Not a warning, not a question... a bullet (spoiler notice)
How do you make a minute-long shot of a snow-burdened carving of Jesus on the crucifix the very height of suspense? Simple. Shoot it beautifully in Ultra Panavision 70 (with a whopping 2.76:1 aspect ratio) and have maestro Ennio Morricone score the damn thing. As the custom-built camera draws back and reveals the approach of a distant stagecoach in this, The Hateful Eight, we can already be pretty sure few if any of its occupants will get through the film alive.
Here's a western that's both pastiche and bringing something fresh to a well-explored genre. Sure, Quentin Tarantino based it thematically on his experience after watching The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982) and narratively it owes much to various tv-shows and films where bandits hide out in forlorn inns, excited into murderous rampages, but at this point there's also that elusive quality that a film's just 'Tarantino'. Back are plentiful dialogue that sounds like its speakers are ever so slightly commenting on their part in the tale, a bevy of returning faces and scenes where the director slows it waaayyyyy down. But at almost three hours, this rarely feels its length. Even with just a handful of characters trapped by a blizzard in a remote waystation, there's so much going on at any time.
Consider Major Marquis Warren, former slave turned prisoner of war turned slaughterer of Southerners. He's surrounded by white folks, even the best of which consider his value as lower than a horse. The way he is constantly combating and negotiating the hostility to his person is fascinating. “Hangman” John Ruth has it easier: his troubles are nearly all self-inflicted. He's chained himself to outlaw Daisy Domergue to cash in her bounty, for his is a strange code of honor – rather than shooting them dead, John desires his prey to actually hang. And that's just the start. The rest of Minnie's Haberdashery – our stalking grounds for the night – is filled to the brim with a grudge-bearing confederate general, a quirky British executioner, Michael Madsen with a scarf, and so forth, each of them carrying enough pent-up frustration to light the shack on fire. Folks suffused with character, peculiarity, motivations. Suffice it to say, none of them are any less than hateful. Most of them get their comeuppance in the end.
It's surprisingly hard to pinpoint what kind of story this is. It's not about revenge, though there's plenty of that to be had. It's not about redemption, for no one either deserves or receives it here. Think of The Hateful Eight more like a pool table, and the characters its volatile balls, with a view to how they'll start ricocheting off each other and which ones get pocketed first. It's not about morality, growth or sending a message – it's about witnessing this interesting collision of personalities.
The first half of the film exemplifies this delight. It's a purely character-driven piece of cinema, where the tension comes from discovering how everyone thinks and what drives them. Historical events from the American civil war, slavery, racial strife, politics and social realities underline every conversation. Random encounters turn nefarious very quickly, or are deflated without conflict. The film plays around joyously with red herrings, for instance setting up an act of seeming manslaughter in the snow, only to switch to an inside scene as if nothing ever transpired. You can just about feel the kettle boiling, with everyone teasing out the other party's loyalties and intentions.
At the halfway point, it begs to be mentioned, is a moment that all but requires you to view The Hateful Eight in the cinema to experience it fully. Not only is the intermission a welcome opportunity to stretch your legs in the theater, upon returning there's an additional surprise. As the movie continues, a heretofore unheard narrator starts explaining what happened in the fifteen minutes that you were gone, which corpse was carried where, etc. It's a fourth wall-breaking gag pulled off with such cheek that you can't help but laugh.
When we left the proceedings, things had just heated up to the major gunning the general down. The second half of the film then knows a subtle shift in storytelling that doesn't quite impress as much as the earlier part. We learn that during this violence, someone in the room poisoned the coffee, and soon after the haberdashery starts looking like a charnel house. Despite the high fun factor of seeing the gruesome denouement to this tale, this turn of events brings the film down a notch. Once the coffee is poisoned, the story shifts from a character-driven piece to a plot-driven whodunit and eventually a shootout. That's arguably less interesting, but the trigger for this is also disappointingly lame, because it doesn't follow out of what came before. It isn't the tension between characters that caused the eruption, it's a random act of sabotage, divine intervention. There's no reason why that couldn't have happened at any other point in the movie, casting everything that came before as filler that might as well not have transpired.
Though this turn is slightly less awesome, the second half still has many treats, such as a classic flashback to the initial raid on the waystation and a frightening act of temptation. Tarantino can do little wrong, and everything here oozes style and a firm directorial hand. If anyone could bring something both new and old to the western genre, worthy to be scored by Morricone, it's him. Now, The Hateful Eight isn't the movie to end on anything but a disturbing note – the glee that the remaining characters feel at finally stringing up Daisy is quite horrifying to watch. With this last act even they, the nominal heroes of the play, truly become 'hateful'.