Stop me if you’ve heard this story before: a group is stranded in a cold, unforgiving place, incapable of trusting one another due to dangerous secrets, desperate to survive and willing to use violence to outlast everyone else until all truths are revealed. But not are all what they seem and some may not make it out alive. OK, so there is more than a little bit of John Carpenter’s classic horror movie The Thing in Quentin Tarantino’s latest outing. It’s not just the concept. I mean, he’s got Kurt Russell leading his ensemble and Ennio Morricone’s providing an equally unsettling score. Tarantino goes so far as to borrow some unused music from Carpenter’s movie as well.
As always, there’s more to The Hateful Eight than just a standard horror movie or a standard Western, but it is interesting how it appears to be one when it is closer in truth to the other. This project has had an interesting journey to the screen, during which Tarantino wrote and re-wrote the script, announced he was scrapping it after it was leaked last year, had a script read in Los Angeles that encouraged him to finish it, added a few new wrinkles and then shot and made it. This has allowed Tarantino to refine it. Is it worth the effort?
The Hateful Eight centers on Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a member of the Domergue Gang who’s got a $10,000 bounty on her head. She’s the captured prisoner of John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), a strongly-mustachioed, no-nonsense bounty hunter whose reputation is to bring his prisoners alive for the hangman to execute – a rarity in his field. As the movie begins, they’re headed to Red Rock, Wyoming where Ruth will collect his prize and Daisy will hang. Standing in his way is a blizzard, a couple of nights trapped in a stagecoach stopover and a number of men trapped with them who all claim to be something. But Ruth fears that some of them are not being honest and may be seeking to free his charge. The rest of the players involves:
- Maj. Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) – a former Union Cavalry officer turned bounty hunter whom Ruth rescues on the way to Red Rock. He’s headed there with three dead bounties to claim.
- Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) – a former member of Mannix’s Marauders (a Confederate Civil War unit) and the self-proclaimed next sheriff of Red Rock. Ruth rescues him on the way to Red Rock also.
- Bob (Demian Bichir) – the alleged caretaker of Minnie’s Haberdashery, their stagecoach stopover. According to him, Minnie and Sweet Dave (the owners) left to go visit Minnie’s mom on the north side of the mountain.
- Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) – a guest at Minnie’s and the reputed hangman in that part of Wyoming, on his way to Red Rock to hang the killer of their last sheriff.
- Gen. Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern) – a former Confederate general who’s traveling to Red Rock to discuss matters regarding his deceased son.
- Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) – a cowboy who claims he’s returning home to visit his mother after a successful cattle drive.
These seven men and one woman, along with Ruth’s stagecoach driver O.B. (James Parks), will all settle in at Minnie’s Haberdashery as the beast of all blizzards drops on top of them and the simple truth is that they all have a secret or two to hide. Add to that the raw nerves of a recently-ended Civil War that tug at its former combatants and a sense of unease easily forms between the various protagonists in this tale. At a time when they should likely be uniting against the fury of the storm around them, they’re at their most divisive. Each one has at least a secret or two and it’s those secrets that will tear them apart long before the bullets start flying. And bullets do fly. (There are a few other members to the cast, but I think it best to not mention them to avoid spoilers).
The cast is a mix of Tarantino veterans (Jackson, Roth, Madsen, Russell, Goggins) and newcomers (Bichir, Leigh, Dern). This creates a nice balance as it allows the story to play without knowing who’s true and who is lying. And while it is an ensemble, two really stand out. First, it’s no surprise that Samuel L. Jackson delivers as Maj. Warren. No actor gets Tarantino’s best like Jackson. From Pulp Fiction’s Jules through Jackie Brown’s Ordell to Django Unchained’s Stephen, Tarantino’s monologues and witty one-liners fly out of Jackson like they do out of no one else. In here, Major Warren is a professional with a dark background that’s stained in blood: the blood he spilled during the Civil War as well as the blood that chased him all the way to Wyoming. He’s cunning and he’s dangerous and yet, because he’s being played by Samuel L. Jackson, we think he’s the hero of the tale. And that thinking is dangerous in a story like this one. Major Warren is sharp and cunning and knows how to play people.
The other performance and my favorite though has to be Walton Goggins’. As an avowed Justified fan, I know all too well that Goggins can deliver great dialogue with both charm and with wit. Thing is Chris Mannix is not Boyd Crowder. The man claiming to be the Sheriff of Red Rock is a man still spouting Lost Cause diatribes and angry retorts at anyone who disparages the Confederacy. But the moment that may risk his standing, he quickly backs down and shifts his cadence. Watching Goggins I was struck by how much he sounds like so many bullshitters who lie to themselves and others in the hope that what they’re spouting will stick. He’s not a coward, but he’s also not a hero. He’s a man hoping to survive the night. It makes for an interesting tale to see him shift and change and the audiences perception of him changes with it.
The rest of the cast follows suit behind these two. Bichir delivers an one-note performance, but that’s by design. He’s meant to be mysterious. Likewise, Roth and Madsen are called to be enigmas and both manage it well – Roth by being charming and effusive, Madsen by being stoic and calm. They’re potential enemies or allies. Russell brings John Ruth as the meanest, hardest bastard around. His “Hangman” is quite capable but he’s also ironically a bit sentimental about Abraham Lincoln and that manifests in the tale of the letter Maj. Warren carries. Bruce Dern brings a tired doughtiness to Gen. Smithers. He’s a man who’s lost too much in his life and is allegedly trying only to make sense of one more bit of tragedy. That he also does that by being an angry, bitter, old coot is no surprise and Dern easily brings that out. As for Leigh, her Daisy Domergue is on the one hand, a mean and dangerous bitch and she makes sure we see that side. On the other, she finds ways to make her someone who, while not pitiable, human. She’s not some dastardly villain of some old Western. But she can be.
A lot of Tarantino’s collaborators from earlier films come back for this films like editor Fred Raskin and cinematographer Robert Richardson, who both make the vistas and images of the blizzard-covered mountain extremely cold and foreboding. Joining them is special effects director Greg Nicotero (of The Walking Dead) and you best believe he uses what he knows about blood effects in this movie. Also joining Tarantino is music composer Ennio Morricone. Tarantino is a major fan of his and has used score pieces and cues from other movies in his. This had led to some negative feelings from Morricone, which must have been buried in order to manage him being a part of this production. Whatever the issue, the score here is strong and more befitting a horror movie than a Western. That’s by design.
I must admit that I saw this movie as a 70MM Roadshow experience and urge anyone to see it as such. No trailers. No weird ads. The movie starts with an overture, has an intermission two thirds of the way in and you’re even provided with a program that features photos of the cast and sets. More importantly, it has different versions of several scenes plus six more minutes of footage. Not to mention that the movie looks gorgeous. The cabin looks warm and inviting. The cold gusts and grey skies feel like a nightmare. Even the few snowflakes that fall now and again elicit a chill from any audience member. Once again, Tarantino has made a beautiful movie.
I will also admit that, unlike Django Unchained, there doesn’t seem to be an overarching major message in this movie. With characters like Warren, Smithers and Mannix, Tarantino touches on the Civil War and the Lost Cause. (Aside: after spending the last year hearing the debate about Confederate public symbols, it felt somewhat intriguing to hear similar words coming from this movie). But the movie is not about the Civil War or the righteous or unrighteousness of the South’s cause. Not surprising as I don’t think Tarantino is as interested in delivering social messages in his movies as he is in delivering action and spectacle.
But go back to the quote above. It’s uttered by one of the characters in this tale and it’s the closest to a theme that the movie gets. The various men and woman in this tale are all, in one way or another, killers. They’re people who’ve had to find ways to survive in harsh times and harsher situations. People who carry old grudges and anger at past failures. Whether veterans of war, hired officers of the court or adventurers, they each bear scars that they’re trying to hide. Maybe one – maybe more – of the Domergue Gang is present at Minnie’s Haberdashery to spring Daisy, but the fact is that all of the people there are amoral killers. Amidst such a group is a concept such a justice even possible? Were it a just world would not all of the characters present have been found guilty and hung for one reason or another? By what right do they serve justice on Daisy Domergue?
Tarantino has mentioned that this tale was inspired by those “very special episodes” in old westerns like The Virginian and Bonanza, in which a cast member would be kidnapped by desperadoes and there would have to be be a rescue mission. In those shows, the idea was that there was a hero and a righteous way to the world that had been upset and needed to be set to rights again. The Cartwrights would somehow end up fixing things to make life in the Ponderosa fine by the episode’s end. But this is not that tale. In this story, there are no Hoss or Little Joe Carthwrights. The 100% true blue heroes of the Old West are gone. This is a tale of nothing but desperadoes. In such a tale, there may not be a way to set things to right; to bring justice to the world.
I keep making comparisons to The Thing and to horror movies and that’s because there’s a sense of foreboding and dread throughout all the proceedings that’s more akin to a horror tale than to a Western. The weird thing is that there is no alien monster or super-madman in all of this. The monsters are all human and, if I’m honest, they can be any one of the members of the cast. Their fear and their greed and their apprehension make them into monsters; so that they cannot trust one another until people lie dead and the blood has flown. If there’s any message in this tall tale, it is that.
The Hangman is bringing Domergue to hang because there is a price on her head. Some of the men he shares Minnie’s with will seek to stop him while others may be willing to help him. Who makes it to see the dawn? While I don’t think this is the best Tarantino has done, it’s one hell of a ride and one worth taking if you love movies where the tension is only released by laughter or bloodshed. They may not be heroes, but the fate of each one of The Hateful Eight will have you wondering who’s true and who is false and who, if any, will make it out alive.