Perhaps just as much as his films are about movies, director Quentin Tarantino’s work is about the moviegoing experience. His love for older styles of moviegoing has up until now been exemplified best by Grindhouse, his collaboration with the like-minded Robert Rodriguez that attempted to replicate the experience of going to a exploitation film double feature as filtered through their own creative sensibilities. And while Grindhouse was not as big a success as hoped, Tarantino has returned to the idea of recreating a bygone filmgoing experience- this time with a “Roadshow” edition of his new film The Hateful Eight. For the uninitiated, “Roadshow” films were created as a reaction to declining theater attendance brought about by the rising popularity of television. The films were often longer than a standard feature film and featured an overture and intermission. Most notably, these films were often shot in a process that yielded an extraordinary wide image, often on 70mm film, twice the frame width of what most films were shot on, in order to get a crisper picture. And it is a recreation attempt that succeeds far more so than previous tries, while at the same time subverting the very thing he is emulating.
It is Reconstruction-era Wyoming Territory and a group of travelers all find themselves hunkered down in Minnies’ Haberdashery, a stagecoach stopover, in the face of an oncoming blizzard. There’s bounty hunter John Ruth who is on his way to the town of Red Rock with his captive Daisy Domergue who has a date with the hangman’s rope. Joining them on their stagecoach to Red Rock is Major Marquis Warren, another bounty hunter, and the town’s new sheriff Chris Mannix. Already at Minnie’s when the stage arrives are Oswaldo Mobray, Red Rocks’ hangman, Joe Cage, a cowboy, former Confederate General Sanford “Sandy” Smithers and Mexican Bob, the handyman in charge of Minnie’s while she is away visiting her mother. Ruth is immediately suspicious of anyone who may be looking to take Domergue away from him in order to claim her bounty for themselves. Warren discovers that he was on opposite sides of the Civil War from Mannix, whose father was a great admirer of Smithers. As time drags on, tempers flare, accusations are leveled and violence is on the verge of erupting.
I suppose that The Hateful Eight could best be compared in terms of basic story setup to Tarantino’s first film, 1992’s Reservoir Dogs. Both films feature perhaps the strongest examples of his propensity to take desperate characters with motivations and agendas that they are keeping secret and place them in a confined space where the tension rises inexorably as time passes. It’s the same tactic used in films like The Thing (both the original 1951 The Thing From Another World and John Carpenters 1982 remake) and 12 Angry Men, but filtered through Tarantino’s distinct cinematic pulp lens.
But where in Reservoir Dogs Tarantino was simply interested in the characters and their interactions, here the director has added an extra layer by making the space in which they exist almost an active participant in the story. While the widescreen composition of the 70mm filming process may allow two characters to appear at a distance from each other at opposite sides of the frame, Tarantino still manages to fill that empty space with a palpable tension that only grows throughout the film.
It is here that Tarantino can often be at his most interesting as a director. He loves to take old film tropes and subvert our expectations of them. And he does that with his use of the 70mm widescreen framing. Using the widescreen image for character work versus highlighting the spectacle and backdrop of the story is a reversal from how it is normally employed but it is a switch that suits Tarantino’s purposes well.
As for that cast, Tarantino has long been known for getting extraordinary performances out of his actors and The Hateful Eight is no exception. He has called in a few of his regular collaborators such as Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Michael Madsen, Tim Roth and Zoe Bell, but has rounded out the cast with a slew of newcomers to working with the director who all turn in some great performances. Jennifer Jason Leigh comes as a revelatory delight. She hasn’t been seen in much recently and turns in such a bravura performance that it will hopefully inspire others to let her strut her stuff in their films.
Beyond serving as a space where audience members can take a moment to breath and reflect on the action that has come before, the intermission here also serves as a place where Tarantino can make a tonal shift in the film without it being too jarring. There is a lot to unpack in The Hateful Eight‘s second act, and perhaps I will do it at another time because to do so now would definitely spoil the surprises and twists that rocket fast and furious through that last hour of the film.
Suffice it to say that the tonal shift is similar to the difference in pacing and tone that can be found the two volumes of Tarantino’s Kill Bill revenge epic. Originally envisioned as one movie, it was Harvey Weinstein who suggested that the director split that film into two separate entities and it was for the betterment of both films. Having seen the single-film, “Whole Bloody Affair” version of Kill Bill, I can say that the shift in tone from where the separate Volume 1 ends and Volume 2 begins is distinct and distracting. Tarantino seems to have learned that having that break makes the shift more palatable. I can only wonder how well the shift in tone will play in the slightly shorter, non-roadshow version of The Hateful Eight that will roll out to theaters later next week.