The Hateful Eight is a double-edged sword. Everything to like about it is also something to dislike.
The film is a bottle movie, with eight — nine, including the carriage driver — strangers snowed into a lonely coffee shop a few years after the Civil War. The collection of questionable characters include John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), a bounty hunter who earned his moniker by refusing to kill his bounties, preferring to see them executed; his prisoner, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), whom he keeps handcuffed to him at all times; Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a fellow bounty hunter who always kills his marks and bears a nasty reputation he earned fighting for the Union; Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), sheriff-elect who earned a similarly nasty reputation for the Confederacy; Bob (Demián Bichir), who has been left in charge of the haberdashery by the owners; Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), the territory’s actual hangman; Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a cowboy writing his life story in the corner; and Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a former Confederate general known for his cruelty to black Union soldiers. At least one of these people is obviously not who they say they are, and suspicion and paranoia take hold over all of them.
Writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s reputation precedes him. Hilariously, off-puttingly self-aware dialogue, beyond excessive blood effects, entirely bizarre male rape scenes — when you go to a Tarantino movie, you know what you’re getting into, and you typically get a little deeper into it than you bargained for. That’s even more true for The Hateful Eight, possibly the most distinctly Tarantino movie he’s made to date.
Personal enjoyment of this film can be easily gauged by personal enjoyment of other Tarantino films. Don’t like the dialogue-focused Reservoir Dogs? Are Django Unchained’s blood effects too much? Can you not watch Pulp Fiction for the out-of-nowhere raping? The Hateful Eight is not for you. The uninitiated will call it his most grotesque film, and fanboys will call it his best.
What cannot be denied is the artistic merit of the film. To understand how perfectly executed this movie is, you have to understand exactly what Tarantino was going for. Like all his movies, this is a composite of things he grew up watching, this time based on Western television series from the ’60s. From Tarantino —
Twice per season, those shows would have an episode where a bunch of outlaws would take the lead characters hostage. They would come to the Ponderosa and hold everybody hostage, or go to Judge Garth’s place in The Virginian and take hostages. I don’t like that storyline in a modern context, but I love it in a Western, where you would pass halfway through the show to find out if they were good or bad guys, and they all had a past that was revealed. I thought, ‘What if I did a movie starring nothing but those characters? No heroes, no Michael Landons. Just a bunch of nefarious guys in a room, all telling backstories that may or may not be true. Trap those guys together in a room with a blizzard outside, give them guns, and see what happens.’
Bearing this concept in mind, the execution is absolutely perfect. The Hateful Eight breaks a handful of important screenwriting tenants, the biggest being “show, don’t tell.” For all the things these people say about themselves and each other, the movie never flashes back to the actual events, with one notable exception. Almost all character development, an aspect that is even more vital to this story than most, is informed. This is a bad thing, because character development is more engaging and effective when viewers are getting to know the characters for themselves rather than being told about them by someone else, but Tarantino spins a script so detailed and directs performances so rich that it becomes a good thing. The dialogue is so intricate that the film, in many places, builds two parallel layers of character development — you have the informed development from the lines, which is not only poor literary form but also untrustworthy within the narrative, and natural development from how and why the lines are delivered. Quentin Tarantino is the only person alive who could write this story the way it has been written.
The film is also technically marvelous. The Panavision lenses they used for this hadn’t been used in 50 years, and had to be individually retrofitted onto modern film cameras. This is just the 11th film ever to release in the 2.76:1 aspect ratio, and the first since 1966’s Khartum. Many of the 100 theaters The Hateful Eight initially released in also needed to be retrofitted to play film. With the digital revolution, and most movies shot on film able to be converted digitally without much difference anyway, theaters had to bring in archaic technology to show this the way Tarantino wanted it shown. The colors for the 70 mm release are staggering, and the roadshow version is worth seeing for them alone. Hopefully, not too much is lost in the digital conversion.
As if those aren’t enough, the movie also overcomes a leak of the first draft of the script in January 2014 that had Tarantino shelf the entire project and an online leak of the full film just days before its release in December. This movie faced an unexpected amount of obstacles, and its worth seeing just for that reason.
The movie’s defining attribute is probably its length. The theatrical version is 167 minutes, and the roadshow brings it to a whopping 187. It’s a marathon unto itself, and that has pros and cons. There aren’t any time wasting elements, every scene has a purpose, and the length is used to great effect. All the scenes have plenty of room to breathe, and they’re made more effective because of it. But at the same time, pushing three hours with a movie this extreme is a tough proposition. This is a movie you need to effectively kill an entire day to watch.
But it’s also worth taking an entire day to see.
Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. New year, same me. I’ve had a change of heart in regard to reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.