If I’m being entirely honest, I’ve always been somewhat ambivalent about Quentin Tarantino’s films. I loved his début feature Reservoir Dogs, admiring its lean simplicity and its bold and innovative approach to filmmaking. But when it came to Pulp Fiction – a film beloved by pretty much everyone else in the known universe, it seems – I was already tiring of his stylistic tics and a tendency for his films to overstay their welcome. That direction of travel continued through his two-part revenge epic Kill Bill; and even though his more recent films including Django Unchained and Inglorious Bastards have aimed for more serious subject matter and a weightier feel, they’ve still not convinced me that Tarantino is the cinematic genius that he and so many other fans and critics like to claim that he is.
His latest film The Hateful Eight is an out-and-out Western, but at the same time throws in a mystery whodunnit and thriller to the proceedings. It starts with bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) travelling across the hostile 1870s Wyoming frontier in a stagecoach driven by OB Jackson (James Parks). Ruth is en route to the township of Red Rock with his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who is set to be hanged. Along the way they grudgingly pick up two more passengers in the form of fellow bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson) and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) who identifies himself as the new sheriff of Red Rock. However, before they can reach their destination they’re overtaken by a blizzard that forces them to make an overnight stop at Minnie’s Haberdashery where they meet three more strangers already taking refuge – hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), cattle driver Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), aged Southern Civil War general Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern) – together with Bob (Demián Bichir) who is running the place in Minnie’s uncharacteristic absence.
Soon it’s pretty clear that not everyone present is not who they claim to be, and that one or more of those present is conspiring to free Daisy. This leads to an atmosphere of deep distrust and suspicion, and eventually the bodies start to fall in rapid succession. There’s a sense of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None to the story, or maybe John Carpenter’s The Thing remake, where no one can be accepted on face value and bloody violence can break out without warning at any second.
Actually in many ways the film that The Hateful Eight most resembles from a structural point of view is none other than Reservoir Dogs, which was also about a group of characters trapped in a single-set location growing increasingly desperate and paranoid in their endeavours to uncover the viper in the nest. We even have the return of Roth and Madsen to the cast line-up, and toward the end we have a character painfully bleeding to death over an extended period after being shot. Maybe this comparison is why I quickly warmed to The Hateful Eight in a way that I haven’t to the rest of Tarantino’s body of work since Reservoir Dogs.
The first two hours or so of The Hateful Eight also share that film’s slow, deliberate build-up. Much of it consists of people sitting around and talking, telling stories and sharing jokes, proffering bald lies and generally needling each other. Tarantino’s trademark approach to dialogue is very much on show here – once heralded as being ‘naturalistic’ in a way never before encountered on screen, these days it sounds like nothing other than a collection of characters in a Tarantino film talking to one another – and it allows us to get a sense of who everyone is and who might be the traitor amongst them.
Credit where it’s due, one of Tarantino’s greatest skills is working with the actors and giving them the screen time and space to deliver compellingly brilliant performances. Russell and Jackson are without question the two commanding central presences of the film, while Goggins and Roth manage to make initially clichéd quirky roles into something much more interesting as the film progresses. As you would expect, Dern brings dignity and gravitas to a relatively small role, but Madsen is peculiarly low-key and almost disappears into the background for large stretches. Such a thing certainly can’t be said about Jennifer Jason Leigh’s astonishingly bizarre and completely over-the-top and utterly brilliant performance as the unhinged Daisy.
If I were to nominate another of Tarantino’s greatest skills it would be his visual eye. The Hateful Eight looks absolutely terrific, with the early sequences set in the snowy wilderness looking achingly beautiful but matched every step of the way by the scenes set inside Minnie’s Haberdashery that also exemplifies the very height of set design, lighting, costuming and cinematography. It’s a film that would be positively criminal not to see in high definition, and so a purchase of the superlative transfer on Blu-ray is absolutely mandatory even if the extras you get (just two short featurette puff pieces) are somewhat woeful. The soundtrack is also great, with Ennio Morricone’s inimitable stylings (here especially reminiscent of his work on The Untouchables and In The Line Of Fire) bringing a touch of true class to key sections of the film.
Eventually however Tarantino gets impatient with the slow burn, almost real-time approach and the film starts to make way for some of those well-known trademark tics again. Halfway through there’s the sudden use out of nowhere of a third person narrator (Tarantino himself, uncredited), followed by non-linear flashbacks to clue us in on information that hadn’t been shared before. And then the killings start and the screen is awash with blood and gore and brain matter to almost cartoon degrees (one person dies by literally vomiting blood for several minutes.)
Even before we get to this point, there are aspects to the film that only someone perceived as a master filmmaker could get away with without being censured. The language of the film contains an astonishing degree of derogatory racial language, both from and aimed at Jackson’s character, to a degree expressly intended to make a politically correct audience gasp and squirm with discomfort. There’s also a lot of violence directed at Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character, where it seems that punching a woman in the face is considered ripe comedy material to get a few laughs. Again, not something the PC audience members will or indeed should be comfortable with.
That said, you have to balance the racist language and the violent misogyny within the context of the film, which is seeking to explicitly address these issues (both in the Wild West era and in today’s society) by giving voice to them and having the reactions of the other characters and the audience itself be the right-minded rebuttal. And with Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character, it’s clear that for all her appearance as the ‘victim’ of the piece, in fact she’s very much the one person who knows what’s going on and is orchestrating events to her advantage by provoking the others.
Overall it feels like The Hateful Eight signals a new level of maturity and patience in Tarantino’s work, while at the same time not entirely discarding those trademark tics that have made him so popular with such a large swathe of film fans over the years. This new mix is not without its problems: as with pretty much every Tarantino film it could do with being cut down to size; the slow first half in particular might test long-time fans’ patience somewhat; while the shocking events of the climax do somewhat betray the grown-up sensibility of the first two acts. But if you can manage to straddle both narrative styles then The Hateful Eight becomes a gripping and highly effective movie that more than rewards a careful viewing.
Most of all, whatever else you criticise, this is a superb looking film with some fascinating top-notch performances by an all-star cast, topped with a score from Ennio Morricone that reminds you of just how brilliant he has always been as a composer. No matter how much you may or may not be a fan of Tarantino’s work, The Hateful Eight is a rich dish that will leave you cinematically nourished in a way that few films in the 21st century even attempt.
On the Blu-ray: it’s worth mentioning that the version of the film here is the ‘general’ edition which clocks in at 168 minutes. There was a longer ‘roadshow’ edition (187 minutes) which used an older 70mm aspect ratio that could only be shown at specially-equipped cinemas; it’s not clear when or indeed if the ‘roadshow’ edition will make it to home release.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
The Hateful Eight was released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on 26 May 2016, certificate 18.