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Review: ‘Hateful Eight’ Evokes Nostalgia for When Going to Movies Was an Event

For Quentin Tarantino’s eighth film, the director pushed for “The Hateful Eight” to be distributed and screened in 70mm. The Weinstein Company provided immense support and helped Tarantino craft a roadshow experience to make seeing this epic an event. Venues were outfitted so that the 70mm format could be projected for audiences to appreciate Tarantino’s vision.

An overture by legendary composer Ennio Morricone pulls the audience into the world the audience is about to enter. The film has an intermission, its placement in the story inspired by “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It collectively evokes nostalgia for a bygone era of cinema while simultaneously kindling a bit of hope that going to the movies could be this great again.

The result, as Tarantino has described, is excitement in the presentation. Theaters, like the Music Box in Chicago (where I watched the film), installed a new 40-foot screen and installed a new 7.1 channel sound system. Audiences were invited to take roadshow posters. The press received programs to go along with the film, as was done in the 1950s and 1960s when the higher-resolution format was used for musicals and other epics, like “Ben-Hur” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Tarantino contends he would not have been so ambitious about making “The Hateful Eight” a 70mm roadshow experience if he had not been confident in the script for his film. He believed the story would still be immensely entertaining, even if moviegoers could not see it in the presentation he desired. So, how is the story?

The plot revolves around eight archetypical characters, which are influenced by dozens of Tarantino’s most favorite films. They are also, to some extent, characters similar to characters in his previous films. The way the story unfolds in one location is a lot like “Reservoir Dogs.”

Screen shot from trailer for "The Hateful Eight"

Screen shot from trailer for “The Hateful Eight”

It is just after the Civil War. John Ruth (Kurt Russell), “The Hangman,” is traveling across the snowy terrain of Wyoming to deliver Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), “The Prisoner,” to the sheriff of Red Rock for a reward of $10,000.

Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), “The Bounty Hunter,” hitches a ride with Ruth and encounter another man, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who claims to be “The Sheriff” of Red Rock. With a blizzard approaching, Mannix hitches a ride too, and the full stagecoach is on its way to Minnie’s Haberdashery, where the crew of four will be for two or three days as they wait out the storm. They enter the Haberdashery to find Bob (Demián Bichir), “The Mexican,” an English Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), “The Little Man,” who claims to be the hangman of Red Rock, Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), “The Cow Puncher,” and Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), “The Confederate.”

Tarantino uses each of the characters to propel the story forward, sometimes at a glacial pace so tensions can boil. Monologues, harangues, and recollections of shared experiences make clear the connections between some of the characters, who initially appeared to be complete strangers. Someone is at all times suspected of wanting to steal Domergue and take away Ruth’s chance to claim her reward.

The 70mm format enabled Tarantino to keep characters in frame and in focus when they are not even a part of unfolding action. One notices this detail while watching. Ruth and Domergue are at the bar drinking in the upper left of the frame. Or, Gage is in the upper right of the frame writing his life story. Intentionally, Tarantino says this was done to create a chess game, where the audience can see all the pieces, and in retrospect, this ensures audiences will return for second and third viewings to see if they can unravel the mystery more quickly than before.

The theme of racism plays a key role in the story. Ruth treats Warren like a police officer would treat a 19-year-old black man right up until he recognizes that he knows Warren. The ride in the stagecoach shows the cultural racism remaining, despite the emancipation of black slaves. The word “nigger” is uttered by the two characters, who fought on the Confederate side and still harbor hatred for blacks while Ruth disapproves of this slur that during this time was commonly used to refer to black people.

However, there is a caricaturish nature in which Tarantino uses the word. As Ruth scolds Domergue for saying, “Howdy, nigger,” Ruth uses another slur, “darkies,” when referring to black people. It comes off as bawdy humor that, perhaps, works if one believes Tarantino wanted to show that even someone like Ruth, who sided with the North, used racist language when speaking with full-blooded racists. But it is not apparent that the word enters the lexicon of the film because Tarantino wants to make this kind of statement. The word detracts from the film when used caricaturishly instead of as a means to amplify the ugliness of racism between characters (which is why it works when Smithers says the word).

Warren is a black militant, who reveled in the opportunity to participate in the Civil War and kill whites. He killed Confederates and gained a notorious reputation fueled by hatred for how he was able to defend himself. The culture of white supremacy put an extraordinary bounty on his head and inspired countless people to hunt him down, but no matter who came after him, he was able to defeat them.

Screen shot from the trailer for "The Hateful Eight"

Screen shot from the trailer for “The Hateful Eight”

This back story to Warren, as a device, is somewhat effective in creating a conflict between the characters inside of the claustrophobic setting of the Haberdashery. The white characters are presented as having more of a right to stand their ground. There also is a letter from President Abraham Lincoln, which Warren carries in order to disarm whites and win their respect. Yet, while the anti-racism infused into the film is to be applauded, it sometimes comes off as schticky.

Tarantino has made clear the script was written prior to what happened, when Michael Brown was killed by a Ferguson police officer and the movement for black lives ignited. But he does not mind audiences believing there is deeper meaning to his film. “I like masking what I want to say under a story,” he told BBC News. “I think in history, no other genre deals with modern America better than the western. The westerns of the 1970s after Vietnam and Watergate were very cynical, for example.”

While a typical classic western may gloss over the racism of the period in which the story takes place, Tarantino refuses to omit the repulsiveness. He hates director John Ford, whose name is nearly synonymous with classic westerns, because Ford appeared in D.W. Griffiths’ “The Birth of a Nation” as a Klansman. He has been willing to publicly speak out against police brutality and institutional racism in the United States, even while promoting “The Hateful Eight.”

The violence in Tarantino’s film is shockingly grotesque, which is the effect desired. The audience is supposed to be horrified at how the characters are brutally treating Domergue, but there is a darkly comic tone, which runs throughout the film, that slightly undermines Tarantino’s intention. The audience laughs when Domergue is abused, and this should be dreadful to Tarantino if he truly maintains this is supposed to build up sympathy for her character. Still, the performances by the ensemble of actors assembled, the cinematography, the Morricone score, and the epic nature of the storytelling surpass the few disreputable parts of the film.

Tarantino hopes this project makes some meaningful contribution to saving film in the same way directors Christopher Nolan and J.J. Abrams have fought to keep Kodak producing celluloid film. It may be futile to think distributors will maintain space for screening film when digital projection could be easier to streamline. And, how can cinephiles convince new generations to share their love when one may see no difference in watching a digital version from Netflix on an iPhone? But the roadshow experience does make one feel like they are getting a taste of a tradition that has long been abandoned, which is reason enough to see the film.

Daniel Ellsberg speaks on a panel at the Personal Democracy Forum on June 3, 2010. (Flickr / JD Lasica)
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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."