“The name of the game here is patience…”
One of the first shots we see in The Hateful Eight is a snow-capped statue of Christ. Writer and director Quentin Tarantino takes his time with this image. What does it represent? That God is forgotten in this part of the world? Or at least in this post-Civil War era? Does this isolated monument infer that the men (and woman) of this story are all alone? Maybe. Or perhaps everything we think we know in The Hateful Eight is one big lie. The one iota of truth I can offer is that it’s good. Damn good, in fact.
Anyone expecting another take on the spaghetti western a la 2012’s Django Unchained should look elsewhere. Hateful is pure-blooded American — with peaks and valleys covered in Wyoming snow. Think less Sergio Leone and more John Ford. Even famed composer Ennio Morricone bucks the spaghetti trend by composing his first western in 40 years with elements of Bernard Herrmann, his own score for The Untouchables, and his previously unused compositions for John Carpenter’s The Thing. (Jack White ditties and other 20th century songs also appear, but never distract.) Morricone’s touch adds to the mounting dread that comes to define the movie.
That dread is brought on by paranoia from the moment we meet John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his prisoner, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). They’re on their way via horse and buggy to the town of Red Rock, where the vile, racist, snot-rocketing Daisy will be hung and Ruth can collect his reward. Trouble arises when a blizzard quickly approaches, and after a chance (?) encounter with bounty hunter Mark Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and alleged new Red Rock Sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), the quartet finds themselves seeking refuge at Minnie’s Haberdashery.
To quote Warren: “Let’s slow it down. Let’s slow it way down.”
For the most part, the first two chapters of Hateful take place in that buggy. Never before has Tarantino spent this much time in such a confined space. He’s one for long scenes in a single spot (The Bride’s grave in Kill Bill: Vol.2; the bar in Inglorious Basterds, etc.), but nearly 40 minutes go by in which we’re left to bask in the glory that is these characters. While there’s some window dressing, so much of the interplay feels fresh and authentic — world-building without sacrificing the audience’s patience. It’s a one-act done good, presenting major characters who are, indeed, hateful. These are four awful people for various reasons, but most surprising of all may be Russell. Imagine his turn as Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little China, only Jack beats up Jennifer Jason Leigh off and on for the length of a movie. It’s against type, for sure.
Once at the haberdashery, we meet the final titular four: Mexican Bob (Demian Bichir), the well-to-do Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), and the quiet, mysterious Joe Gage (Michael Madsen). These are the major players, and this is their place of action, both physically and psychologically. For a movie with a three-hour-plus runtime, all the parts had to fit, and thankfully, Tarantino had the right pieces. His mish-mash of players from yesteryear and newbies to the fold creates one of 2015’s most unique ensembles.
It feels unfair to single out performances because the group has such a nice dynamic, but I’d be remiss without mentioning the impact of Leigh’s crazy Daisy, who spends most of the movie drenched in blood and handcuffed to Ruth. She’s mostly a silent observer, but when she kicks it on, she kicks it on — the definition of spit and vinegar. Roth is, dare I say, delightful as Mobray, an English gentleman who seems to be on the verge of twirling his mustache at the end of every sentence. He’s dark, quick, and very smart, arguably Roth’s finest performance to date. Jackson manages to outshine his performance as Stephen in Django Unchained with a role that calls for experience, wits, and the best sleuthing this side of Tim Curry’s butler in Clue.
The least well-known of this motley crew is the perennially underrated Goggins, who has enjoyed an outstanding television career on FX’s The Shield and Justified. His Chris Mannix is a real piece of work: racist, impatient, mouthy, and antagonistic. The growth from Point A to Point B is a testament not only to Tarantino’s writing but to Goggins himself. Thank God Eli Roth wasn’t available. I’m not saying he was ever considered, but just thank God he wasn’t available.
Folks, for the most part, this review pertains to everything that happens before the intermission (for those who see the non-Roadshow presentation, I’ve only covered the first two hours). The second half practically explodes off the screen as mysteries arise before being pulled back violently, characters pay off, motives are revealed, and while there will be blood, there will be no spoilers here. Not a word. For as leisurely paced as the front half is, a solid delivery in its back half was essential. The final chapters of Hateful Eight are solid. Maybe the understatement of the year.
There are a couple hiccups that prevent the movie from elevating to the classic status of your Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fictions. There are a couple sequences of narration that prove to be annoying and unnecessary, as though a certain filmmaker just couldn’t help himself and had to be included in the movie (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). It’s a far too cute addition in a movie that is vile and, more often than not, tough to watch. Could Tarantino have axed about 20 minutes to make the movie a little tighter without sacrificing urgency? Certainly. But it’s Tarantino.
The writer/director is a genre unto himself — he just loves playing around in others. If you have a chance to see the 70mm print of The Hateful Eight in its roadshow presentation (complete with that aforementioned intermission), do yourself a favor and attend. It’s hard to explain just how beautiful it all looks in this format. Imagine being able to see every snowflake flutter across the plain in slow motion or feel like you’re looking out your front window as the sun peaks over the snowcapped mountains. In any format, you can’t mistake Tarantino for someone who doesn’t know what shot he wants. Whether it’s overhead from the rafters of an old haberdashery or lost in the Wyoming mountains, his eye for grand cinema hasn’t waned over the last 20 years. If he only has a couple movies left in him, he’s threatening to retire on top.
The Hateful Eight is a big, mean movie in a small, isolated setting hidden among a beautiful, beautiful world. Now, can I bum a Red Apple off someone?