Quentin Tarantino’s eighth film might also be his most Tarantino film, the one that takes all his quirks as a filmmaker and compresses them into their purest form. Sprawling throughout, with clearly delineated sections that are alternately very talky and very bloody, I loved it. But your mileage may vary.
With a running time over three hours—the 70mm presentation also includes an overture with an ominous, blood-red title card at the beginning of the film and a 12-minute intermission near its midway point—The Hateful Eight is not for the faint of heart. Following the travails of bounty hunter John "The Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell) as he attempts to take Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to hang in Red Rock, The Hateful Eight luxuriates in Tarantino’s fondness for vulgarity and brutality.
Ruth and Domergue (along with wagon driver O.B., played by James Parks) are headed to Minnie’s Haberdashery just ahead of a driving snowstorm; along the way, they pick up another bounty hunter by the name of Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) as well as Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a Southerner claiming to be the new sheriff of Red Rock. Ruth is paranoid that one of the two is in cahoots with Domergue—or with each other to steal Domergue from him—a paranoia that only increases once they get to Minnie’s and find four more strangers occupying the joint.
The first half of the film sets the stage(coach), with Ruth feeling out his wagonmates as well as Brit and professional executioner Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), one-time Confederate general Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), cowpoke Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), and a Mexican watching over the joint in Minnie’s absence named Bob (Demian Bichir). And Tarantino does so slowly, taking his time, letting us get to know the characters and their quirks. Fans of his patter will love these opening 90 minutes; fans of his gunplay will love the following 90, as Minnie’s Haberdashery turns into Minnie’s Slaughterhouse.
A few more general notes before I dive into spoiler territory so we can discuss what Tarantino is trying to say in this film. (And it is a deeply political film, interesting in ways that one might guess given his recent forays into activism.) I would advocate trying to see the film in the 70mm roadshow presentation (a list of theaters offering such a presentation is here) on the general principle that it’s good to see things in 70mm. That being said, the effect feels a bit wasted: a few stunning vistas aside, we spend most of our time indoors. I would’ve much rather seen Django Unchained—a film replete with snowy mountains and blood-soaked cotton fields—in this format.
The performances are about as good as you’d expect. Russell’s playing Ruth as John Wayne while Samuel L. Jackson is playing Major Marquis as Samuel L. Jackson. Both are perfect. Leigh is getting some Oscar buzz for her turn, buzz I approve of wholeheartedly; her expressions as the film progresses are worth the price of admission alone. And any film that’s scored by Ennio Morricone gets a passing grade in my book.
Now. About those politics. (Heavy spoilers after the image.)
Some of you may recall that, a couple of years back, the first draft of the script for The Hateful Eight leaked online. (I won’t link to it here, but you can still find it on the intertubes via altavista.net.) It’s fascinating to read that draft along with the final copy (which you can purchase from Amazon here) and note the changes, subtle and not, that piled up along the way.
The biggest among them concerns a letter written by Abraham Lincoln to Major Marquis Warren. In the original draft, it is mentioned once, briefly, in the opening moments. Ruth asks to see the relic of the recently slain president and Warren obliges; Ruth reads it, eyes moist, choking up as he hits the closing lines ("‘Ole Mary Todd’s callin’, so I guess it must be time for bed’ … that gets me"). The letter doesn't come up again.
In the final draft, however, the letter takes on outsized importance. We see it in the opening, same as in the original draft, but it comes up again near the intermission. Hillbilly sheriff-to-be—and one time Confederate marauder—Chris Mannix mocks the letter, highlighting the absurdity of Ol’ Saint Abe maintaining a personal correspondence ("Y’all’s practically pen pals!" Mannix tauntingly sneers) with a black officer drummed out of the army and into the bounty-hunting lifestyle.
The letter, of course, is a fake. And Ruth’s blind acceptance of that forgery is both embarrassing and hurtful, so much so that he spits the following line at a man he had come to respect: "So I guess it’s true what they say about you people. You can’t believe a fuckin’ word that comes outta your mouths." Warren takes it in stride. "Now I know I’m the only black son-of-a-bitch you ever met, so I’m gonna cut your ass some slack. But you ain’t got no idea what a black man starin’ down America looks like. [small beat] The only time black folks are safe, is when white folks are disarmed. This letter had the desired effect of disarming white folks."
Tarantino might as well have stepped on camera and addressed the public: "Today, class, we’re talking about white privilege." But he’s not done yet. Following the carnage of the film’s second half—turns out Daisy did have a pal on the inside of Minnie’s after all—the letter makes another appearance. After hanging Daisy from one of the haberdashery’s rafters, Mannix and Warren—a racist white man and a black feller who has killed more than his share of white racists who joined forces to survive in the face of terrible odds—lie next to each other, bleeding to death as the snowstorm rages outside. Mannix asks to see the Lincoln Letter and Warren hands it over. Their blood smears across the page as Chris reads the fraudulent words: "‘Ole Mary Todd.’ That’s a nice touch," he says with a laugh. "Thanks," Warren replies.
Given that Tarantino is always in conversation* with the rest of the cinematic world, one can’t help but feel that this is an implicit slap at Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, a gauzy history of the 16th president’s effort to free the slaves that concludes with a flashback of the great man reading his second inaugural. History is not made via flowery statements and ornate speech. History is made by blood, by violence. Your rights are not given to you: they are taken, by force if necessary, from those who would deny them.
You get the sense that the events of Ferguson and the rise of #BlackLivesMatter in between the conclusion of that first draft and the actual filming had an impact on Tarantino. There’s another interesting change between the first and final drafts: Bob, the Mexican, was originally Bob, the Frenchman. When Bob the Frenchman became Bob the Mexican, Tarantino added a riff about Minnie, she of the Haberdashery, who had a sign in her joint that read "No dogs or Mexicans." "Minnie likes everyone," Warren says. "But she sure don’t like Mexicans."
It’s not something you think too much of, in the context of the film or the time. But then there’s an amusing frisson when we see Minnie for the first time a few moments later in a flashback: she’s not white, as you might expect, but black. Racial divides cut along all lines.
Tarantino’s America is not one of natural rights or constitutional protections, not one where good intentions are enough. It’s one of coalitions of convenience, where your rights are only as good as everyone else thinks them to be.
*In addition to any number of westerns and John Carpenter’s The Thing, it also feels as though Tarantino is in conversation with himself during one crucial scene. In it, we learn that Warren killed the Confederate general’s son. He didn’t just kill him, though; he sexually abused him first. Warren makes this admission in an effort to convince the general to draw down on him so Warren can shoot him fair and square—an effort that succeeds. One can’t help but recall Dennis Hopper’s speech to Christopher Walken in the Tarantino-scripted True Romance about the racially mixed bloodlines of Sicilians, a speech Hopper intended to rouse Walken to anger so that he would impulsively shoot Hopper rather than torturing him for information.
I may be reading too much into this; perhaps he’s simply recycling an idea. (Filmmakers have been known to do that.) But it is interesting to me that the outcome here is reversed: the hero is still taunting a villain and using the villain’s prejudices in order to obtain a desired response, but doing so in a way that will lead to the death of the villain rather than the hero. Does QT subconsciously harbor some regrets about The Sicilian Scene?