Set 'six or eight or twelve years' after the Civil War, The Hateful Eight follows bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his fugitive Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who's being taken to town to be hanged. The teaser shows them hurtling through the Wyoming winterscape in a stagecoach as they encounter two strangers: Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a union soldier-turned-bounty hunter, and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a Southern renegade who insists he's the new sheriff in town. A blizzard soon overtakes their stagecoach on a mountainside stopover, where they meet a handful of dangerous characters who share a deadly connection.
Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight has an abundance of two things: words and blood.
For fans, the good news is that it is business as usual. For those who remain agnostic as to the rewards of the unique cinematic universe that the universe now claims as 'Tarantinoesque', The Hateful Eight could be merely something to endure.
It is not just that it lasts three hours or that it is full of epic-length speeches or that Tarantino’s taste for pacing re-defines ‘slow’, or that its one female major character is beaten, humiliated and tortured throughout, or even that the N-word is used so often it becomes a gag line, or even the gorgeous geysers of glistening arterial spray, the exploding head and dismemberment …it’s, well, the attitude.
Tarantino’s world has been called juvenile, naughty, and adolescent. He might agree. He and his fans couldn't probably care less.
That gleeful teenage boy who rejoices in teasing, prodding and provoking lurks behind the suspenseful, beautiful mayhem of The Hateful Eight. But the sadistic brat who mobilises homosexual panic and race hatred to shock and awe, has merged with an adult filmmaker whose love of craft has finally matured and emerged with something lyrical and swollen with authentic disquiet.
"Tarantino is a show-off and a showman and both tendencies pay-off big time here."
It is, as the titles helpfully remind us, as if we have somehow lost count, the 8th film by Quentin Tarantino. That suggests a time to take stock. So here goes: I liked its luxurious love of surreal images, bitter characters and weirdness much better than the bombast of Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained; the sight of a naked man in the snow fellating his tormentor at gun point here eclipses any image of helplessness in QT’s oeuvre.
Tarantino remains a fanboy: trainspotters will make their own list but aside from the obvious references to Sergio Leone (and not just in Ennio Morricone’s broody music score), there’s Sam Peckninpah, Carrie and Howard Hawks, but more on that later.
The Hateful Eight is set in the West – a snow laden Wyoming to be precise - perhaps a decade after the end of the Civil War. The main cast – as the title suggests - haven’t forgiven or forgotten the treachery, betrayals and animus of caste, class and race that the War Between the States failed to resolve (indeed, that’s the basis of QT’s politics here).
Since this is a mystery and since the narrative pleasure principle of any Tarantino film lays in its spring-trap jolt of plot reversals and surprise, the less said about the set-up the better.
But here’s the essentials: as a blizzard approaches, bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is escorting outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock where she is to be hung. En route their stage coach picks up two passengers who have, through misfortune, got stuck in the snow: Civil War veteran of the Union army / bounty hunter Maj. Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and Southerner Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who claims to be the new sheriff of Red Rock. No one trusts anyone and all stories are treated as if they were lies. The only thing this lot can believe in, is the personal letter Warren carries, written to him by Abe Lincoln.
It takes nearly half an hour of screen time and a lot of exposition filled yakking before this party and their amiable stagecoach driver O.B. (James Parks) take shelter at a general store/traveller’s stop called Minnie’s Haberdashery, which becomes the main ‘stage’ for the film's action.
The eponymous shop owner – known to Warren as a friend - is mysteriously missing but Ruth and co. find instead: a quiet Mexican called Bob (Demian Bichir); a foppish Englishman called Oswaldo Mobray played by Tim Roth like he was channelling Peter Sellers; an old and cranky Civil War General, Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern); and Michael Madsen’s cowpoke, John Gage.
Everyone is armed and the body language fills the air with deceit; Ruth is convinced that Daisy’s allies will try and spring her. No one is too keen to make friends (like I said, too much history here.)
Warren is gifted - like so many a Tarantino hero - with a fine line of patter, a superior intellect and keen powers of observation. The movie is at its best when we’re locked into Warren’s p.o.v. as he assumes the role of detective; the camera gliding and searching about the cavernous shit-coloured interior of Minnie’s where every nook and cranny seems to conceal evidence of something amiss (one of the film's triumphs is that one big set is so detailed, it has the majesty of an epic landscape).
A lot has already been made of the fact that the story takes a position on race. But the insights here are decades old, go-to counterculture truisms… America’s promise is a lie and it’s down to the folks in the margins to unite against the common enemy that maintains society’s divisions.
That’s all very comforting but it comes off as a liberal alibi for the explosive Evil Dead finale. Better is Tarantino’s conviction to his favourite dramatic conceit: the story as role-play. Each of the film's set-pieces are extended workshops externalising fears and nightmares about identity and the shame of being sold short. There is a kind of genuine anger and self-doubt that is new in a Tarantino film, as is the sense of loss surrounding the desire to avenge.
Tarantino is a show-off and a showman and both tendencies pay-off big time here. The decision to bring the Ultra Panavision 70mm format out of retirement is not only great marketing; it gives the images a glowing grandeur and that big wide screen is filled with detail, tension, interest and intrigue throughout. This is, by a country mile, Tarantino’s most cinematic film (and his most theatrical).
Here, his relationship with cinematographer Robert Richardson has hit pay dirt. Tarantino loves actors and acting more than the camera but in the Hateful Eight his tendency is to let the brilliantly choreographed frames do the talking; he’s using light, movement and the actor’s physicality to suggest the mysteries of character.
Critics have been quick to say Hateful Eight isn’t a western. That’s true and isn’t. It looks and feels like one but its obsessions are those of the filmmaker. But the tradition of the ‘chamber western’, a tense chatty story of desperation and entrapment, is long and deep; think of 3.10 to Yuma (1957) Johnny Guitar (1954) or even Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) one of Tarantino’s favourites. He quotes from it here. Except in Hateful Eight it’s not a lonesome cowboy singing some anodyne ballad but a villain serenading her jailer as if he were a lover - with a story of tragedy, exile and loss. Tarantino has never been that gentle, ironic, understated or poetic. It’s a grown up moment from a guy who still likes to play with movies like a child does with toy guns. It makes you wonder.
The Hateful Eight is in limited release in extended 70mm projection (incl overture and intermission) ahead of a general release next week.