Most of us were raised to believe that cowboys were men of few words, but Quentin Tarantino is out to prove otherwise in The Hateful Eight, a three-hour Western that’s windy both inside and out. There is absolutely no doubt about who wrote the elaborate, pungent, profane and often funny dialogue that a fine cast chews over and spits out with evident glee, nor as to who staged the ongoing bloodbath that becomes a gusher in the final stretch. But set mostly in the confined space of a remote haberdashery/stagecoach stop, the piece plays like a weird combination of John Ford’s Stagecoach, Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians and Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, albeit with a word count closer to Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.
If this makes it sound like Tarantino is moving toward being as much a playwright as a filmmaker, stranger things have happened. The director’s loyal fans, plus anyone keen to relish Samuel L. Jackson authoritatively stating how things are going to go down as only he can, will turn out in ample numbers. But the wider public that made Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained $321 million and $425 million worldwide grossers, respectively, might not run out so readily to greet this nihilistic whodunit.
To help create a hot-house atmosphere in a very cold climate, Tarantino and his now-regular cinematographer Robert Richardson shot The Hateful Eight in 70mm — specifically, in the long-disused, buff-cherished Ultra Panavision 70 format with a 2.76:1 aspect ratio. It seems rather perverse to choose this claustrophobic yarn as the excuse to justify rounding up old lenses and getting Panavision to create 2,000-foot magazines to accommodate long takes, as well as oblige Harvey Weinstein to track down and in some cases install antiquated projectors to facilitate the two-week 70mm “roadshow” engagements planned for about 100 venues beginning on Christmas Day. The film’s length notwithstanding, the truth is that The Hateful Eight would never have been considered roadshow material back in the format’s heyday: It’s not, by any stretch, a spectacle. The 70mm release certainly represents a very particular type of film buff event (the last “Cinerama” film to be shot on Ultra Panavision 70 was Khartoum in 1966), but how special it will be to a generation accustomed to Imax 3D and other modern experiential sensations remains an open question.
To be sure, the film looks grand. The mountainous landscapes and snowfall of the opening reels have a dense splendor, as a six-horse stagecoach makes its way through a Wyoming storm bearing bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his pasty prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), shortly to be joined by the imposing and loquacious Major Marquis Warren (Jackson), a former Union soldier now in the same line of work as The Hangman; he’s got some corpses to get to Red Rock, which is where Ruth intends to collect a $10,000 ransom for Daisy. The two men share a mutual respect — in fact, Ruth once saved the major’s life — as well as some suspicion and a philosophical bent.
The stage gets a little too crowded, and quite a bit more uncomfortable personally, politically and racially, when a fourth passenger climbs aboard. A decade or more after the Civil War, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) remains an unreconstructed Johnny Reb who doesn’t much cotton to Warren or the letter the latter carries with him written by Abraham Lincoln. Mannix announces that he is on his way to Red Rock to take over as the new sheriff, which could pose some problems for his two cash- and justice-seeking coachmates.
This setup occupies the first two of what ultimately come to be six chapters, the rest of which unfold almost exclusively within the relatively comfortable confines of Millie’s Haberdashery, where several more colorfully unsavory rascals with recognizably Tarantinoesque vocabularies greet these riders from the gathering storm. There’s yet another hangman, Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), a brash Britisher with a bowler hat; Bob (Damian Bichir), a supposed friend of the absent Minnie; watchful cowboy Joe Cage (Michael Madsen); and former Confederate General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), another unrepentant racist with special reasons to hate Major Warren.
The real test of Tarantino’s decision to shoot in 70mm comes inside, as it raises the question of what advantage a super-widescreen format serves when the drama is mostly limited to one room. To eyes old enough to remember luxuriating in the brilliance of Ultra Panavision 70 in its heyday (on films including Ben-Hur, Mutiny on the Bounty and The Fall of the Roman Empire), The Hateful Eight offers a different sort of experience. Up to a point, Tarantino uses the space and blocks the actors in ways that emphasize the power dynamics, raise suspicions and otherwise highlight details that will provoke drama, laughs and surprise.
But where you really notice the difference is in the detail picked up in faces, right down to the pores, teeth and hair. Faces and expressions are uncommonly vivid, and expressively, not unflatteringly so — even when Leigh’s face is covered in blood and her front teeth are mostly knocked out. By contrast, there are moments of distortion, or when Richardson racks focus, that prove jarring and unnatural (at a Los Angeles press screening, the image onscreen during the film’s first half kept fluctuating in and out of focus, suggestive of a problem with the print moving through the gate, not an issue with the film itself).
So was the indulgence of 70mm worth it? If you’re a director with Tarantino’s track record, a fanatical devotion to celluloid over digital and the wherewithal to make it happen: sure, why not? Anyone who loves great images on the big screen will appreciate the experience. All the same, longtime devotees of the form, including those who flock to Hollywood’s American Cinematheque and elsewhere to behold restored 70mm prints, would no doubt rather see an epic film in the format than something closer to the scale of The Petrified Forest or Key Largo. Of all of Tarantino’s films, perhaps the one that might have been best served by a high-end format like this wold have been Kill Bill: Vol. 1.
Once all the characters get comfortable under one roof, the film itself settles down into a protracted talkathon in which unsavory connections, coincidences, prejudices, resentments and intentions among the characters bubble to the surface. But liquids take longer to boil at high altitudes, and so it is with the percolating drama the film very slowly builds up as it chugs along toward intermission, which arrives at the 101-minute point (already longer than Reservoir Dogs).
A sign that things are going to get more complicated in the 74-minute second section comes with the abrupt arrival of explanatory narration — spoken by the director himself — to the effect that not everything is what it seems. Ever since he first used the device of narrative doubling-back so successfully in Pulp Fiction, it’s been hard for Tarantino to resist pulling that same rabbit out of his hat. Nifty as it is in casting everything we’ve already seen in different light, as well as in intensifying the drama, the technique can’t continue to deliver the same surprise and impact after multiple uses. As suspicion mounts over who might be guilty of a poisoning and in cahoots with bad girl Daisy, Major Warren insists, “Let’s slow it down. Let’s slow it way down,” and it’s a sentiment Tarantino has taken to heart; this is a movie that takes its own sweet time.
Hardcore Tarantino fans who relish every word he writes — his dialogue does remain extra juicy and instantly recognizable as his own and no one else’s — will have little problem with the verbosity on display. But there’s no question that Tarantino has increasingly come to ignore the virtues of brevity and tight construction, whether out of simple infatuation with his own prose or because length has not been seen to be a problem on his last two epic, period-set features. One takeaway from the live read of the script Tarantino presented in April 2014 at Los Angeles’ Ace Hotel Theater with most of the present cast was that a bit of trimming was in order. But while the final act was considerably rewritten, the length seems only to have increased.
Overlapping from Django are strong expressions of racial resentment between Jackson’s Major Warren and Dern’s General, which involve not only innumerable N-word utterances but also an explicitly obscene backstory, the revelation of which provides some long-awaited comeuppance.
As ever with Tarantino films, however, some of the performances are lip-smackingly delicious. After having received too little screen time, many felt, in Django, Jackson gets a full share of the verbal opportunities here, and he makes the most of them, rolling the words around in his mouth, immaculately enunciating and otherwise relishing his choice dialogue. The other standout here, because of the outrageous extremity of her role and the relish with which she embraces the very depths of depravity and filth, is Leigh, who ends up looking like she could instantly spawn a child resembling Linda Blair at her worst in The Exorcist. Russell also clearly revels in his deep-dish dialogue, while Channing Tatum, joining in late in the game, proves a stellar addition to a crowd of Hatefuls.
The most minute details of production designer Yohei Taneda’s central set and costume designer Courtney Hoffman’s work are shown off in 70mm. Although Tarantino has borrowed excerpts from Ennio Morricone’s work for his soundtracks in the past, this is the first time the now-87-year-old Italian great has ever written an original score for the director. It would be nice to be able to say that his first soundtrack for a Western since his Leone heyday ranks with his best, but it’s of a somber, emphatic nature and is put to relatively limited use.
The name of Jackson’s character is derived from Charles Marquis Warren, the director of such 1950s Westerns as Tension at Table Rock and Cattle Empire, while the last name of Leigh’s character is no doubt taken from 1940s Howard Hughes discovery Faith Domergue.
Production and distribution: The Weinstein Co.
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demian Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, James Parks,, Dana Gourrier, Zoe Bell, Lee Horsley, Gene Jones, Keith Jefferson, Craig Stark, Belinda Owino, Channing Tatum
Director-screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino
Producers: Richard N. Gladstein, Stacey Sher, Shannon McIntosh
Executive producers: Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Georgia Kacandes
Director of photography: Robert Richardson
Production designer: Yohei Taneda
Costume designer: Courtney Hoffman
Editor: Fred Raskin
Music: Ennio Morricone
Visual effects designer: John Dykstra
Casting: Victoria Thomas
Rated R, 175 minutes (including three-minute overture in 70mm version)