Quentin Rides Again
by Andrew Collins
With its hearkening to writer and director Quentin Tarantino’s legacy (the opening credits tell us this is his eighth film) The Hateful Eight may be the provocative auteur’s most contemplative film to date.
Relative to its length (nearly three hours) the story is simple. Eight strangers take shelter from a blizzard in a Wyoming stagecoach stopover called Minnie’s Haberdashery. One of them, John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), has an outlaw in tow, the wicked Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who he intends to see hanged as soon as he can get over the mountain to the town of Red Rock, where she will stand trial.
From an cinematography standpoint, The Hateful Eight is cinema par excellence. It was shot in 70mm film, a wide high-resolution film gauge (if possible, go see it in 70mm – only available in some theaters), in a nod to the long legacy of westerns in which it places itself. Ennio Morricone, whose scores were a driving force in popularizing spaghetti westerns (namely, the Dollars trilogy) came out of retirement to score a western film for the first time since 1981. His score dominates the film’s opening, including a three-minute overture before we see the first images — a series of crisp, visceral panoramas of the wintry wilderness. Combined with the ever-present sound of the cold wind whistling through and around their shelter, the music creates a palpable sense of setting that looms over the film, placing it squarely in the wild, untamed west.
Even though most of The Hateful Eight takes place within a single-room structure – another tribute to an earlier era of film making – it still feels like a western, a tale full of cowboys and bounty hunters accustomed to spending weeks in the saddle and enduring long days on the hunt – or on the run. True to the frontier spirit (and to the precedent Tarantino has set for all of his major characters), the eight are men of conviction, set in their ways, not the type to let that disgraceful, unconditional surrender known as the U.S. Civil War get in the way of prejudice.
Samuel L. Jackson’s Major Marquis Warren (AKA “The Bounty Hunter”), a well-known bounty hunter who operates by a philosophy of pragmatic vengeance, drives the film with an ever-suspicious frontier savvy and Jackson’s signature witticisms. A veteran of Tarantino films, Jackson plays to the now-expected type — channeling all the bigotry of his role as Stephen the butler in Django Unchained (this time against whites and specifically veterans of the Confederacy) and all the expressive confidence of his Pulp Fiction character Jules Winnifred (“Move a little strange, you’re gonna get a bullet. Not a warning, not a question. A bullet.”) I half expected him to pull out of a wallet with “Bad Mother F*****” printed on the side.
The script is full of deadpan humor in classic Tarantino style – verbal sparring that’s barely plausible within the film’s context but resonates with modern audiences. Lines like: “Girl don’t you know darkies don’t like being called n*****s anymore? They find it offense.”
“The good part about frontier justice is it’s very thirst quenching,” says Oswaldo Mobrey (Tim Roth), one of the eight men in the cabin who not-so-coincidentally happens to be the hangman in Red Rock. But the bad part is, he says, “it’s apt to be wrong as right.”
“Well, not in your case. In your case you’d have it coming. But other people maybe not so much.” John Ruth replies, because of course his prisoner is guilty. Nothing captures the stereotype of American individualism like an unflappable confidence in one’s own sense of judgment and justice and the robust assumption that the other guy’s probably got it wrong.
In the end, of course, no one is innocent – it’s a Tarantino film, after all – and each of the characters takes dramatic lengths to affirm the rightness of their own bigotry and to walk through elaborate proofs of fine American rhetoric to demonstrate the guilt of everyone else. The hateful eight may not have a legal basis for any of the murders they commit, but each of them damn well has it coming for something or other. Frontier justice is indeed “very thirst quenching.”
There’s no need to speak to the manner in which the story ends. To watch a Tarantino film is to sign off on certain expectations of bullets and blood. But suffice it to say that the one thing this band of outlaws, cowboys, and bounty hunters needs is the one caliber of character that never shows up: a truly impartial hangman.