The Hateful Eight is Quentin Tarantino’s richly textured love letter to B movies, archetypal characters, no-holds-barred-acting, and venerable narrative devices.
The Hateful Eight, directed by Quentin Tarantino. Screening at Coolidge Corner Theater and Loew’s Boston Common, starting on December 25.
By Tim Jackson
Quentin Tarantino loves to talk and there is plenty of gab in his new movie The Hateful Eight, which comes in two forms: a 187 minutes “roadshow” version and a 167 minutes digital projection. Both struck me as beautifully synchronized films: Playhouse 90 meets The Evil Dead. The former was an early landmark of live TV drama produced for CBS and staged for multiple cameras. The show gave birth to a generation of noted writers, actors, and directors. Like those TV dramas, nearly all of this film takes place in a single location. Be warned: the first half of The Hateful Eight is weighted down with dialogue and monologues. A scroungy group of Tarantino regulars and suitably sleazy additions chew (and re-chew) the scenery. Unfolding in chapters headed by playful Western titles like “Last Stage to Red Rock” and “Son of a Gun,” the chatty first half gives way to memorably choreographed (and outrageous) mayhem in the second half.
The premise takes an Agatha Christie whodunit and Western-izes it: who’s who, who did what, and who will do what to whom. The result is a delectable set piece seen through the cynical eyes of its hero (if there can be such a thing among all these scoundrels), a black former Union soldier turned bounty hunter named Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson). The Major, stranded in a growing blizzard and transporting three dead fugitives, talks his way aboard a stagecoach carrying another bounty hunter, John Ruth (Kurt Russell), who is bringing the foul and notorious fugitive Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to justice. She is to be hanged in Red Rock.
Along the way another stranded soul, Chris Mannix, is picked up (played by Walton Goggins, from Justified and Sons of Anarchy), who claims to be the duly appointed new sheriff of Red Rock. As the storm becomes worse, they seek refuge at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a stopover on the mountain road. The owners, with whom Major Warren is familiar, are strangely absent and in their place are an unsavory crew who complete the hateful eight: Bob (Demian Bichir), who says he’s taking care of the place while Minnie’s away; the effete Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) claiming to be the actual hangman of Red Rock; a strangely silent old Confederate General who never moves from his chair named Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern); a cowpoke named Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) who explains he is on his way to visit his mother for Christmas. (“You don’t really look like the coming home for Christmas type,” comments Major Warren. “I’m definitely the coming home for Christmas to spend it with my mother type. Christmas with mother? It’s the greatest thing in the world,” Gage unconvincingly replies.)
And so it begins. Until the intermission the bulk of the drama is filled with snappy one-liners and over-the-top speeches that hardcore Tarantino fans wait for. Jackson has become the quintessential Tarantino yakker. And there are several monologues here that are on par with the best in Pulp Fiction (“And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.”) One tale Jackson relates about perverse revenge would earn the film an R rating all by itself.
Granted, the talk in the film’s extended first half may make some viewers restless. But the chatter should be appreciated as pulpy homage to the B pictures that the film self-consciously references. And it is all played to the hilt by actors who skillfully discover a comfortable groove inside writing that teeter-totters from comedy to melodrama to horror. So yes, the mouthing off is long winded, but it is great fun nonetheless. It is obvious that the crack acting ensemble enjoys the challenge of creating broad western caricatures in a comedy of very bad manners. Ruth’s goal is to to deliver Daisy to Red Rock for a hanging. Unfortunately, no one trusts anyone else, as the atmosphere leaps from the foreboding to the furious. Tarantino has claimed the message of the film might be “why can’t we all just get along.” That could the understatement of the year.
The second half of the film explodes. I’ll say nothing of the plot or the details because surprising revelations are the key to the film’s fast-moving conclusion. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Daisy spends most of the first half of the movie chained to the wrist of Russell’s John Ruth. Leigh delivers another brave performance, as she did in 1989′s Last Exit to Brooklyn. This is an actor who is not afraid of looking unattractive and being courageously physical in order to create a savagely original version of a female outlaw.
Aside from the acting and writing, brouhaha has been generated by Tarantino’s staging of a unique film event. The Hateful Eight will show in wide screen 70mm projection in select locations (those that can handle that format), which fortunately includes The Coolidge Corner Theater and Loews Boston Common. Shot with the exact same camera lenses used for Ben Hur and Mutiny on the Bounty, the 70mm extravaganza is billed as a “Road Show’ that includes an opening musical overture and an intermission similar to those scheduled during screenings of Gone With the Wind in 1939 and Ben-Hur in 1959. The “Road Show” variation includes a new and revisited score by Ennio Morricone. The titles kick off with the announcement that the film has been shot in Cinemascope. And, of course, The Hateful Eight has a Christmas Day opening.
The 70mm projection is more than a gimmick. Having seen both versions, I can attest that wide screen film projection provides a distinctive and magnificent experience. The outdoor scenes, many shot during real blizzard conditions, posed daunting technical challenges for both sound and camera, but the dialogue remains clear amidst the howling wind, and the landscapes are painterly. Tarantino’s regular cinematographer Robert Richardson also makes sure the cabin scenes are chockfull of inviting visual textures, every nook and cranny filled with interesting details. Light shimmers off of the tables. The saturation of the browns and blacks don’t have the hyper-verisimilitude of pixel clarity, but the warmth and blur of life. Morricone’s score, with its wry yet boisterous Spaghetti Western touch, amuses. The Hateful Eight is Tarantino’s richly textured love letter to B movies, archetypal characters, no-holds-barred-acting, and venerable narrative devices. It’s a 60 million dollar gift to movie fans who, with a little patience and a stomach for violence, will not be disappointed.
Tim Jackson is an assistant professor at the New England Institute of Art in the Digital Film and Video Department. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, many recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed a trio of documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater, and Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups. His third documentary, When Things Go Wrong, is about the Boston singer/songwriter Robin Lane, with whom he has worked for 30 years. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.