The Hateful Eight

Considering how rarely movies open with extended credit sequences anymore, Quentin Tarantino probably feels a particular amount of puffed-up pride about taking his sweet time with the credits at the start of The Hateful Eight, his fiery wild west chamber piece that’s as slow a burn as anything the filmmaker has yet done. And he should feel such pride, because the opening sequence is like a little masterpiece all on its own. Fuelled by the heavily sinister bass tones of Ennio Morricone’s delicious score, Tarantino sets the stage as only a master can.

We’re in a white world, snow having engulfed practically everything. The silence and tranquility of the landscape is broken ever so slightly by the image of a stagecoach moving sinuously through the spaces where no visible passage exists, making its own route. Credits flash on screen for an eternity as we just watch that stagecoach advance through the snow in the background, while the foreground is dominated by a shrinking shot of a frostbitten wooden crucifix.

Robert Richardson’s film photography, Morricone’s music, and Tarantino’s patient pacing all combine to create a beautifully haunting portrait of the wild west in winter and they set the tone for what will be a damning depiction of racial tension in microcosmic form. We can’t possibly know what’s yet to come at this point, but the sequence is so rich with taste and texture that it generates a sense of excitement and anticipation that is soon well rewarded.

Once the credits are done, Tarantino eases into a delectable serving of his trademark dialogue. At their best, Tarantino’s words crackle and listening to The Hateful Eight’s characters converse is akin to sitting by a wood-burning fire, the flames lashing out so you never get too comfortable. We close in on the stagecoach as it stops in front of a mysterious figure blocking the way. He and the three corpses he has in his possession need a ride to escape the impending blizzard, but he’ll have to smooth talk his way aboard.

The man turns out to be bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), who once had dinner with the stagecoach’s primary inhabitant, fellow bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell), who in turn is trying to transport nasty villainess Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to nearby town Red Rock for a proper hanging. Tarantino unveils the scene with meticulous precision, letting every inch of the conversation ooze out slowly as the movie’s main themes of trust, paranoia, and racial conflict all make their first appearance.

Tarantino has made clear his dislike of John Ford in the past, but it’s hard not to feel like he’s consciously responding in some way to Stagecoach with the first chunk of The Hateful Eight. Maybe he’s trying to parody it or maybe he’s making the point that great chunks of a movie shot inside a stagecoach, the actors all cozy and crusty, shouldn’t be a cinematic memory that belongs only to Ford. Who knows, really. What matters is that Tarantino has Jackson, Russell, and Leigh all stuck in that stagecoach for a good while, but he’s not just spinning the coach’s wheels.

There are a lot of seeds planted in this first chapter of the story, character moments and interactions that will bear fruit much later in the movie. There’s even a MacGuffin that Tarantino coyly employs in a manner reminiscent of the glowing briefcase from Pulp Fiction. It’s all a grand amount of oddly anxious fun even before we get to Minnie’s Haberdashery, a famed one-room pit-stop where Tarantino plants his characters and adds several more. The Hateful Eight is just getting started and yet this will remain the location for the rest of the movie, a bold move for a director whose stories often involve great amounts of activity and a wide scope of geography.

Tarantino loves to take his time with a scene, but he also loves to juggle multiple narrative threads while leaping liberally through time. Setting the vast majority of his nearly three-hour western inside a one-room building leaves little space for such play, but he makes this challenge work in his favour, creating a cesspool of simmering conflict and comedy that feels endless and inescapable.

His trademark dialogue is as snappy as ever and he’s gathered a delightful cast to rub together and cause some friction. Joining Jackson, Russell, and Leigh at Millie’s Haberdashery are a motley crew ranging from past Tarantino favourites Tim Roth and Michael Madsen to Tarantino newbies Walton Goggins and Demian Bichir. Add in Bruce Dern as an old Confederate codger who spends his entire time in the Haberdashery sitting in a chair by the fire and you have a great group of performers capable of striking that unique Tarantino tone between dangerous and absurd.

The Hateful Eight revels in the tension and excitement of so many gun-toting strangers all holed up under a single roof and Tarantino knows that we’ll question the intentions of every character long before he gives us a specific reason to do so. When the plot morphs into a whodunit, it feels like a natural progression since we’ve been suspecting one or more of these people from the start, only without an actual crime to suspect them of.

It’s all richly comical and crazy, but Tarantino is gnawing on some blood-red thematic meat here. In this post-Civil War wasteland populated almost entirely by villains, where the innocents are relegated to a violent flashback, the ugliness of racial tensions that continue to this day is left harshly exposed. If there’s someone to cheer for in this rogue’s gallery, it’s Jackson’s Major Warren, who gets the best lines, the best moments, the best use of comeuppance, and the best performance to go with it all. His arc becomes a tale of survival and revenge, Tarantino mainstays on the thematic menu and attended to here with a viciously venomous bite.

Watching Jackson navigate the hostile territory that is this mysterious group is quite electrifying because he’s at his absolute best as an actor and spewing out some of the greatest lines he’s ever been given. This makes for a thrilling juxtaposition with the long drawn-out approach that has become Tarantino’s trademark. When the filmmaker is on, this is where his style feels most unique. His movies buzz with visual energy and aural activity and yet they’re tied tight to an inching pace in terms of plot progression because Tarantino loves to take the time to observe his characters.

It’s a style that I’ve criticized in the past because it can feel awfully self-indulgent and ultimately unnecessary in certain situations, but The Hateful Eight boils all the conflict and themes and style down to a single significant location and as a result becomes entirely about character observation. Trying to figure out who’s telling the truth and who’s peddling a pack of lies is a large part of the fun, made all the more intriguing with the loud subtext of stewing racism in post-slavery America.

Everyone in the cast is tremendous, making this one of Tarantino’s best ensembles to date. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s wild turn has to be seen to be believed, especially in a third act where makeup maestros Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero practically transform her into a monster so that her physical appearance matches her uncaged animal attitude. It’s Jackson who steals the show, though. He’s often the centre of attention and he’s in peak form when teasing out those juicy Tarantino monologues.

Jackson’s character is the closest thing we get to a moral compass and it speaks to the movie’s grim outlook that Major Marquis Warren is so intimidatingly violent in his actions. He’s doling out justice, but it’s clearly on his terms. The Hateful Eight climbs deep down into a pit of depravity and Tarantino lets his characters soak in it (along with some brain splatter), except even if there’s little hope to be found, there’s at least a sense of some wrongs being righted.

The cinematic west is rarely so wild as this and rarely so flavourful, either. Jackson’s presence, Tarantino’s voice, Richardson’s winter wonderland imagery, and Morricone’s instantly hummable score make this a chillingly haunting trip to the cinematically sumptuous past. The opening credit sequence is like a tasty little appetizer that leads into the greatly filling main course. So dig in, as long as you like it bloody. Tarantino cooks his cinema rare.

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