Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Written by: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demian Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, James Parks and Channing Tatum
Runtime: 187 minutes (70MM Roadshow), 167 minutes (Digital)
Quentin Tarantino likes to do things the old fashioned way. He refuses to use digital photography for his films, he makes frequent and blatant call-backs to classic films in his narratives, structures and shots, and he likes to teach the general audience something about the history of film by just doing things that used to be done but have fallen out of practice. Such is the case with The Hateful Eight and its 70mm Roadshow. The fact that he shot the film on SuperPanivision 70, a film format that hasn’t been used in about 50 years (though 70mm film has been used for features as recently as Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master in 2012), is kind of a mini-miracle in the first place but then to actually get 70mm projectors installed into theaters that had converted to 100% digital projection five of more years ago, trained people how to operate them and then started screenings ahead of the digital release is unheard of nowadays. The result is a glorious looking film with a depth and scope that hasn’t been seen in movie theaters in a very long time (not to mention the return of that wonderful clicking sound that accompanies a real projector and the flicker on the screen that makes everything feel better) and outside of the format and the presentation, the film crackles with what is now typical Tarantino dialogue and a visual sense that really shows a director at the height of his powers.
The story is a Tarantino-ized version of Agatha Christie’s 1939 novel And Then There Were None (filmed as 10 Little Indians theatrically and on television starting in 1969 and most recently in late 2015). It focuses on Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a former U.S. Cavalry who is now, sometime after the American Civil War (the screenplay states six to eight to twelve years after) who barters passage on a stagecoach to Red Rock Wyoming after his horse died carrying three bounty’s bodies to the town ahead of a major blizzard. He gets into the carriage of fellow bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) who is himself transporting a bounty, but his is alive. She is wanted murderer Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), whom Ruth takes great pleasure in beating when she says or does something he disapproves of. Further down the line, they take in Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), the son of a famous Confederate renegade that formed his own army after the war to terrorize black towns. He’s on his way to Red Rock too, claiming to be the new Sherriff. He joins the three and their driver, the thankless and tireless O.B. (James Parks) as he drives hard to beat the blizzard. When O. B. realizes he can’t beat the blizzard to Red Rock, he pulls into Minnie’s Haberdashery, a rudimentary cabin that serves as an inn, trading post and roadside diner. Once there, they are greeted by Bob (Demian Bichir) who says he’s watching the place for Minnie and inside are Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) who says he’s the hangman for the area, Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) who says he’s just a cowboy going home to his mother’s for Christmas after a long cattle drive, and General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a retired Confederate General on his way to his son’s grave to advise on the headstone. Ruth is convinced that one or all of the people there are working with Daisy to free her and enlists Marquis to continue to protect his asset and Marquis is suspicious of the entire situation from the start and the game is off.
It’s amazing what Tarantino does throughout the film, because he limits himself essentially to one location after the first maybe 15-20 minutes of the film. The characters are stuck in this cabin because of the blizzard and a broken door that is a pain to open and close. This is in direct contrast to every one of his other seven films that luxuriate in multiple wide-open spaces and bounce from location to location with ease (even The Bride in Kill Bill could go on an airplane with her samurai sword and the plane had a holder for it). Tarantino limits himself to one essentially locked room as there are no divides between the kitchen, sitting area and sleeping areas of the cabin. It’s his strength as a writer and as a director that makes the film pop, easily transitioning between characters and situations without clumsily cutting around. He just lets the action and dialogue flow from one area to another. That’s not to say there is no cutting, it’s not an emulation of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, but it could be likened to Hitch’s Lifeboat, with the characters all confined to a limited space and having to deal with each other and the confines.
His characters are also rich and detailed and his exposition so artfully worked into the main story that it doesn’t seem like exposition at all. Everyone tells their stories because they’re asked to or they are recounted by another character to inform an ignorant member of the group about someone else. These characters would not be as rich as they are without superior talent behind them, though. Each and every person in the film is in top notch form here. That’s not so surprising when discussing Bruce Dern or Samuel L. Jackson, they’re always good in everything they do (Jackson was even good in Spike Lee’s misguided remake of Oldboy). Similarly with Madsen in a Tarantino film and the criminally underrated Jennifer Jason Leigh. The real treat was Kurt Russell. He’s not always in top form, but he is better here than he’s been in just about anything he’s ever done. Tarantino is known for getting career performances out of people and with Russell it is no exception. It is also one of Jackson’s best starring performances since Pulp Fiction.
Tarantino’s direction has never been better, utilizing the small space and the big camera and aspect ratio of the 70mm UltraPannivision format. It’s strange to use that format for a confined film, since its best uses have been on pictures like Ben-Hur in 1959, the 1962 remake of Mutiny on the Bounty, The Greatest Story Ever Told and Battle of the Bulge, films that are largely outside and set against sweeping vistas. Tarantino gets his landscape shots early in the film and they are beautiful as expected, given the format and master cinematographer Robert Richardson, but how he uses it inside is even more artful. He uses the format’s natural depth of focus to keep an eye on the background and blocks his scenes so that only the people he wants you to notice are in the massive frame. His camera moves and glides with grace and ease, following characters and giving us the lay of the limited land as they move about the cabin. He keeps his pacing restrained in the beginning (before the intermission in the roadshow prints) and then lets loose for the last half of the film ratcheting up the pace as the situation becomes more and more precarious and people start dying.
The Hateful Eight is a testament to the fact that Quentin Tarantino has never made a bad film and that most of his films could rightfully be called masterpieces, this one included. He has a command of the art form that few people ever achieve and this film stands next to his other greats Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained. The film may not be for all tastes given the high level of violence and gore along with the (time-period authentic) use of the N-word, but it is important not just because it was the first film to use UltraPanavision 70 in 49 years or because it is legendary composer Ennio Morricone’s first western score in nearly as long (and it is stunning), but because it is an exemplary film filled with interesting and amazing characters, magnificent camera work, masterful direction and writing and an end product that makes you respect some of these loathsome characters even if you may not be able to go all the way to liking them. Tarantino’s full forces are on display throughout the film, making it a glorious thing to behold.