This is Quentin Tarantino’s eighth feature film, his’ second — third if you count Inglorious Basterds — western, and quite possibly his best.
It’s hard for me not to feel like a broken record at times when it comes to the work of Tarantino, but I love his work. I’m mostly worried that I will easily fall into the world of hyperbole, but between Samuel L. Jackson’s portrayal of the racially abused bounty hunter who’s just trying to be while at the same time not be shot for not being white in the western frontier and Demian Bichir’s grunts under the biggest fur coat I’d seen since watching The Revenant I can’t help but fall deeply and madly in love with this film.
While I can discuss the racial tensions of this movie and how it plays off of the understanding of the history of the west that Tarantino liberally took in all seriousness and lacadazical manners with Django Unchained I feel it more important to discuss what this film does well, rather than upset everyone with a history book in hand. This film does what QT does best, it traps as many colourful characters as possible in a room and lights a match on their current situation.
A blizzard encroaches on John “Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) as he’s transporting his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to hang for murder. Along the way we pick up Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins). Due to the blizzard our travelers are forced to take shelter in Minnie’s Haberdashery where we come upon four current occupants: the caretaker Bob (Demian Bichir), the hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), the rancher Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) and the confederate general Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern). We set ourselves up all cozy and try to weather the next few days as the storm passes through and hope that the inevitable doesn’t happen, that being bullets flying.
In Tarantino’s previous films we always have the impetus of someone needing to win something over. In Jackie Brown it’s about her being free from the law and her horrible day to day living, in Death Proof it’s Stuntman Mike’s need to feel alive at 80mph in a crash, and in Django Unchained it’s literally about Django freeing his wife from her slave owner. Here however, it doesn’t feel freeing, it feels more like Tarantino wanted to take all these characters he figured out, stick them in a room and have them play a round of Clue and see who figures out who killed whom before the lights go back out again. The isolated environment is new for Tarantino, even in his first film where his budget was limited, very much unlike this one, he took us places and showed us sides of characters other than this extreme scenario. In The Hateful Eight we’re confined to this haberdashery, and while we have a scene on the road at the beginning and one flashback scene later the film we never feel like we ever truly leave the warm confine of Minnie’s at any real point. Maybe it’s the blizzard that shuts out of the world that freezes you to the point of wanting to sleep on the floor next to the fire not worried that you could catch a spark, but the fact that early on, through music cues and characters saying it out loud, there’s something very peculiar about this set up. We early on suspect someone is not who they claim to be. We’re immediately transported to the framing that would be perfect for a 50s Hitchcock thriller.
Tarantino is not new to the act of
ripping off, I’m sorry, paying homage to the films before him. With the tension of a Rope, the sound of Duck You Sucker and the setting of The Thing Tarantino brings a lot to the forefront of any film lover’s mind. Something about the blinding blizzard incoming that encloses the world that is this cabin home and the pointing of guns at everyone unsure of who to trust and who not to makes me feel that MacReady is back at work with his flamethrower trying to figure out what to do. Instead Tarantino let’s the viewer worry about those plots, even if we see John Ruth be skeptical of his fellow guests, we never feel as if he worries for his life, as he probably should.
As the fuses are set on this setting and our characters are forced to confront one another on all of their misgivings and uncertain half-truths to bold faced lies we can’t stop having fun. Characters remind us why silly and overplayed roles can make the most gruesome of deaths not shock us, but instead enliven us in our seats.
Many will talk of Taratino’s choice to shoot the movie on 70mm, and more importantly making a big deal about it. This caliber of filmmaking is meant for the massive stories, the ones that take us to new places; like David Lean did with Lawrence of Arabia and Kurbrick did with 2001: A Space Odyssey. This isn’t meant for the cramped space of a single location with the odd snowy mountain. I didn’t see it in this format, but I couldn’t help always be scanning the frame. It may be early to say, but somehow Tarantino was able to make that tiny room feel large. When General Smithers was having a fight with Major Warren it felt as though Bob was on the other side of the world playing his piano. When Ruth presented his prisoner to the room of guests checking to see if anyone wanted to interfere the space between them all seemed vast. I don’t want to say that Tarantino equalled the efforts of those that took the path of this format, but I wouldn’t be so quick as to say it was nothing more than an excuse for him to play with a format he possibly always wanted to use. All I can say is I don’t think it was a poor choice as I see so much world in that room alone that I feel it didn’t get in the way of me enjoying the movie.
All in all, this is Tarantino at his best. He has John Ruth walk across the room, cuts to above and we look down on the strides through the overhead boards and we can’t help but enjoy watching our almost villainous hero take joy in punching his way to glory. As he beats his prisoner for just annoying him we smile as Daisy does the same knowing that it won’t be as easy as one might seem.