BY JERRY ROBERTS | January 6, 2016
Picture in your mind the output of a Quentin Tarantino movie if it were written by Agatha Christie. Try and imagine “Ten Little Indians” wrapped in reams of Tarantino-style dialogue and splattered with buckets of blood and guts and there you have the idea of The Hateful Eight, a retro spaghetti western that is as brilliant as it is brutal. After 20 years, Tarantino is still the most creative filmmaker that we have, a director who mines cinema’s past while making it all seem fresh and new. He’s so in love with the art of film the he’s presenting the film in a beautiful 70mm print around the country. How well does the movie work? Let me put it this way, it was nice that when I finally tore myself away from Star Wars that Tarantino would be there waiting with one of the best films of the year.
The Hateful Eight is, essentially, a Bottle Movie. For three hours, it traps eight worthless human beings in a cabin in the midst of a blizzard of Biblical proportions and lets them do what despicable people do, especially when they all have guns. It opens staggeringly with the vision of a wooden stake carved into the image of Christ on the cross. If the Bible reminds us that the wages of sin is death, then the sinners at the center of this story should not be surprised by their fate.
The movie takes place somewhere in 19th century Wyoming at a time when the wounds of The Civil War are no longer bleeding, but the scars – emotionally and literally – still sting. In the midst of this blizzard we begin with a traveler and his companion riding a horse-drawn stagecoach to a place called Red Rock. The man is a bounty hunter named John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and the woman is his bounty, a beleaguered soul named Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Ruth never stops reminding us, or her, that she has a date with the hangman’s noose.
Along the way Ruth’s stagecoach comes across a wayward traveler, a fellow tracker named Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson). Ruth recognizes Warren who was a highly respected Major from the Union Army. Legends of his exploits are as famous as they are infamous, but the most persistent is the legend that he carries a personal letter that he received from The Great Emancipator himself in his coat pocket – everyone wants to see it.
Possible spoilers ahead
What happens along the way is far too complicated to completely explain here. Tarantino’s characters are never just one thing; they have dimensions, histories, side notes, personal tics, sins, successes, and legions of enemies far and wide. The destination for these travelers is a place that might have been a rest stop on the way to damnation itself, a far-flung haberdashery with more amenities then these people probably deserve. What’s waiting there brings tension all around: A charming Englishman named Mobray (Tim Roth), a quiet drunken gunslinger named Gage (Michael Madsen), a wet-behind-the-ears sheriff (Walter Goggins), a former Confederate General named Smithers (Bruce Dern), and a narrow-eyed Mexican stable man named Senor Bob (Damien Bicheir). All of these characters seem to know each other, if not personally then by reputation. One of the greatest achievements in this screenplay by Tarantino is that every character is given a full backstory, not quirks, not traits, a history. We learn not only their names, but their sins as well. Each has a story to tell, each has a mean-streak ten miles wide, and each will pay greatly for it.
Right away we sense that something is happening at this tiny haberdashery but we aren’t exactly sure what. We can sense it the moment that the stagecoach arrives at the front door. There are clues and questions: Why is there are piece of candy on the floor? Why is one of the chairs covered in fur coats? Why does the Mexican stable man seem so distant? Why is the latch on the front door missing? It is Warren who pieces things together. He notices things that the others seem to overlook, and he who controls tries to control a situation that threatens to become a bloodbath. Little by little, piece by piece the mystery of this wayward store begins to reveals its mysteries. That leads to a great virtuoso scene with Sam Jackson at the center doing what he does best.
Of course, as with any Tarantino movie there must be a twist in the narrative – this one has a doozie. We spend at least an hour inside the cabin with the title octet, but then something happens. An event takes place that opens up this nervous setting. Halfway through the movie, Tarantino pauses the action, reverses back to events that take place before Ruth and Warren arrived and then returns to their story so that we understand how and why everything is happening. It’s a brilliant narrative, on part with the reverse tactics of Pulp Fiction twenty years ago.
Much more of this story I cannot reveal. Much more of this story I could not reveal. It’s so complex yet so approachable and so engaging. We’re there every second even though 90% of the movie takes place in the same room. We’re so interested in these people because Tarantino always makes them interesting. He creates a gaggle of horrible people who have done horrible things and watches them all get their comeuppance one by one. The story’s sense of moral decay has put off many critics, but I won’t go there. I feel that I’m looking at Tarantino’s vision of Hell on Earth, a place so placid, forbidding and dark, and filled with nasty – yet, interesting characters – that deserve each other. This is one of the best films of the year.