Stubbornly theatrical, Quentin Tarantino’s three-hour snowed-in Western The Hateful Eight is a difficult movie by a director who’s not known for making them. Slow in the early going, it withholds almost all overt action until just before the intermission, at which point it explodes into the meanest, most gruesome and nihilistic violence of Tarantino’s career, only to conclude on a disquieting note of hope. Shot in 70mm, but largely set in one room, this is the writer-director’s take on the betrayed promise of America: a perverse vision of sadistic men comforted by false causes. The American ideal was only ever a lie, says The Hateful Eight, but in the end, when the floorboards are slicked with blood and brain matter, and the fatally wounded have enacted a ritualistic parody of justice, it looks toward that same ideal with the hope that one day, someone will be suckered by it hard enough to make it come true. Who could have predicted that Quentin Tarantino, director of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, would eventually turn into a political filmmaker?
The Hateful Eight stakes territory previously worked by Sam Peckinpah and the more politically conscious of the spaghetti Westerns, but it owes just as much to John Carpenter’s The Thing, with which it shares a star, a composer, and a whole lot more. The claustrophobic set-up—seven bad men and a feral woman, trapped in a Wyoming roadhouse—brings out the worst in an ugly bunch, and it comes out at first in slurs and pointed fingers, and then in sprays of bloody vomit and gunshots that blow heads and nutsacks clean off. But even if a lot of it is played for laughs, this is still the first Tarantino movie that might be called a drama. Set to an orchestral score (Ennio Morricone, no less), with a script that could easily be a stage play, The Hateful Eight is about as close as this pastiche artist is likely to get to the classical tradition, its story’s crisscross of opposites and suspicions cut through by some of his most lucid and sophisticated camerawork. One long take turns the sharpness of 70mm on its ear, with the point of focus hopscotching from foreground to background on perfect cue.
First conceived as a sequel to Django Unchained, Tarantino’s third consecutive re-working of Western tropes isn’t a historical fantasy in the vein of its predecessor or Inglourious Basterds, though it similarly paints the past in terms of misdeeds, i.e., revenge potential. Though he’s characterized as a fetishist who makes movie-movies, most of Tarantino’s reference points and influences (blaxploitation films, revisionist Westerns, New Wave-era Jean-Luc Godard movies, etc.) are very political; given the lengths he’s gone to imitate their sense of cool, perhaps it was inevitable that he’d develop a political conscience. Here, there is talk of violence in law enforcement, and the only black man among the eight speaks at length about being seen as a threat. Tarantino still can’t resist a signifying reference (in The Hateful Eight, characters are named after underrated directors, lesser B-movie starlets, and John Ford bit players), but they’re no longer the main draw. It used to be that when an American director had something to say about fundamental values, they went and made a Western, and making Westerns is just about all Tarantino has been doing as of late.
So what does Tarantino have to say, if anything? The Hateful Eight is a drawing-room mystery translated to the barroom, set some years after the Civil War at a stagecoach stop called Minnie’s Haberdashery, where a group of stock Western types are waiting out a snowstorm. Arriving on the Butterfield Overland Stage, bounty hunters John Ruth (Kurt Russell, doing a very committed impression of John Wayne) and Col. Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) suspect right away that they’ve walked into some kind of set-up, but can’t figure out who’s in on it. Ruth, semi-ironically nicknamed “the Hangman” for always bringing in bounties alive, is a mountain man who folds out dainty glasses to read. In this film, he’s what passes for moral bedrock, despite his habit of smacking around Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the murderer he’s bringing in for a big payday in nearby Red Rock. Warren, introduced seated atop three frozen corpses, is a Union Army veteran reputedly in possession of a personal letter from Abraham Lincoln. He is a man capable of deep cruelty, and the closest thing The Hateful Eight has to a protagonist.
Because it’s composed in large part of extended, cussed-up rhetorical dialogues, The Hateful Eight arranges its characters in a complicated web of counterpoints, with every character being some kind of contrast to each of the others. So, Ruth, “the Hangman,” reminiscent of rugged late Western heroes, is contrasted with an Englishman (Tim Roth, reunited with Tarantino after 20 years) who says he’s an actual hangman, and a stranger (Michael Madsen, black hair dye done no favors by 70mm) who looks like he just waltzed in from a singing cowboy picture, and with Warren, who prefers his bounties dead for ease of transport—and so on and so forth. With the exception of Ruth and the stagecoach driver, everybody in The Hateful Eight has some kind of secret that they’re hiding, some part of their back story that doesn’t check out, and some reason to hate all the other characters. At one point, the Englishman, called Mobray, proposes they divide the room between Union men and ex-Confederates, to prevent further arguing. But by then, it’s obvious that what’s been gathered at Minnie’s is the worst of American animosity, forced by bad weather into dialogue with itself.
All this talk of rhetoric and counterpoints may give the impression that The Hateful Eight is three hours of dialectics, but if Tarantino were making movies only for the political points, this one wouldn’t be a third as long. The Hateful Eight is an exercise in the art of the protracted scene, which has been part of his personal signature since Reservoir Dogs—the exchange, initiated in an off-hand way, that gets tenser and funnier because it keeps going on and on and on in unpredictable turns. Whether it’s the 15-minute basement bar game in Inglourious Basterds or the dinner at Candyland in Django Unchained, the best recent examples have had overtones of theater, either because they play with theatrical themes (e.g., performance, with characters play-acting) or because they use exits, entrances, and props in ways that are pretty damn theatrical. (Django’s dinner prominently features a skull, the most famous prop in English theater.)
The Hateful Eight draws out tension as though it were very slowly pulling back the plunger on a syringe, and then injects it back in one stabbing motion, jolting itself into a hyperactive state; once the guns come out, so do the flashbacks, voice-over narration (read by the director himself), and shifts in point-of-view. The drawing out it does by taking the long way through every scene, which is sometimes the funniest way—especially if said scene involves Demian Bichir’s stiff-limbed Bob, a comic-strip creation on par with Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raine—but never the easiest. Which is to say: Who would have thought that Tarantino, whose early hits spawned dozens of over-caffeinated imitators, would make a movie that would ask for so much patience? Because patience is what it takes for Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins)—a yokel who’s always going on about the Lost Cause, and says he’s the new sheriff in Red Rock, but can’t prove it—to go from being a caricature to a complicated character in his own right.
At the center of this long, deliberate movie sits the complex figure of Warren, the bounty hunter who was once himself a wanted man, and the image of Lincoln, whose death at the hands of John Wilkes Booth is spoken of as though it were Biblical. For the eight, snowed in with their prejudices and their paranoia and their itchy trigger fingers, venerating Honest Abe expresses a belief in something better than themselves, regardless of which side of the Civil War they fought on. (Heck, even Birth Of A Nation worshipped Lincoln.) And in a finale reminiscent of Pulp Fiction’s enigmatic endpoint, when the ugly American past and present they’ve given voice to has degraded and de-evolved into a caveman instinct of violence and retribution, the remaining characters gather to marvel at what a beautiful idea America could be—one of the few really moving scenes in Tarantino’s highly stylized body of work.