Director: Quentin Tarantino
18 | 187 min | Comedy, Drama, Mystery | 8 January 2016 (UK)
Who else but Quentin Tarantino could get a three-hour long, six-chapter talky Western set largely in just two on-screen locations not only distributed by The Weinstein Company, but released at a time that puts it up against the behemoth of Star Wars, in a roadshow release in a 70 mm film format. At the time of writing, this critic was only able to see The Hateful Eight in its intended 70mm showing in one single cinema in London’s West End: in part a decision made due to technical limitations (the Odeon Leicester Square is one of the few cinemas with a suitable projection system), but the distributor’s decision to grant Odeon the privilege resulted in several other UK cinema chains refusing to carry the film. It all seems like a counterintuitive release plan, but this is the aura the Tarantino brand carries; in the era of safe ‘legacyquels’ and comic book movies he remains one of the few auteurs who can command large budgets, green light complex productions, and also deliver substantial box office (his previous film Django Unchained grossed over $425 million, making it Tarantino’s highest-grossing theatrical release.) But was all this indulgence (and self-indulgent is inevitably an accusation heard in conversation around this lengthy film) of Hollywood’s genre-blending bad-boy nerd worth it?
The answer is from this critic is a yes, but a word of caution is advised, as The Hateful Eight is a film that both showcases Tarantino’s greatest strengths, but also his most glaring weaknesses too. In many ways it is the most obvious film you would expect of him: his love of the Western genre is well known, and Tarantino has himself stated that with this “chamber piece Western” he was inspired by 1960s Western TV shows like Bonanza and The High Chaparral where gunmen would take hostages or stickup a bank, verbally jousting with each other until the real shooting started, revealing backstories and hidden agendas. The filmmaker tips his hat to other Westerns in this film too, including obviously the John Ford/John Wayne Stagecoach, and the wintry revisionist Spaghetti Western The Great Silence from Sergio Corbucci. But for a director renowned for creating cinematic craziness, this is one of his more stately and low key films, dare we say it; it even feels restrained. Maybe a little too restrained at times: you will be running on Tarantino time for these three hours, which means a cornucopia of flavorsome, hyper-stylised dialogue but spread out over very lengthy scenes and with frequent tangents, delivered at a pace that at time feels like a saunter. Still, Tarantino’s infectious respect for the genre comes through: particular in the way the film is lushly detailed. There are dips in terms of energy at times when the material feels stretched too thin, but it is always lovely to look at.
The setting is a post Civil War old West (Wyoming, according to the script) during an intense winter storm that is wreaking havoc on the mountainous terrain. This harshly beautiful snowscape, which we bear witness to as the film opens (after a five minute musical overture), is lovingly lensed by cinematographer Robert Richardson, who also worked with Tarantino on Django Unchained, and who filmed The Hateful Eight on 65 mm film, using Ultra Panavision 70 and Kodak Vision film stocks. The film uses those Panavision anamorphic lenses to create a very widescreen image, like that used on films in the 1950s and 1960s back when studios were desperate to counter the pull of TV with the spectacle of the big screen. This is the kind of authentic physical paraphernalia of yesteryear’s cinema that Tarantino loves, but it is more than a gimmick: the film is immediately visually gripping, able to capture the epic vastness of the snow-drenched old West, whilst keeping a large number of characters dynamically in the frame when the action shifts to the interiors. Tarantino mixes up the classical feel of this visual approach with more expressive camerawork later, paying homage to Sergio Leone with extreme close ups, whilst also taking the camera to spur level as characters strut into a scene, and taking it up over the character’s heads in tracking shots lensed from the rafters. There are some gorgeous deep focus moments to savour too.
Across this storm-battered part of the old West streaks a stagecoach commanded by the grizzled John Ruth (Kurt Russell, giving an outsized but fun performance to match his epic moustache), who is yanking a cuffed female prisoner called Daisy Domergue (a suitably deranged Jennifer Jason Leigh, playing it equally big), across this harsh country to the town of Red Rock. On the road, they encounter another bounty hunter: Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a veteran who served in the Union Army and carries a reputation as a fierce killer of white Confederate soldiers. Warren has a couple of dead criminals which he wants to cash in at Red Rock. He and Ruth, old acquaintances though not exactly friends, agree to protect each other’s investment and travel together, but the storm’s growing intensity forces a stopover at a roadhouse called Minnie’s Haberdashery. Here they are forced into close quarters with the chirpy but incredibly racist Chris Maddox, who is the son of a Confederate rebel commander with a bad rep for killing black Americans, and makes the unlikely claim to be Red Rock’s newly-appointed Sheriff. Also ensconced in the rickety roadhouse is the ageing Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), shady loner Joe Cage (Michael Madsen), a largely silent piano-playing Mexican called Bob, and a highly irritating Englishman Oswaldo Mowbray (Tim Roth) who claims to be the Red Rock hangman.
There are shades of Agatha Christie in the way these individuals start circling each other in the claustrophobic confines, with Ruth’s suspicions that one or more of these oddballs character might be in cahoots with Domergue and planning to free her confirmed once people start dropping dead of poisoned coffee. Marquis Warren finds himself forced to play the Poirot role, something he clearly takes a great deal of pleasure in doing. But Tarantino’s breakout film Reservoir Dogs also is hovering at the edges here, as once the accusations that fly around eventually get replaced by bullets, characters are soon dragging themselves around groaning, with bits of their anatomy either hanging off or jetting exaggerated blood geysers everywhere even as they struggle to keep their guns aimed at each other. As with Sergio Leone’s characters from his Westerns from decades past, everyone here seems to know they are due nothing less than a gruesome death and accept their role in this death opera with resignation.
Though there is plenty of grisly, maniacal fun to be had watching these reprehensible characters blow each other away after a fair bit of verbal sparring with each other, Hateful Eight also feels like the Tarantino film that is most connected to our present day via its provocative political commentary, though commentary not particularly subtly put. As an armed and confident black man with not only a military career but a self-professed long-running line in killing white “crackers” behind him, Jackson’s character is incredibly provocative to many of the other characters in the film, who of course only a few years ago were used to seeing figures like him shackled in the South. And of course, black figures have not enjoyed great visibility in filmic representations of the West either, thus making Warren’s status as the lead character a kind correction to the record.
But The Hateful Eight arrives against a backdrop of a depressing spate of killings of black Americans by police forces and armed citizens, with Tarantino still embroiled in controversy over his outspoken stance on police violence and repeated provocations of the black community. This new film cannot be divorced from this backdrop and in fact is strengthened by its links to it, though it never becomes the dominant aspect. In this vein Warren is introduced to us as a largely noble enforcer and hero type (and Jackson continues to be one of the best translators/transmitters of the Tarantino dialect as well as a great deliverer of the comedy moments), but he interestingly shifts over time to a more incendiary figure, with one outrageous and lengthy monologue/flashback revealing the lengths he went to sexually humiliate the son of General Smithers some years ago, a tale Warren spins seemingly to provoke the unreconstructed white racist Southern commander to go for his gun so he can off him with justification.
That three hours of running time allow Tarantino to cover more than just America’s dismal history of race relations; his script ranges over, at various times, the importance of good coffee, the bonds of war (despite his bigotry, Smithers is offered a bowl of food by Warren and the two share some quite sincere battlefield reminisces before things get ugly), the North-South divide, the importance of passionless justice, and there is even a lecture on the importance of being familiar with the taste of a good stew. Tarantino proves he can still churn out dialogue that nestles in your ear like a crazy earwig, here adjusted for a “period” feel, leading to lines like “keeping you at a disadvantage is an advantage I aim to maintain” and “move slow, like molasses”. At times, the film feels like an alternative and subversive history of this part of America, told by its lowest denizens in their own language from whatever hives of scum and villainy they dragged themselves up from, as well as those figures usually marginalised. Still, Tarantino’s script here doesn’t deliver quite the payoff-per-line as some of his earlier acclaimed works, which is a problem given the languid pacing and the fact that there is frequent long-way-round monologuing. For this much waiting around for characters to finish their epic reminiscing, you kind of expect Tarantino to deliver either a shock or a zinger as your reward. These don’t come as frequently as you might hope.
Those who are driven up the wall by Taranto’s swagger, his childlike love of mayhem and profanity, and his seeming inability to be edited, are not going to be converted by the The Hateful Eight, and even a few loyalists might balk at its bloat. But even when the film feels like it is just marking time and presenting you with unnecessary flourishes (is it really necessary to have chapter title cards, or the third act flashback?), it remains a sumptuous feast for the eyes and ears. Legendary composer Ennio Morricone returned for his first western in a long time to score this film, and turns in an effective low-key, tension-inducing score. And it is easy to imagine Tarantino obsessively focusing on every element of the impressive production design, from the intricate bandolier-belts and the personalised pistol butts that everyone sports, to the way the wide hats that everyone wears causes the steam from coffee cups to curl around the brim and hang momentarily around their heads. You can feel Tarantino’s genuine love for cinema here, and that counts for a lot.