‘The Hateful Eight’ 101: A Look at the Films, Characters, and Ideas That Might Shape the New Quentin Tarantino Western
If you were one of the statistically small number of people who saw Sin City: A Dame to Kill For in the past few weeks, you may have caught the teaser trailer for the next Quentin Tarantino film, The Hateful Eight. Or maybe you watched a shaky cell-phone video of it on YouTube. The film already has a storied history — the first draft of the script was leaked, and Tarantino threatened to abandon the project. He subsequently oversaw a live reading of the script with an all-star cast in April. Now the film is back on, shooting early next year, featuring Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson, and Bruce Dern. It’s reportedly due out during the 2015 awards season.
The title recalls The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen, Seven Samurai, 13 Assassins, and The Devil’s 8: large-cast action epics. The script is broken up into five chapters, but the film is split into two locations — a stagecoach in a snowstorm, and a single room at Minnie’s Haberdashery, the only supply stop on the trail.
At this point, Tarantino is an action director — one who front-loads with long scenes of complex dialogue to boil the tension. His scripts are great, but they have a “lesser than” quality to them. So much of the appeal of his direction can’t be found on the page — it’s in the performances, music, composition, and, of course, the intertextual relationships with other movies.1 Those references are one of the great pleasures of his work, and they can provide a sort of road map to understanding his art.
We don’t have any Hateful Eight footage, but we do know a bit from the version of the script that leaked and scuttlebutt from the Internet. And since Tarantino-watching is so damn fun, here are some barely educated guesses as to what movies, characters, and ideas have inspired his upcoming work. Consider it CliffsNotes for a movie that hasn’t even been filmed yet, and set your anticipation for stun.
Paul Thomas Anderson and Putting the Wide in Wide-screen
The Hateful Eight trailer ends with this slogan: “See it in glorious 70mm Super CinemaScope.” Tarantino has spoken about Paul Thomas Anderson and their relationship as “friendly combatants,” likening it to Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, each making the other better. Tarantino and PTA have very little in common thematically, but their ideas have some crossover cinematically: casting, the way they work with actors, period pieces, sticking with celluloid during the rise of digital filmmaking. Anderson has used the huge 70mm film format not for expansive vistas, but to emphasize his actors. The Master is, among other things, a film about conversations. The power of close-ups multiplies in such a large format. The Master was the first film since 1996 to be shot and released in 70mm. The film stock–as-advertisement also calls to mind huge, portrait-of-the-country epics like How the West Was Won and The Alamo.
The CinemaScope tagline also brings to mind someone who made smaller films. Samuel Fuller made a lot of movies in CinemaScope wide-screen — Merrill’s Marauders, China Gate, House of Bamboo — including one Western, Forty Guns. It’s the kind of equal-parts-brutal-and-tender approach to a genre Tarantino gravitates toward. It’s also stylized to the point of abstraction. Forty Guns is a movie and never pretends to be real life.
The Hateful Eight script is influenced by Fuller and his idea of melodrama. In Tarantino’s script, Sheriff Chris Mannix’s former Confederate regiment is named Mannix’s Marauders, a tribute to Fuller’s 1962 Burmese war film Merrill’s Marauders. And The Hateful Eight’s plot generally borrows from Fuller’s The Steel Helmet. In this 1951 film, a group of soldiers meets a grizzled loudmouth sergeant on the road to guard a temple during the Korean War. Once they get there, the movie becomes a chamber piece, with the rest of the action taking place in one setting. Each character — a conscientious objector, a Japanese American soldier, a black medic, et al — represents some facet of America, and each is rhetorically interrogated about hypocrisy by the lone communist prisoner.
Fuller was as interested in telling yarns as he was in tearing the bandages off societal wounds, and he often did it in the space of one scene.
Day of the Outlaw
André De Toth’s Day of the Outlaw is another handy comparison point. Like The Hateful Eight, it is a Western set against a snowscape. It’s nasty enough to give pause, even half a century later. Robert Ryan plays an alpha-dog rancher in an isolated town facing a rogue cavalry regiment, led by Burl Ives, which rides into town and takes over the place.
Ives has limited control over his men and can barely keep them from assaulting the four women who live in the town. Ryan and Ives both understand the situation, despite existing in their own moral gray areas, and lead the men on a suicide run into the woods with every penny the town has. They pick each other off until they all freeze to death, fighting over money they can’t carry. It’s a presentation of people barely hanging on to any semblance of society, without it being forced on them. Even the good people are only as good as the man in charge of them. Or the man holding them at gunpoint.
Key Largo and Stagecoach
When the Hateful Eight script was leaked, and later when that first draft of the script was read live, several critics pointed out Stagecoach and Key Largo as comparison points. The latter, directed by John Huston, is a Bogart-Bacall noir based on a stage play. Like The Steel Helmet, Key Largo uses geographical isolation as a way to heighten the tension. Humphrey Bogart is a coded shell-shock victim visiting his dead friend’s family; Edward G. Robinson is a crime boss, lying low in the family’s hotel. Robinson rules the place like a tyrant, waiting for his Miami counterfeiting connection to show up as a hurricane hits. The gangsters and the victims spend enough time together that the divisions disappear — they are all people who have few options, and they all are breaking down at once.
Stagecoach is a livelier comparison because it’s directed by John Ford. Tarantino hates Ford. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s making a movie in response to it, especially considering there’s a 10-minute stretch of Django Unchained, featuring Jonah Hill, that acts as an inside-baseball dismissal of Ford, who appeared in The Birth of a Nation.
Stagecoach is another portrait of America, with a large cast of stock characters. The poster boasts “A Powerful Story of 9 Strange People,” including a drunk doctor, a prostitute, a gambler, a cop, and a fugitive. Most of the film takes place on the stage, focused on the ways these archetypes break down when people are forced to live this closely to one another. The split between north and south, high and low class, inside the law and out of it — these are artificial distinctions. It’s pretty easy to see this kind of blind, old Hollywood optimism as an easy target for Tarantino’s post-Fuller confrontational approach.
Stagecoach was also the first film in which John Wayne walks up to the screen and wanders away with it.
Wayne is in the Hateful Eight script, or at least a variation of him is. John “The Hangman” Ruth (played by Russell in the live reading and reportedly in the film, if there is any good in this universe) is an unvarnished variation of Wayne’s persona. It’s like Wayne’s voice and demeanor taken to an extreme. Cocky, loud, and quick to violence. Without nuance. Heroic and also appalling — what heroes are really like. Another character refers to him as a “hyena,” which seems to be the most accurate one-word description of Wayne’s voice there is.
Kurt Russell and John Carpenter
Russell has actually done Wayne before, playing Jack Burton in John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China. It’s the defining takedown of Wayne as an American masculine archetype. Tarantino has been incorporating homages to it in every film he’s made since Kill Bill.2
But ultimately, you don’t hire Russell to play Wayne. You hire Russell to play Russell.
The Hangman is clearly written for Russell. (Every role in the script is tailored to a Tarantino repertory player.) At one point, Tarantino even echoes Russell’s marquee moment in Carpenter’s The Thing. There’s a scene in that arctic horror film in which Russell’s character ties up all the survivors of the camp and tests everyone’s blood to see who is the alien and who isn’t. It is a masterpiece of escalating tension.
Like Tarantino, Carpenter favors showcasing his actors even when the style is the draw for the audience. In the Hateful Eight script, Tarantino restages this scene as “who here is the murderer?” It’s about how we relate to characters in movies and issues of identity. The question of how much we, as an audience, have really learned about these people is raised, and we realize we don’t know much. Tarantino’s been talking about The Thing since he cited it as an inspiration for Reservoir Dogs, way back in 1992.
Samuel L. Jackson as Lee Van Cleef
The other major lead role is Major Marquis Warren, written for Samuel L. Jackson. This is the ostensible lead of the film. Like the Hangman, it was crafted for one of Tarantino’s regular actors, and it also toys with a Western archetype. For the Major, it’s Lee Van Cleef and his iconic bounty hunter, Colonel Douglas Mortimer, in Sergio Leone’s For a Few Dollars More.
In The Hateful Eight, Van Cleef’s balding, ex-military, pipe-chewing gunslinger becomes an ex-Union cavalry major turned bounty hunter. If Jamie Foxx’s Django was a riff on spaghetti Western heroes, Warren is the kind of character he’d run into in his sequel.
By having Jackson appear in The Hateful Eight, off the back of his controversial Django turn, Tarantino is nodding once again to Leone. The way Jackson is used in different ways from film to film is not unlike how Van Cleef’s role shifted over the course of For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Bruce Dern and Posse
Bruce Dern may be more closely associated with ’70s Hollywood (and more recently with Alexander Payne’s Nebraska), but, like Dennis Hopper, he put his time in as a character actor in Westerns. Tarantino gave Dern a one-scene cameo in Django Unchained. It was a psychedelic Western moment — a sneering face towering over Django from a wheelchair, intimidating even though enfeebled.3
Dern appeared as the villain in Kirk Douglas’s Posse, one of two films Douglas directed in the ’70s. Posse could be described as a revisionist Western. It’s not a McCabe & Mrs. Miller– or Heaven’s Gate–style expunging of the myth of The West, so much as a formal exercise in the transitory nature of good guys and bad guys. The film starts with Dern defined as the outlaw and Douglas as the hero.
Douglas and his crew are presented as a surgical SWAT team of U.S. Marshals. Douglas is also in the pocket of the railroads and is running for Senate. His corrupt nature gets more and more evident to the men in the posse. They eventually ride off with Dern, because all Douglas can promise them is railroad employment after he gets elected. The politics of the film are clearly a response to Watergate, as Tarantino has pointed out. Dern gets to be everything in the film: the ingenious master planner, the badass criminal, the instigator, and the conscience.
Sergio Corbucci and The Great Silence
Before Django Unchained’s release, Tarantino wrote an appreciation of Sergio Corbucci. He described Corbucci’s universe as “the most violent, surreal and pitiless landscape of any director in the history of the genre.”
Corbucci worked as Leone’s assistant on The Last Days of Pompeii before the pair started making Westerns separately. His style and Leone’s aren’t far apart. Corbucci’s images are less glamorous, his eye is less sympathetic, and his violence is too real to be enjoyable.
Tarantino’s body of work is full of Corbucci nods, from ax throws to feature-length homages. Corbucci’s The Great Silence is likely the most direct influence on The Hateful Eight. It’s a bounty hunter–driven Western set in the snow. In one scene, a stagecoach stops in the road when a man with no horse flags it down, brandishing a badge, and saying he’s the new sheriff on his way to town. Inside the stagecoach, he meets a gunfighter and a bounty hunter. For Corbucci, it is a minor scene. Three of his major characters meet, and the tone of their relationship is set.
For Tarantino, the same notes are played but expanded to address the central moral conflicts he’ll discuss in the rest of the film. In The Hateful Eight, the conflicts and types that define stock Western characters are rendered with much greater complexity than usual. Like The Great Silence, there is a sense of intractable dread at how brutal people can be to one another. Klaus Kinski’s villain and Jean-Louis Trintignant’s hero both obey the rule of law. Kinski only kills bounties; Trintignant kills only in self-defense (also echoed in Tarantino’s script). The law is not in the sheriff’s favor, and he is brutalized without a heroic comeback usually afforded to spaghetti Western heroes. The Hateful Eight, at least in the script stage, shares this sense of bleak desperation.