Like a bloodthirsty cocktail blending Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and his own Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino has returned with an eighth (technically ninth) film so despicably enjoyable it isn’t until long after the credits have rolled that it dawned on me it is one of his weakest films. That a film with so many unexpected character deaths and shockingly violent twists can play as cinematic comfort food is the biggest surprise; The Hateful Eight is Tarantino by numbers, and he delivers what you want from him with aplomb.
However, as densely plotted as the film is, I’m not entirely sure it will hold up to repeat viewings as well as his prior filmography; this is a film where the twists are explained in-depth, removing much of the intrigue you would have otherwise only spotted for the first time in future viewings. But even if it only feels like you’ll see it once, it’s so memorable in narrative execution and cinematic scope and ambition that it will likely be fully implanted in your brain forever.
The story is told, like the majority of Tarantino’s efforts, in novelised form, comprising of six chapters. In the introductory chapters we are introduced to bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell), escorting a $10,000 bounty to Red Rock: her name is Daisy Donogue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Picking up a fellow bounty hunter with apparent ties to Abraham Lincoln (Samuel L. Jackson) and a man claiming to be the new sheriff of Red Rock (Walton Goggins) along the way, the quartet stop at Minnie’s Haberdashery to hole up whilst a blizzard occurs in the nearby town. There, they meet a moustache-twirling English hangman (Tim Roth), a cowboy (Michael Madsen), a confederate army general (Bruce Dern) and a character not characterised beyond the fact he’s the lone Mexican (Demian Bechir). With the lines between North and South clearly drawn, the tension in the cabin begins building – and would you believe it, blood soon starts flying.
The film has been released in two versions; an epic three-hour 70mm print, featuring an opening overture and an intermission, as well as a standard multiplex digital version that is four minutes shorter, but no less cinematic. After the cinema chain that owns all cinemas capable of showing 70mm outside of London pulled the film from release mere days before schedule here in the UK, I saw the film in standard DCP. This may not be Tarantino’s desired way of seeing it, but it is still gobsmackingly gorgeous to look at. Like Paul Thomas Anderson with The Master, he has used a form of filmmaking traditionally reserved for grandiose epics like Lawrence of Arabia for a small scale chamber piece, one whose beautifully grand-scale photography helps add to the mounting sense of claustrophobia and tension.
As we tightly focus on the faces of the characters, their faces become added elements to the mystery, trying to work out their motivations through expressions alone. The first stunning close up is of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Daisy Donogue in the carriage, face beaten and empty, deep in thought as The White Stripes bellow on the soundtrack; its a tight shot held on for longer than seems necessary, but in Tarantino’s first technical epic, why the hell not? There’s even a character introduction that recalls Omar Sharif’s epic introduction in the aforementioned Lawrence of Arabia.
There have been reports that this is Tarantino’s first foray into overtly political cinema, its motivations for violence acting as a critique of both US gun ownership laws and the ever-present racial tensions in American society. I have to confess that although I understand why people can see these themes there, it feels like whoever made the suggestion that it is a “political film” in any manner was merely clutching at straws. There is a socio-political undercurrent to proceedings, but it doesn’t appear to reflect modern society any more than Django Unchained or Inglourious Basterds; the film merely closes an unofficial trilogy rewriting the worst chapters of history with catharsis that real life could never provide. Yet the catharsis here isn’t black and white – it is far less easy to comprehend than the simple good vs evil nature of his two films prior.
Even the funny moments leave you with a sense of guilt for laughing; the anecdote Samuel L Jackson tells at the close of chapter three climaxes with an unexpected jolt of dark humour, one that questions whether or not your sympathy should remain with the African-American bounty hunter, or the confederate soldier who fought for his human rights to be disregarded. It goes without saying this isn’t as mainstream a proposition as Django Unchained – as the film progresses, you are made to feel guilty for feeling sympathy for any of these characters. It’s an emotionally cold film because these are emotionally cold people.
The only reason it could be seen as political is that, with characters on both North and South sides following the civil war, nobody is likeable; the winners who helped abolish slavery still represent the worst virtues of that era are still undercurrents in US society until this day. From the casual use of racial slurs, to the appalling brutality against women, Tarantino’s view of America is an utterly pessimistic one – and he wants to remind you that this same banal evil remains in place today. Tarantino previously claimed Kill Bill was his only film that existed in a universe different to ours. You are left hoping the same would apply with The Hateful Eight.
Because after the two biggest hits of his career with the two preceding films, The Hateful Eight is back to a more cult sensibility, designed solely to please Tarantino fans and alienate everybody else. In fact, it’s quintessentially Tarantino to levels beyond parody; characters repeatedly flip the semantics in their sentences during arguments, characters introduce themselves to each other by saying “hey, aren’t you…” before rolling off an entire Wikipedia entry on what they’ve heard about their lives. There aren’t even any contemporary box office stars front and centre – the biggest star of the film is essentially an extended cameo in the film’s penultimate chapter.
After making movies that, despite their controversy, proved to be crowdpleasers, Tarantino is back to pleasing his core faithful. He’s claimed The Hateful Eight could easily be a stage play; yet he manages to make it so cinematic in spite of its limited surroundings, I questioned the idea that a Broadway interpretation could ever work. This is a film made tense due to the tight, yet epic, cinematography, the tension building Morricone soundtrack, the use of editing to deconstruct the entire narrative altogether.
The Hateful Eight’s narrative becomes ingenious solely due to cinematic flourishes – it would feel more like textbook Tarantino if it were merely characters on stage reading his dialogue. Instead, whilst the film never breaks new ground, it is never less than entertaining; Tarantino repeating himself, but in a way that is still thrilling, exciting and one of the best cinematic experiences of the year.