If you go see The Hateful Eight over the holidays, try to catch the “roadshow” version—the one with a 70 mm image, an old-fashioned orchestral overture, and a 15-minute intermission, the one that clocks in at more than three hours long. I say this not because I loved every minute of The Hateful Eight—there were plenty of minutes I could have done without—but because without the sense of spaciousness provided by those formal breaks and that extra-wide screen, the movie’s steady descent into claustrophobia and violence might be even harder to take.
The eighth film of Quentin Tarantino, as it cheekily introduces itself in the retro-style opening credits, showcases the best and worst qualities of this gifted yet maddening director: his virtuosity with a camera. His gift for funny, highly stylized yet character-revealing dialogue. His deft way of weaving citations from film history into his own work without getting bogged down in pastiche. And—not alternating with these good qualities but present alongside them at every moment—Tarantino’s sadism toward both his characters and his audience. His unseemly and sometimes juvenile tendency to revel in mutilation and gore. His growing obsession with restaging world history as a series of revenge fantasies, often on behalf of oppressed groups (Holocaust victims, slaves, women) to which he does not belong. The Hateful Eight is bold, gorgeous, verbally clever, morally repellent, and, in some way I am still struggling to put my finger on, possibly somehow evil. Any movie that inspires mixed feelings that intense can, I suppose, be said to have done its work on the viewer. But I’m not sure the work The Hateful Eight performed on me was what the filmmaker intended or that it’s an operation I would consent to again.
Still, no cinephile could resist The Hateful Eight’s stately, thrilling opening sequence, set during a blizzard in the mountains of Wyoming at an unspecified historical time that appears to be a decade or so after the Civil War. To the sounds of an original score by Spaghetti Western maestro Ennio Morricone, a six-horse stagecoach races across the barren white landscape, trying to beat the snowstorm to the next town. The coach is flagged down by a solo bounty hunter, the former Union officer Maj. Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), who’s dragging a pile of frozen bodies on a sled—all wanted men with prices on their heads. Inside the coach is another bounty hunter, John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), who’s bringing his prize trophy back not dead but alive. She’s Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a wanted murderer who’s cuffed to her jailer and whose black eye and bloodied lip are a testament to both her stubborn defiance and her captor’s casual brutality.
After a mutually wary armed interrogation, Ruth agrees to let Warren hitch a ride to the nearest town of Red Rock, where both men can exchange their human bounty for cash. They’re slowed down by an encounter with another man fleeing the blizzard on foot: Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who professes to be the new sheriff of Red Rock—and who, as a Confederate veteran from an old Southern family, doesn’t much take to the idea of sharing a stagecoach with an N-word. (Are you, like me, uncomfortable with that word even in writing? Get used to hearing it every 20 to 30 seconds, this being a Tarantino script.) But along with their taciturn coach driver, O.B. (James Parks), the four fractious passengers eventually make it to Minnie’s Haberdashery, a remote stagecoach station atop a mountain pass, where they agree to wait out the blizzard together. Already taking shelter at Minnie’s—a one-room wooden shack that serves at once as saloon, homestead, and general store—are enough men to round out their number to the eponymous eight: Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), an unaccountably chipper Englishman who introduces himself as the town of Red Rock’s official executioner; Señor Bob (Demián Bichir), a Mexican of few words who’s holding down the store in Minnie’s absence; Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a cowboy of even fewer words who keeps his distance from everyone; and Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), an old Confederate general who, seated at his chessboard by the fire, glares at Jackson’s importuning Warren with a frank expression of contempt.
It’s a regular game of Clue in that haberdashery or maybe the setup to a postbellum drawing-room mystery à la Agatha Christie. Who, if anyone, is telling the truth about his or her identity? Who’s armed? Who’s in secret cahoots with whom? As soon as that coach pulls up at the cabin door, The Hateful Eight leaves behind the grand panoramic vistas and becomes a one-set chamber piece. The wide world outside this loathsome octet’s blizzard-bound shelter will be seen henceforth only in flashbacks, save one hurried trip to the outhouse. But I disagree with those critics who find the interior-bound middle section of The Hateful Eight to be as visually flat as a filmed theatrical performance. Even within the tight space of that one room, Tarantino finds cinematically interesting ways to place and move the camera. Sometimes, those techniques are flamboyant, as when he throws in an overhead shot looking down from the ceiling rafters just because he can, but sometimes they’re so sophisticated they take a while to sink in. At one moment, a character proposes defusing potential conflicts by reserving one half of the room for rebel sympathizers and the other for supporters of the Union. After that point, Tarantino’s framing, which formerly gave us wide shots of the whole room, tends to chop up the space into smaller territorial segments, subtly changing our understanding of the space’s geography and its inhabitants’ psychology.
The first half of The Hateful Eight (though the film is divided into six titled chapters, it can be roughly broken down into two one-act halves) remorselessly ratchets up the intrigue, suspense, and potential for violence; the last half releases all that tension (or attempts to) in a sudden, oneiric eruption of semi-comic gore. I can’t get into the details of what makes this last act so queasy-making without revealing who gets out of the cabin alive and who doesn’t. (That not every character makes it isn’t, I don’t think, too much of a spoiler—this is a Tarantino film, not The Swiss Family Robinson.) But I can say that much of what made the would-be climax so drearily uncathartic had to do with the film’s final treatment of the Jennifer Jason Leigh character. Leigh has long been a performer dear to my heart, in part because of the habitual mismatch between her default intensity setting (+11) and the naturalistic acting she tends to be surrounded by in most movies. Leigh has an excessive, outsiderish quality, a solitary, feral energy that suits her perfectly for the part of an unrepentant outcast like the spitting, snarling Daisy. But the dignity that Leigh’s fierce performance—the standout, along with Jackson’s, in a generally stunning ensemble—lends her damned and damnable character isn’t always accorded to Daisy by the film itself. The last chapter, titled “Black Man, White Hell,” seems to suggest that the humiliation and suffering undergone by the film’s only major black character is deserving of, if not cosmic redemption, at least some form of karmic redress here on Earth. (Whether that’s a moral stance that’s Tarantino’s to take is up for debate among viewers, which certainly include actual black men.) As for the humiliation and suffering of the movie’s sole major female character, who’s been taking punches from men since before the moment she first appeared on screen—well, the bitch kind of did have it coming.