No one comes up here without a damn good reason.
On January 1st I attended a 70mm screening of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight at City Cinemas East 86th Street, one of the few Manhattan theaters selected to be part of the 98-theater national roadshow. The $20 event was presented like a traditional stage performance, complete with a large colorful program handed out prior to the screening, zero previews–supplanted by an opening orchestral overture–, and a full 15-minute intermission. During halftime, a family of three seated to our left (a mother, father, and their grown daughter) voiced their discontent with the experience. The mother, in particular, seemed distressed by the first hour and a half ordeal, audibly grumbling and fidgeting as the movie lumbered along, apparently baffled by the grueling pacing and seemingly directionless narrative (admittedly up to that point, not entirely invalid). She also expressed a bit of physical discomfort; they left and didn’t return. What a terrible mistake to begin the year with.
I’ve never understood why people walk out of movies. No matter how little you’re enjoying yourself, leaving the theater early amounts to abandoning a financial commitment and, more importantly, rejecting a foundational principle of storytelling – don’t judge it until it’s over. Walking out is purely a performative act of impatience. Besides, the world outside is a metaphorical storm of reality and responsibility, and the theater is a temporary shelter. Why not stay seated, invest a relatively minor additional amount of time in your surroundings, and revel in your fully informed disgust later on? Even better, hang around, you may despise everything around you at the moment, but you might be surprised by how an extra hour and a half changes everything.
The Hateful Eight is a stunning behemoth of a movie, one-half raising a sledgehammer and the other half slamming into and through the plane of your gut. It implores you to be patient. Tarantino has toiled for over two decades to reach where he is today, now arriving at his eighth film as a man whose vision commands such respect among fans that he can get away with staging a live reading of his unfinished script, canceling and then un-canceling a film, forcing theaters to equip themselves with antiquated and highly-specialized 70mm film equipment, and insisting that audiences endure a massive three-hour run-time. But the payoff is all there, locked in step with the insanity.
The opening overture is essentially the first character of the story, composed with swelling, delicate menace like the rest of the score by the legendary Ennio Morricone (marking a significant left turn for Tarantino, who traditionally cobbles together inspired soundtracks full of decade-hopping rock and pop tracks). In the opening shot, a six-horse carriage containing the bounty hunter “Hang Man” John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) races through the blinding snow of the Wyoming Mountains in a desperate quest to outrun a blizzard. On their way to Red Rock, where Ruth intends to have Domergue hanged, the carriage picks up two unexpected guests in Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a decorated former Union soldier and now bounty hunter, and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), former Confederate fighter and new sheriff of Red Rock. Together with their steadfast driver O.B. (James Parks), the traveling quadruplet forms an unlikely unit in the shadow of the recent Civil War, partnered by destination, bound by the storm, but tense in opposing beliefs, politics, and moral codes. Their numbers double when they stop to hole up in Minnie’s Haberdashery and wait out the storm. A Mexican named Bob (Demian Bichir) has taken over as temporary steward while Minnie is out of town, providing shelter to the dapper British hangman of Red Rock Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), a Confederate general named Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), and a mysterious cowboy named Joe Gage (Michael Madsen). Things seem immediately off, and we, along with the characters in the haberdashery, begin a Clue-like game to figure out who is lying about their identity, and why.
Central to the effectiveness of Tarantino’s theatrics are the stellar performances from a flawlessly cast set of actors. As implied by the title, none of the characters are free from reprehensible traits, subverting the natural inclination of audience members to gravitate towards an established protagonist. Our most discernible heroes, Ruth and Warren, follow all noble deeds with immediate acts of almost gleeful cruelty. The most potentially pitiable character, the diminutive and continually battered Domergue, is viler than any of her male housemates, unleashing demonic torrents of violent and racist words whenever her bloodied mouth isn’t full of John Ruth’s elbow. The movie is beautifully shot in an expansive ultra-wide screen format but feels purposefully claustrophobic, confined physically by the four walls of the haberdashery and emotionally by the heavy, hateful attitudes of its residents. There is no drop-off between any characters, whether it be the fiercely intense Bruce Dern, the unexpectedly compelling Walton Goggins, or the always electric Samuel L. Jackson.
Since the movie is essentially a mystery-western, it’s difficult to go further in the plot without ruining some of the magic of discovery. The journey, however, is full of incredible details: a running gag about a loose door, a fantastical tale about letters from Abraham Lincoln, a classic Red Apple tobacco plug in Spanish. Most noteworthy was the sensational costume design by second time Tarantino collaborator (and current girlfriend) Courtney Hoffman, who dresses each actor in distinctive hats, coats, and accessories like comic book villains. All characters, even the relatively quiet Bob the Mexican, feel fully fleshed out, wearing entire personal histories on their ragged faces and curiously singular clothes.
The Hateful Eight feels perfectly positioned in context with Tarantino’s previous work. It’s measured, mature filmmaking that stashes away some of Tarantino’s trademark techniques – time jumps, boisterous music, preposterous lines of dialogue—at least in the first half, before exploding like a compressed spring in the second. In slowing things down, Tarantino is able to let bigger ideas on the deep social suspicion that shapes America sink in, while simultaneously challenging the audience’s expectations on what makes a person worthy of their hatred. There’s barely enough space in three hours to cram in all of the philosophies and comically splashy violence of this movie. Watch it, and for the love of God don’t leave halfway.
The Hateful Eight – Movie Review