The plot: En route to Red Rock, Wyoming to ensure fugitive Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) hangs, bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) picks up fellow bounty hunter and former Union soldier Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and the alleged new sheriff of Red Rock, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins). Taking refuge in the mountain way station Minnie’s Haberdashery at the onset of a blizzard, they find themselves snowed-in with stoic way station proprietor Mexican Bob (Demian Bechir), Red Rock hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), grizzled Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), and mysterious cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen). One or more of these men are not who they say they are, and as truths get revealed and tensions reach their limits, things get violent.
If I may go pretentious freshman English student on all of you for a quick moment: all stories are essentially lies that, if they do their job right, reveal some greater truth, and maybe not the one the author intended. Tarantino understands this, and with his last two films dealt in revisionist history to explore the atrocities of World War II and American slavery respectively. In The Hateful Eight, released Christmas day in an extended, 70mm roadshow edition and a week later in wide release, Tarantino opts not to tell lies about history, but instead populates his movie with liars that tells us about the longstanding societal ills. Over the course of 187 minutes (167 in the wide release cut), misogyny pretends to be justice, racism as noble rebellion, and villainy as heroism.
Filmed on Super Panavision 70 mm film stock and set largely in one room, The Hateful Eight is a movie that feels uncomfortably close in more ways than one. Tarantino focuses his monster lens on sharply detailed faces, capturing disgust and wicked glee in his stranded company in his stagiest movie since Reservoir Dogs. It’s a film that could easily be translated to the stage, were it not for the way it closely maps reactions and pays careful attention to background details. In keeping things close, the violence acted out and visited upon these characters are more immediate and linger troublingly in the mind long after viewing.
There’s not a bad performance in The Hateful Eight, the assembled cast playing with and against their images in effective ways. Few movies in 2015 are as aptly titled as The Hateful Eight (It Follows probably still wins, though). None of the assembled are good people. Some flirt with likability, making their atrocities all the more jarring. In casting Kurt Russell and Samuel L. Jackson as the two strongest candidates for heroism, Tarantino is playing with our expectations (i.e. Kurt Russell could rob my house and I’d kinda root for him) as both act with darker motives than clear-cut justice. When Daisy Domergue hurls slurs at Warren, we want to see her punished for it right up until the moment Ruth actually does. Jennifer Jason Leigh is the best kind of villain, in that she’s one we sporadically like. So much of the performance is delivered through the expressions on her increasingly bloodied and battered face, her eyes occasionally betraying a humanity her actions and plans never reveal. Like with many other elements of The Hateful Eight, these performances garner a lot of uncomfortable laughter, in ways that at times make one question what exactly they were laughing at when the credits roll.
Since it’s a Tarantino movie, the violence is in turn brutal, funny, and occasionally both. More than other Tarantino movies (and certainly more than his imitators), this violence is earned. Tarantino is telling a story about the prevalence of racism and misogyny in American culture and the lies told to assuage that guilt, The Hateful Eight reveals what happens when that’s stripped away. No one gets off the hook for their actions. The violence is loud and gooey, the buildup to it is near-unbearable, but it’s all justified in telling a jarring story.
The Hateful Eight is a mean movie. Having built up his own myths about American history with Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, Tarantino sets about tearing apart the ones that are poisoning us. To say that The Hateful Eight is an enjoyable movie feels wrong (though I did laugh a lot). To say that it’s a harrowing and strangely cathartic movie feels more on the money. In his uber-stylized way, Tarantino is laying down some harsh truths.