Quentin Tarantino has never been one to mince his words, resulting in more than one uncomfortable interview appearance, but if there’s one thing that The Hateful Eight makes abundantly clear, it’s that he does not care in the slightest about what anyone else thinks of him. I’ve always liked his films, but I used to begrudge the perplexing and near-unmatched level of fame Tarantino enjoyed as a director, wondering why none of his peers could ever achieve such recognition. He still has the extremely rare distinction of being an auteur for whom every new film released is a major event though, a distinction which shouldn’t be underestimated, and this is no exception.
I mention this as I have to say that I’m always interested to see the result of a filmmaker just unapologetically embracing every aspect of their style, ignoring all criticism, refusing to tailor anything for the masses and confidently delivering just the film they want to make. We’ve had a few examples of such movies recently, Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel and Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac spring to mind, and The Hateful Eight might well be the latest to join the group. It’s not the best Tarantino movie, but it’s probably the most Tarantino movie. Longer, wordier, more violent, more sadistic, more darkly comic (at times), bolder, addressing racism head-on, featuring unrepentantly unpleasant characters and unconventional cinematic techniques, he even filmed in in 70mm even though it’s mainly in one indoor location. He does exactly what he wants.
That considered, you’ll probably know full well what you’re letting yourself in for when you go into The Hateful Eight, pretty much every Tarantino hallmark is present and correct.
One such aspect, that’s been in for its fair share of criticism is the length and languid pacing he’s embraced, so let’s get that out of the way first. Yes, this is a very leisurely paced film, and is divided into six ‘Chapters’ with their own title cards and names, but its length did not bother me in the slightest. It didn’t feel like 3 hours in the cinema, but similarly, I can’t see what exactly I might have lost by not seeing the extended roadshow cut, it’s not like there was some obvious scene missing or anything.
Relatedly, the film begins with a long title sequence, opening with a close-up of a snow-covered wooden crucifix, slowly panning out to a wide shot as a wagon approaches in the background. The setting is rural Wyoming, in the dead of winter some years after the American Civil War. We spend the first couple of chapters meeting just half of the titular pack. A bounty hunter named John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is escorting wanted criminal Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the town of Red Rock for hanging. On the way he runs into Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a former Civil War Major turned fellow bounty hunter with a trio of corpses to cash in, and later Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) a former confederate soldier who claims to be the new Sherriff of Red Rock. Needless to say, tensions mount in the stagecoach via an number of exceptionally written conversations.
The film’s primary setting isn’t reached until chapter three, which is also where the other half of the eight are waiting. The blizzard outside is sufficiently severe that the group is forced to spend the night in ‘Minnie’s Haberdashery’, a traveller’s lodge. Inside are Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) a chipper Brit who introduces himself as the local hangman, a antisocial cowboy named Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), an old former confederate General (Bruce Dern) and a Mexican named Bob (Demián Bichir) who’s running the place in Minnie’s absence.
The title is at least upfront about the kind of people we’re to spend our time with here. None of this group are pleasant or likeable in the slightest. Even when someone appears to be a character you might root for, you’ll learn something awful about them. That’s not to say that they’re not often brilliantly written and performed characters though. Tarantino’s always had a real eye for casting, and here he employs a keen group of actors, half of which he’s worked with before, and half of which are newcomers to his brand of cinema.
Playing a visually similar yet otherwise very different type of character than he played in Bone Tomahawk, Kurt Russell again proves just how at home he is in a Western setting. Here channelling his charisma for more nefarious purposes, he soon takes apparent command of the room. As his prisoner, Jennifer Jason Leigh has her best role in years, truly embracing the chance to play a despicable woman who should never be underestimated. The whole cast is expectedly, uniformly solid, but the stand outs for me were Jackson and Goggins. Anyone who’s seen The Shield knows what Goggins is capable of, but it’s great to see him get a film role to match his talents, especially after he was left somewhat underused in Django Unchained. Jackson, Tarantino’s most frequent collaborator, gets essentially the lead here. He’s an actor who’s so prolific he inevitably winds up in a lot of rubbish and gets taken for granted, but every now and then will deliver a performance like this to remind just how magnetic a performer he can be.
The real joy in The Hateful Eight can be found in watching these actors interact, exchanging Tarantino’s wordy yet compulsive dialogue, and building up an atmosphere of increasing tension in the lodge. There’s an obvious comparison to be made to Reservoir Dogs with the group of people stuck in a single location, suspicious of each other, but The Hateful Eight feels far more like a mystery film than any of Tarantino’s previous work. The fantastic aspect of this is, there’s not one twist that the story’s leading up to, there are multiple ones that arrive throughout. Everyone talks about who they are and what they’ve done, and we never know whether to believe a character or not. Along the way there are a number of memorable lines that, despite the historical setting, still heavily resonate today regarding race relations in America. That said, his fondness for liberally employing racist language is present as ever, take that as you will.
Tarantino’s direction is just as important as his wordplay in creating the slow-burning tension, but tends to avoid having the camera draw any overt attention to itself. The script was famously performed as a live reading after a leak before eventually being filmed, and it’s easy to see how this could work as a stage play, though that would still be a very different animal.
A key example of Tarantino’s confidence as a director is in how he chooses to play with the form, making decisions that might sound wildly inappropriate on paper, or from an untested filmmaker at least. At one point, he reverses the film, provides a voice over himself (thankfully the limit of his acting here), and points out a detail to the audience that they won’t have seen the first time around. It’s commendably audacious. Later there’s a tremendously filmed whole extended flashback that sheds a new light on almost everything we’ve seen before.
Along with the focus on mystery, there’s only really one other aspect of the film that feels like new ground for Tarantino; a score. Famous for his jukebox soundtracks, he’s actually gone and got Ennio Morricone (who’s cues he’s used many times previously) to write a new score for the film. It contains a couple of memorable cues, but nothing as iconic as his classic work, and there are still a handful of older songs effectively employed too.
Tonally, The Hateful Eight often feels quite similar to previous epics Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, but while those upended their darker first acts for gleeful, history-revising, revenge-filled final ones, this does not. It seeks to show us that this was not a pleasant time in America’s history, where racists and sexists ruled the land, and anyone could murder you at any time. While the cinematography might be exquisite, this is an intentionally ugly film at its heart, and this is where I worry Tarantino may have worn me down a bit.
Moments of extreme violence are expected in his movies, but there’s more than one reaction he’s looking for. Sometimes, the intention seems to be to shock audiences; we’ve barely seen Leigh’s character for a minute before she gets punched in the face for example, and it tends to have the desired effect. However there are plenty of other instances where the gore effects are ramped up to comical extremes a la Kill Bill; heads explode everywhere with ludicrous excess when shot. Presenting these differing forms of violence side by side doesn’t always work for me I have to admit. The other probable misstep I thought was when, during a particular important speech by Jackson, the camera cuts to the events he’s describing. I don’t think we’re necessarily supposed to believe what he’s saying is true anymore than any other time in the film, but showing it serves the purpose of making it real for the audience, who otherwise are in the same position as the characters listening. I don’t think he chose to display this story specifically for that purpose, just because it was an especially cruel one to depict.
There are a lot of details and revelations of the movie’s second half that I’d love to discuss, but can’t really get into in a non-spoiler review, but needless to say, the film always keeps you on your feet and packs in a good number of surprising developments. A Tarantino film remains a unique experience, and this is no different. Having said that, and considering that he’s announced he probably only has a couple more films in him, I’d really like his next film to be something a little different after these three lengthy period pieces. I know he can and has written films with real heart to them (True Romance, Jackie Brown) and I’d like to see him either head more in that direction, or even apply his unquestionable filmmaking talents to something else entirely. After one watch, I’d say The Hateful Eight is in the lower half of his filmography, but I can see this being a potentially more rewarding re-watch, looking for all the clues I missed first time around.