A carriage at the edge of a blizzard trots hastily across silent miles of snowy terrain, galloping towards a destination that it may never reach. It stops only twice: once to pick up a stranded bounty hunter (Samuel L. Jackson) and three of his prized corpses, and again to rescue a drifting would-be sheriff (Walton Coggins), on his way to be sworn into his newly-elected position. Already aboard are two coarse faces carrying distinct agendas: one also a bounty hunter (Kurt Russell) who speaks in urgent commands, and the other his prisoner (Jennifer Jason Leigh), whose eyes shift to and fro as if suggesting mutilated euphemisms conceal more devious intentions. Their inadvertent union is one of perplexity and discomfort, but their wicked smiles do not reveal the details of that unease. There is dialogue, too – a rather abundant supply of it, and it carries their strange destinies towards a plot scenario in which they become stranded with another four strangers, all walled up in a rickety cabin just as the menacing blizzard overtakes them. On some subterranean level, they are meant to converge this way – as pieces on a chess board that seems made to inspire violence and chaos, all under the ruse of intense suspicion. What secrets do they carry? Those certainties are less important than the question of why, because the root of the greatest movie westerns is understanding the morality of the man holding the gun, not what brought him to that key moment of reaching for it.
The relentless Quentin Tarantino has dabbled deeply with these sorts of themes in his previous movies, and they are carried by an undercurrent of sensationalistic prowess that has gradually overtaken his filmmaking sensibilities in the most recent decade. Often, a new sense of life is pumped into those ideals through a marriage of slick style and wicked humor (not to mention large amounts of violence and vulgarity). But his panache for such standards is toned down with considerable momentum in “The Hateful Eight,” which suggests a full-on embrace of western philosophy. Sitting distinctly outside of the elastic continuum that its predecessors rest on, the film is the closest he has ever come to making a true genre picture, removed from the obligation to bend the world around the characters to the will of a creator enamored by the hybrid approach of directing.
The result is a defiant stand against modern convention, a movie so resolute and deadpan that it creates scenarios we find ourselves unable to turn away from, and personalities that intrigue as deeply as they horrify. It is the endeavor that he has been quietly building towards as far back as “Pulp Fiction,” and it represents the culmination of his education in a result that plays brilliant mind games while refusing to overplay them in the embrace of wanton violence or gratuity. There is plenty of blood present in the film, sure, but it has become less a device and more a consequence; what is more important to him now is the onslaught of words and exchanges, and his screenplay douses us in hours of lengthy conversations that are paradoxical, insistent, revealing, profound and even meaningful. Like the definitive masters before him – including his greatest muse, Sergio Leone – here is a filmmaker content to paralyze us in a long show of piercing stares, questionable behaviors and vengeful antics, because he knows how to centralize them in the framework of a compelling story that refuses to be boring or flaccid.
The first scenes set the pace: on the surface of a frigid landscape, a six-horse stagecoach rushes down a narrow mountain road in hopes of outrunning an impending storm when it stops abruptly, and right into the path of a strange figure. His name is Marquis Warren (Jackson), and he is a celebrated figure in post-Civil War circles: a bounty hunter with quick guns and a sharp wit, who carries around a hand-written letter from Abraham Lincoln as his mark of equalization. There is a rhythm in the way he engages with his newest contact, the more abrupt and domineering John Ruth (Russell); they share parallel destinies but contrasting worldviews, and their exchanges are classic in the way they depict the unease of their encounter between respectful acknowledgments. Marquis needs transport to Red Rock to deliver a group of deceased criminals after the loss of his own horse, but Ruth isn’t eager to share the space with another, even he; known infamously as “The Hangman,” he is on a mission of his own to deliver the infamous Daisy Domergue (Jason-Leigh) to said town, where a noose awaits her treacherous neck. Both men anticipate collecting sizeable financial rewards for their acquisitions, but they are secondary impulses; there is nobility in what they do, especially in a world that seems overrun by the sorts of minds that hope to cause damaging rifts. Domergue represents the most depraved of that pattern, and the characters regard her from a psychological distance as if to imply a false moralistic superiority.
The nature of her crimes may not be so much of a gray area when considered within the context of the ensemble that gathers in her midst. Following the arrival of a mouthy law official (Coggins) with racist tendencies, the stagecoach is unable to beat the blizzard and winds up finding refuge at a lone cabin on the Wyoming plans – a Haberdashery inhabited by an enigmatic caretaker (Menian Bichir), a confederate general (Bruce Dern), an articulate executioner (Tim Roth) and a silent brute (Michael Madsen). Their meetings are as awkward as they are rigid, and their dialogue laced with obligatory emphasis; there are secrets between all of them that must rise to the surface, but only after each has exhausted one another with threats, domination, exchanged histories, piercing glances and trenchant cynicism designed to break down their walls of awareness. That the title describes them as eight “hateful” personas understates their nihilism; what they bring about on one another in three hours of heated exchanges and dangerous gestures goes to the heart of human cruelty, and never once does the film flinch from that intense objective.
That also means the story requires a deep degree of dramatic dedication, and the performances Tarantino pulls out of his focused ensemble are revelatory in their precision. Some of that isn’t as surprising in the director’s long-running veterans (both Madsen and Jackson are seasoned professionals at executing the necessary standard), but Russell and Leigh are deeply rooted in their conviction: he as a loud and oppressive officer of vengeance that briefly allows genuine humanity to gloss the surface, and she as a snarky and barbaric criminal mind who strategically bides her time for the right moment to… who knows what? The unnerving quality of the roles, I think, propels their portrayers to some level of unfaltering attachment; they aren’t so much playing through the quirks of characters as they are channeling the energies of a dark psychology, and when the time comes for them to reveal their cores, there is a sense that it comes as just as much of a surprise to them as it does to us. Did they know all the details of their screen personas going in, or was their director content to dangle them over the embers of a moralistic subterfuge?
The urgency of the material is reflected in a production that seems knee-deep in careful technical values. The cinematography by Robert Richardson (one of Tarantino’s frequent collaborators) is precise and sweeping, often eager to emphasize the immensity of the environment to contrast the more solitary functions of its hostile inhabitants (the cabin itself feels just as spacious as the nearby forests). The editing, as sharp as it is concentrated, does not bother with swift cuts between climactic moments; there are shootouts aplenty, and many of them are made agonizing by the camera’s knack to show some of them in strategic slow motion. And the musical score, a blatant homage to those of the classic Leone westerns, is a symphonic paradox of emotions that penetrates to the core of the story’s cynicism. This is not a joyous or lighthearted romp through the fantasy of violence like “Kill Bill,” nor does it use the undercurrent of social strife to inspire audacious resolutions like “Inglourious Basterds.” It is a cruel film, unrelenting and serious (for the most part, at least), and the technical artists match that severity in images that are as evocative and striking as their source.
Much of the familiar Tarantino doctrine does lives on in the movie’s many frames. The violence – arriving mostly after a long psychological dance of wits – is unrelenting and overkill, all to scripted intention. The vulgarity, ramped up by the excessive use of racial slurs, recalls the no-holds-barred audacity of “Django Unchained.” And the story, as sincere as Western stories come, regards the barbarianism of its characters with unspoken deference, as if to encompass their conflicting values in the acknowledgment of a universal code of formality. But above all else the movie shows us a man we have come to view as an exciting exhibitionist in the throes of forlorn maturity, eager to embrace the more centralized focus of his most preferred values. “The Hateful Eight” is the movie he has dreamed of making since his early days as an enthusiastic provocateur, and after three hours of fixated observation, it’s not hard to understand why it holds such prominence in his heart.
Author’s Note: “The Hateful Eight” is showing in two formats: one on standard digital projection and another in a limited “Roadshow” version, containing the original Panavision 70mm print that Tarantino shot the entire project on. Because he is a staunch champion of film stock versus digital photography, it is the roadshow version that is the truest to his comprehensive vision; as a bonus, it contains both an overture and intermission, reflecting those sensibilities and paying homage to the classic 70mm prints of old Hollywood, which were released in similar techniques.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Drama (US); 2015; Rated R; Running Time: 187 Minutes
Samuel L. Jackson: Major Marquis Warren
Kurt Russell: John Ruth
Jennifer Jason Leigh: Daisy Domergue
Walton Goggins: Sheriff Chris Mannix
Menian Bichir: Bob
Tim Roth: Oswaldo Mobray
Michael Madsen: Joe Gage
Bruce Dern: General Sandy Smithers
James Parks: O.B. Jackson
Produced by William Paul Clark, Coco Francini, Richard N. Gladstein, Georgia Kacandes, Shannon McIntosh, Stacey Sher, Bob Weinstein and Harvey Weinstein; Directed and written by Quentin Tarantino