Quentin Tarantino‘s filmography has always been bombastic, brash, supremely confident, and not everybody’s cup of tea. While his first few movies have become beloved by cinephiles and college students, it’s his most recent few that have particularly caught my eye. With 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, he introduced the idea of legend and mythology with regard to history to his canon. That movie is all about how people are remembered and what the books will say. This continued in 2012’s Django Unchained with another movie that’s at once the revenge of a persecuted people and a treatise on the idea of legend and mythos. Both of those also had a strong sense of heroism and how not even “good guys” have clean hands. With The Hateful Eight, there are no heroes but a lot of dirty hands.
The trailers have done a pretty good job of setting the basic premise of the movie: In a bitterly cold winter in post-Civil War Wyoming with a blizzard bearing down, a stagecoach full of people ends up at Minnie’s Haberdashery on the way to the town of Red Rock. Among them are Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a bounty hunter and Union war hero; John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), another bounty hunter who always brings his bounty in alive to stand trial; his captive, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is apparently a nasty murderer; and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a former Southern militia member who is apparently about to be sworn in as Red Rock’s new sheriff. When they arrive at Minnie’s, they find only strangers: Oswaldo Mobrey (Tim Roth), the British ex-pat who’s the actual hangman for the area; Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a cow-puncher working on his memoirs; Bob (Demian Bichir), a new employee of Minnie’s; and Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), who’s just trying to get to his missing son’s homestead. One or all of these people might not be who they say they are.
Like the earlier films, this movie’s characters all have a legend, and people’s names are recognized immediately, even if their faces aren’t. But being a legend in wartime—or for the killing of men—is a fairly dubious reason to be famous, and Tarantino introduces a thread through the whole movie about “unconditional surrender,” as the South did to the North following the Civil War. Not meaning prejudices surrender at the same time, though: the only thing separating winners and losers and justice and murder is point of view. It’s all just a pile of dead bodies.
There is a lot going on in The Hateful Eight under the surface but at its core it’s a bit of a whodunit. A whodunit where everybody is guilty of something. A lot has already been made of how relatively bleak the movie is and how none of the characters are very redeemable. This is absolutely a purposeful move on Tarantino’s part. Lawful or unlawful, these are bad, bad people, full of hate for some group or another. There are outsiders aplenty, whether because of race or gender or side of history, and every time you might start sympathizing with someone too much, Tarantino makes sure to quickly tell us why we shouldn’t. In this way, he lets us know that legends are better left in memory.
I got to see The Hateful Eight as part of its 70mm Roadshow release in a theater in snowy Colorado while home for Christmas. It’s not a brief film, and with the Roadshow presentation—which is projected in 70mm film to show off its extra-wide UltraPanavision 70 lenses—the whole thing is over three hours. It didn’t feel too long to me at all; more so, the time allows the characters and situations to play out—as one of the folks says—”molasses like.” Tarantino once again separates the action with chapter headings, but in this version, there’s also an overture and intermission to further slow things down. Even Ennio Morricone’s new original score is all about stretching tension and dread and not building intensity.
It is true that the bulk of the movie takes place indoors, and in one set in particular, but the detractors who say Robert Richardson’s 70mm photography is wasted in such a constricted space isn’t giving credit to the filmmakers. This is a movie entirely about people stuck together who shouldn’t be, and people hating each other for a variety of reasons; it makes perfect sense to put as much space between them all, in a single frame, as possible. The filming technique allows for people to share a frame while being quite far away from each other—physically at odds—but it also lets close-ups and two-shots exist in a kind of expansive space. It’s incredibly effective to have to turn your head to see everything, and for a movie entirely about people not being honest about who they are, it’s the most cinematic it could be.
The Hateful Eight is not for everybody, but I found it completely compelling and engaging in a way that the first viewings of both Basterds and Django weren’t. (They’re currently my first and third favorite QT movies, for the record.) Tarantino continues to make movies his own way and asks audiences to come along for the ride instead of catering to what the expectations are. It’s violent, it’s mean, it’s a lot sadistic, and it doesn’t speak well of a humanity, but when you have some of the most contemptuous characters ever committed to celluloid, would you expect anything less?
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Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor as well as a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Talk movies and stuff to him on Twitter!