The Hateful Eight: Hard to Hide in a Wide Frame, by Scott Nye
The first scene in Quentin Tarantino’s new film depicts two men meeting on the road, announcing themselves and their intentions, and trying to read the veracity of the other’s statement. This scene structure will be repeated, with changes to the place and people, many times over the first half of this very long movie. That even their modest stories start to crumble quickly gives reason for their suspicion. Nobody has much reason to trust anybody. They certainly have no reason to like them. They tolerate them according to the necessities of cohabitation. But always they try to learn the truth.
The two men in the road are John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) and Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson). Both are bounty hunters. They’ve met before. The latter has a pile of dead men to deliver to Red Rock, and is in need of a ride after his horse quit on him. The former has Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in chains, and a reputation for delivering his prisoners alive. A blizzard’s on their backs, and they make haste towards Minnie’s Haberdashery, an all-purpose homestead for travelers, picking up Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) along the way. Just so happens Mannix is the new sheriff of Red Rock. He’s also the son of a man who lead a band of Confederates to hunt and kill black people during the Civil War. Warren was a Union soldier, though the uniform he still wears masks more about him than it reveals.
In fact, if the title didn’t tip you off already, it’s a safe bet that there’s as much, if not more, that’s bad about these people than good. And if watching venomous creatures test and lash out at one another in a confined space for over two hours isn’t the best use of your time, then be on your way. Racism, misogyny, and homophobia quickly become the order of the day, and that’s even before the violence erupts (and “erupts” has never been more suited to accompany the word “violence” than for The Hateful Eight). And assigning such depictions as just “well, that’s the time he’s depicting” will only get you so far with someone as revisionist as Tarantino.
His suggestion, however, of how rapidly notions of patriotism were perverted is a good deal more pertinent. Everyone in the film, save Daisy, at one point or another cloaks their motives within something admirable; something American. Warren is a good soldier, with a letter from Abraham Lincoln to back it up. John Ruth ensures his prisoners a fair trial. Mannix stands up for notions of legacy. The men already occupying the Habberdashery – Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), Bob (Demián Bichir), Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), and General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern) – similarly cite socially-agreed-upon notions of justice, honesty, family, and nation to sidestep or cover up whatever’s really going on. Warren’s war record is abominable. Ruth abuses his (female) prisoner without provocation. When any character tries to discern the true nature of another, the subtext of their question rarely goes deeper than, “I just want to know you’re not going to kill me, but if you are, I want to see it coming.”
Watching Tarantino and his team tease out these mysteries is its own sort of pleasure, in an Agatha Christie sort of way, owing to the sharpness of Fred Raskin’s cutting and Tarantino’s characteristically acute dialogue, which mostly dispenses with the sort of grandiose, cool, or super-quotable dialogue for which he made his name. Whereas he previously left this nastiness to supporting characters, allowing the audience to position ourselves with his more righteous heroes (Shosanna and Hans Landa, Django and Calvin Candie), the closest characters we have to safe refuge don’t enter the picture until quite late, and in a doom-laden flashback. But that flashback proves vital, showing that there is decency in this world that’s simply being stamped out, also providing a counter to the rather boisterous tone the violence has taken to that point. Once innocents start suffering, Tarantino suffers with them (whether even the wicked really “deserve” to die is another matter, but his views on that matter seem fairly straightforward and commonplace). We’re long past the point of worrying whether he enjoys the violence he depicts – of course he does – but his modulation is far more interesting and telling.
Shot in 70mm Panavision by frequent cinematographer Robert Richardson, one wonders whether they had a laugh about the idea of shooting in such an expansive (and expensive) format for a film that takes place largely indoors. Whatever their motivation, the results justify it all the way, allowing the super-wide, 2.75:1 frame to capture many characters within the same frame, playing the background against the foreground. They use light to call attention to certain objects and spaces, the effect becoming almost otherworldly with the flicker of celluloid. The Weinstein Company, the film’s distributors, are releasing the film on 70mm in 100 theaters in North America, and it’s worth seeking out if you can.
Tarantino’s first film, Reservoir Dogs, was also largely set in a confined location and was built around questions of identity that he never fully resolves. A person’s name, their job title, and their reasons for being someplace are sometimes divorced entirely from who they truly are in that moment. That The Hateful Eight plays with a similar premise could suggest a backslide (or even stasis), were it not more ambitious in its conceit and grand in its accomplishment. By the end of The Hateful Eight, we seem to know a lot more about the people gathered at this inn, but fundamental questions remain a mystery. Even the characters left standing take comfort in a lie. Sometimes, it’s all you have left, and it’s a whole lot more satisfying than the truth.