When I heard Tarantino had plans to release The Hateful Eight roadshow style, I spammed social media with things like, “OMG, tickled pink.” Excitement poured out of me like sunshine through a veil of fog as I picked up my collectible program nearly 90-minutes prior to showtime. My eyes were bent into trapezoids as the overture soared in magical flight from the theater speakers. I sat entranced in a sea of stale popcorn and indistinct chatter as the first half of the picture drew to a close and the intermission commenced. As the crimson spectacle that formed the denouement faded and the credits rolled, I knew I had just participated in one of the greatest theater experiences of my life.Still, as enamored as I was with the roadshow experience, I was amenable to the complaints of friends who were prepared for a few more gorgeous landscapes and who felt the social themes at work were recycled from other pictures in Tarantino’s oeuvre. That is until I saw the film for a second time, this time in digital format at my local multiplex.
In the 1950s, the motion picture industry was threatened by the growing popularity of television. Producers clamored to develop an idea that would put butts back in seats. Ultimately, they exploited the chief advantage they had over their small-screen brethren: the scope and size of their presentation. They developed extreme lens systems and shot the type of large scale pictures audiences would be compelled to see in the theater: pictures like Lawrence of Arabia. Remarkably, The Hateful Eight was filmed with restored lenses used to shoot sequences of Ben-Hur. Over time, filmmakers gained greater command over the medium. They began using the big-scope formats not just to shoot sweeping landscapes but to create more intimate experiences for viewers. In the case of The Hateful Eight, the close up shots deliver that. The stagecoach stopover where the murderous characters spend the night becomes almost majestic, with different rotten souls occupying different corners of the humble haberdashery. The opening scenes of the picture offer a laudable amount of expansive imagery, but it’s in the lodge where Tarantino’s mastery of the format shines brightest.
Genre films have always adjusted fittingly to reflect the attitudes of the movie-viewing audience. The creature features of the 1950s represented the ultimate fear of nuclear war, the nihilistic westerns of the 1970s reflected our mistrust of the government. I struggled upon first viewing to decipher the moral destination of The Hateful Eight. And then I saw a YouTube clip of Tarantino speaking at a Black Lives Matter rally in New York from October. The piece garnered attention when Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch called for a boycott by law enforcement groups of the director’s new movie. Tarantino has always shown concern for the troubled relationship with race in our society. He used the N word 38 times (according to Spike Lee) to tell the story of a white bail bondsman who falls in love with a black inmate in Jackie Brown. His previous two pictures, Inglorious Bastards and Django Unchained, were historical fantasies that saw evil white men getting their just deserts at the hands of the oppressed. A casual examination of The Hateful Eight might beget more of the same. An African-American ex-Union soldier turned bounty-hunter (Samuel L. Jackson) squares off against a savagely racist ex-Confederate sheriff (Walton Goggins). However, while Tarantino played romantic editor in his previous two films, presenting a Holocaust that ended with a Jewish soldier playing Punch Bunch with Hitler’s face and a post-civil war plantation owner blown to smithereens at the hands of a “freed” slave, his The Hateful Eight depicts a real, if over the top period in history to reflect the current institutional racial problem in America.President Abraham Lincoln said, “the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom [of freed slaves], and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.” Lincoln was a pragmatic individual, however, he was also very idealistic in his philosophy. His Emancipation Proclamation was delivered on January 1, 1963, yet footage from a white police officer’s body cam taken on July 19, 2015, showed him fatally shooting an unarmed black man during a routine traffic stop.
Jackson’s Major Warren carries on him a personalized letter from Abraham Lincoln. The letter allows him to assimilate into the white majority who have an overwhelming feeling of reverence at its presence. But the letter is fake. It’s a tool used by Warren to avoid discrimination. His white colleague John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is brought to tears by its language. When he discovers the truth, he regresses. “I guess it’s true what they say about you people. You can’t believe a fuckin’ word that comes outta’ your mouths.” The Lincoln letter is to the characters in The Hateful Eight what Inglorious Bastards and Django Unchained were to Tarantino. Lincoln’s vision of an equal America was noble, it was also romantic. Tarantino’s previous two period pieces departed from established history to create an idealistic America. The Hateful Eight is the real deal.
That’s not to say the movie is without issue. The Psycho-esque departure of the Ruth character so early in the film comes at a big surprise. There’s a bit of narration in the second act that feels a bit lazy and the Agathy Christie-style narrative is spoiled when you learn it can’t be Colonel Mustard in the lounge with a candlestick because it’s the ninth hateful guy who we haven’t met who’s been hiding in the crawl space for two-thirds of the movie. Still, there’s so much power and artistry in Tarantino’s homage-tinged, blood-splattered western that it’s difficult to care. The typical Tarantino dialogue, the atypical Tarantino story structure and the brilliant mixture of art-house style with B-movie violence adds up to the dude being eight for eight.
Tom Hanks referenced the dignified list of great actors that are known by a single name when presenting Denzel Washington the Cecil B. DeMille award at this year’s Golden Globes. A similar list could be made of actors that use middle initials. Samuel L. delivers the type of enthralling performance we’ve come to expect from him. The Hateful Eight provides him a monologue to rival his Ezekiel speech. But Kurt Russell is soul chilling. His John Ruth recalls the type of genre character he played in his younger years that caused me to call him my favorite actor.
Their cues are blessed by the haunting notes of Ennio Morricone’s score. The coyote-call that satiates his The Good, The Bad and The Ugly soundtrack has become the staple by which all other western melodies are compared. I’ve been listening to The Hateful Eight Soundtrack as I write this review, and I have goose pimples.