirror-of-sorts: images, vocal intonations, visual effects, and styles of performance from the oeuvre recur, but in this recurrence their trapped inside a narrative of entropy and among people of great contempt. What was used in films past for intrigue, comedy, or old-fashioned thrills are now perversions of their original selves — more sinister, more evil, either sapped of entertainment value or serving as an entertainment in only the most macabre of manners. I’m particularly inured toward the squirm-inducing grotesquerie of once-amusing squib effects, or a very specific, very critical visual callback to the prologue of Inglourious Basterds, now a precursor to destruction rather than an image of retreat. When Tarantino’s oldest collaborators are among the last standing — Roth’s performance in particular is something of a meeting spot for the Tarantino canon past and present, or so I think when Oswaldo Mobray is written, dressed, and played as a more didactic, more nefarious version of Dr. King Schultz — we get a reeneactment-of-sorts of Pulp Fiction’s climax. But more than a sequence in which one speaks to the other at gunpoint, his character personalizing the scenario with deliberate “you”s and “you’re”s, its conclusion makes clear — as if this wasn’t in the first place — that Tarantino’s lost interest in tales of redemption or miracles.
This confluence of an eyebrow-raising entertainment and grim vision of America past and present will only play to its greatest possible potential if one is willing to accept every step, from Morricone’s booming signals of danger to the breadcrumbs (or, in this case, jelly beans) scattered on the floor. As one who bought every step of it, the experience was no less gratifying for its through line than it was discomfiting in the horror of its resolution. As he becomes even wiser an orchestrator of scenarios, characters, and conclusions, Tarantino’s work turns more vicious in its time-bomb-like destruction. We’re lucky to continue witnessing a major American artist stake new ground.
*A word on the roadshow presentation: this played to myself as an essential way to see the film, and not merely for the 70mm presentation. The Hateful Eight also seems geared toward a theatrical experience for the way it utilizes an intermission as an end of one story and the beginning of another, at one point taking advantage of the effect a 12-minute break will have on the viewer. You’ll be seeing a longer film, and there’s nothing in the 187-minute cut that I could think to excise.
The Hateful Eight opens exclusively on 70mm on Friday, December 25, and expands wide on December 31.