Note: This review concerns the Roadshow edition of the film that is currently playing for only two weeks in select theaters in select cities. I cannot speak to any differences that may exist in the standard version of the film
Let it never be said that Quentin Tarantino takes on a project lightly.
The maverick director’s hubris has grown exponentially since he locked a bunch of gangsters in a warehouse back in 1992 to see who might break first. Now, nearly twenty-five years later, his eighth film finds Tarantino at perhaps the boldest he has been in his career. After nearly not happening due to a script leak in January of last year that caused him to temporarily cancel the project, The Hateful Eight rose from the ashes to become the first film shot in Ultra Panavision since 1966. Not content with only that milestone, Tarantino also managed to convince Ennio Morricone to score his first Western since 1981 and conspire with The Weinstein Company to mount the largest 70 mm film release since 1992. The so-called “roadshow edition” involved fitting 100 theaters with 70 mm projectors despite such technology only remaining in the artiest of houses. Complete with an overture, intermission and an extra five minutes or so of footage, it’s clear Tarantino planned for this special roll out of The Hateful Eight to be an experience.
And, from the moment its 4 minute overture fades to black and the film starts in earnest, The Hateful Eight is an experience. Opening with a tight close-up on a snow-covered crucified stone Jesus, the credits roll as Morricone’s main theme slowly builds, the camera painstakingly pulls back, revealing more of the statue as the music builds to its crescendo. The theme is a harrowing, bone rattling assault and claustrophobic paranoid epic, Morricone by way of Hitchcock-era Bernard Herrmann, and sets the tone of the film precisely and expertly and as ominously as the partially obscured Son of God keeping watch over the frozen tundra of post-Civil War Wyoming. Though the spell is eventually broken in order to get the film started properly, its implications linger over the next three hours.
As fate and a blizzard pushes bounty hunter extraordinaire John Ruth (Kurt Russell), his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and their two unexpected passengers, a former Civil War Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and the purported Sheriff of the town of Red Rock Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) toward their way station from the storm, Ruth, known to other bounty hunters as “The Hangman” for his penchant for bringing in his charges alive to face the noose, can barely contain his distrust of anyone and everything that crosses his path. His concerns are not allayed when the coach arrives at Minnie’s Haberdashery to discover Minnie nowhere to be found and four questionable souls residing there instead. Though Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), Bob (Demian Bichir) and General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern) claim to be innocents with no interest in robbing Ruth of his bounty, he is not particularly convinced. With the snow raging outside, they have no choice but to wait it out in the closest of quarters.
In some ways, The Hateful Eight feels like a return to Reservoir Dogs for Tarantino (and not just due to the presence of Tim Roth and Michael Madsen). Both are arguably best understood as chamber dramas, and while Reservoir Dogs changed up its scenery a fair bit through a series of flashbacks, its core story remained chained to the warehouse much like The Hateful Eight’s confinement in the one giant room that is Minnie’s Haberdashery. As personalities and agendas bounce against the walls and each other, Tarantino’s flair for dialogue and violence takes center stage. One might expect perhaps that the level of violence may be subdued due to the small cast and confined space, but it almost feels like he takes that as a challenge and lets the blood, guts and viscera fly with more glee than usual (it's no wonder than splatter gore legend Greg Nicotero is one of the first names seen in the end credits).
Where he does seem to be more reserved than usual is in the pace of the editing. The Hateful Eight predominantly unfolds as a series of tense conversations, probing for truth and lies and motivations and the likelihood of betrayal. Tarantino keeps a steady, reserved hand during these scenes, more than happy to let them play out over a series of static takes, keeping the score out of the picture and the cuts to a minimum (there actually isn’t all that much Morricone from a percentage of run time perspective, but good lord does he make it count), placing his full trust into his peerless ensemble to do the majority of the heavy lifting. Consider an entire film forged from variations on the basement bar scene from Inglourious Basterds and that might provide a sense of what the film is up to here. Jackson is his dependable self as always, Russell is clearly having a blast chewing the scenery through his comically gigantic moustache and both Tim Roth and Demian Bichir bring boatloads of verve to their small roles, but the secret stars of the film are Jennifer Jason Leigh and Walton Goggins. Leigh plays her role with a sadistic delight, twisting the few teeth she has left into a jack-o’-lantern grin as she antagonizes anyone who will bother to take the time to listen to her. Goggins begins the film as a cartoon hick, but his arc manages to hide some real feeling where it is not expected. Everyone is dependably great as one might expect, but Leigh and Goggins are particularly wonderful.
There are, however, a few moments where it could be argued that Tarantino’s indulgence gets the better of him. It can feel at times like scenes are drawn out purely for the purposes of padding the run time, with unnecessary slow motion, mostly added for comic effect that does not quite land, and superfluous establishing shots (they are of course beautiful in their 70 mm 2.76:1 glory, but there does not need to be as many of them as there are) threatening to try the viewer’s patience. The wantonness of the violence does manage to spill over into self-parody at a few moments, and some of the structuring of the screenplay during the second half feels a bit rough around the edges. Indeed, the first half of the film is arguably flawless, a dazzlingly written and claustrophobic pressure cooker of a chamber piece, but the second does not share that distinction.
Tarantino’s devotion to the cause never wavers though, and while some may quibble about its small scale, or about the point of it all by the time the credits roll, the experience of it, the cinematography, the acting, the dialogue, the score, so effortlessly washes over that it often feels impossible to resist its charms. The Hateful Eight, just like the seven films that preceded it, is Quentin Tarantino’s ego in full plumage, warts and all. The good news is the all outweighs the warts. This film is not going to convert anyone who has been resisting the cult of Tarantino, but it does prove that even 23 years after Reservoir Dogs first graced the silver screen, he is still the vital and impassioned director he has always been.