VOD film review: The Hateful Eight
James R | On 23, Dec 2016
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh
“One of them fellas is not what he says he is.” That’s John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) in The Hateful Eight. A three-hour film packed to the brim with dialogue, it has more words than most Quentin Tarantino films – which is saying something – but those 11 are perhaps the most important. Because while the movie contains everything you’d want from a Tarantino flick, The Hateful Eight isn’t what it appears to be.
Set in the 18th century near the border of Wyoming, the film is, on the surface, a western, but stubbornly refuses to follow the genre’s conventions. There are hats and horses, but the whole thing takes place entirely in the snow, a choice that gives everything the eerie vibe of a remote survival horror. Sure enough, our eight characters end up holed up in Minnie’s Haberdashery, hoping to make it to the end credits alive. Step outside and they’re greeted by a howling blizzard and a score from Ennio Morricone (that, tellingly, borrows part of his unused music for John Carpenter’s The Thing). Step inside and they’re met with silence and a claustrophobic cloud of distrust.
It’s a setting that immediately recalls Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino’s low-key debut, and the director shows a cool control over his material that has recently been all too absent. He shoots everything on Ultra Panavision 70 stock, presenting the harsh wintry landscape with a jaw-dropping beauty – but before you can start to admire the whites and shadows, we, like the characters, are shut indoors. While that might seem a cruel joke to play upon the widescreen tradition of western landscapes, though, the composition inside Minnie’s Haberdashery is no less graceful, the ultra-wide lensing of DoP Robert Richardson allowing almost everyone to appear on screen at the same time.
They’re a motley bunch. In the opening act, we see bounty hunter (and former Major) Marquis Warren (Jackson) bump into Russell’s fellow contractor, as he’s shepherding outlaw Daisy Domergue (Leigh) to the noose in nearby Red Rock. Along the way, they’re joined by renegade soldier Chris Mannix (Goggins), a loud, Southern racist who says he’s the new sheriff of the town, cowboy Joe Gage (a softly-spoken Michael Madsen), Mexican Bob (Demian Bechir), who’s looking after the Haberdashery for Minnie, and hangman Oswaldo Mobray (a scene-stealing Tim Roth, proving once again that he’s one of Britain’s most underrated actors).
The cast are all on top form, from Goggins’ squawking figure of prejudice to Bechir’s chirpy, grumbling eccentric. Russell, meanwhile, leans into his character’s vulgar gruffness, frequently doling out horrific bursts of violence towards his prisoner, whom Leigh plays with a nasty cackle. Accompanying them is Bruce Dern as Confederate General Sanford Smithers, who spits disgust at Samuel L. Jackson’s disgraced officer with world-weary venom. Jackson, meanwhile, is in his element; Django Unchained, for its flaws, was a reminder that nobody writes characters for him quite like Tarantino, and this confirms it, with Warren occupying a grey middle ground between hero and villain.
As conflicting back-stories bubble to the surface, and bodies begin to stack up, Warren transforms into something of a dastardly Hercule Poirot, gradually solving the murder mystery that unfolds. It’s like Agatha Christie, but with more guns.
The result is akin to watching theatre, with all the careful blocking and choreography that goes with it. Indeed, the film was almost cancelled after its screenplay leaked, until an on-stage read-through inspired Tarantino to restart production. It’s easy to see why: Tarantino has written one heck of a play. There’s even a intermission halfway through, just in case your legs get tired.
Your legs may well do so, thanks to the film’s sheer length. There might be an overture at the beginning, but at least half of the reason for The Hateful Eight’s epic runtime are the long speeches served up by each character. There’s tension crackling through every barbed exchange, though, as the questioning and contradictions build up to a second half that climaxes with a thrilling pay-off.
Things inevitably get very messy, but unlike Django Unchained, which descends into violence for no real reason – to the point where one of the characters actually apologises to the camera for it – the chaos here feels connected to all of the themes that have been introduced before. Tarantino’s filmmaking is an indulgent as ever, but there’s logic behind the indulgence.
That comes from the underlying politics of the play, which, let’s be clear, doesn’t shy away from being political – even its snowy setting puts The Hateful Eight comfortably alongside The Great Silence, Sergio Corbucci’s classic, similarly political, western. As our makeshift Poirot roots out an imposter with their own agenda, he also stirs up the divides of the Civil War that are still hanging in the air. “I don’t know that n***er,” snaps Dern’s General, when he sees Warren. “But I know he’s a n***er. And that’s all I need to know.”
“When n***ers are scared, that’s when white folks are safe,” observes Mannix. “The only time black folks are safe is when white folks is disarmed,” counters Warren later – a one-two punch that recalls countless news headlines in the past year, as those divides from 150 years ago still seem stitched into the fabric of America today.
It’s those pointed comments that give The Hateful Eight a modern resonance as well as a grubbily authentic period vibe; this is a tale of people torn apart by distrust and alienation; a study of different parts of a jigsaw being forced together to form a whole; a portrait of a hateful nation that both loathes and loves its own past wrongs. None of these people are likeable, but they certainly seem recognisable at times, perhaps also in the way that Mannix and Warren slowly begin to strike an uneasy alliance.
These are weighty ideas and Tarantino tosses them about the room like elephants on parade, managing to engage seriously with his questions and, if he doesn’t always come up with answers, at least serving them with the lightening touch of warped comedy. This is Tarantino at his most mature since Jackie Brown and his most restrained since Reservoir Dogs. Rarely has the director seemed so accomplished in all elements of his production; this is the first time he has trusted a composer to give him an original score, and Morricone’s steady beat is part of what drives the narrative along, escalating the suspense. Only in the second half does the music crash onto the set – led by a rendition of Silent Night by Bechir that’s one of the best sequences of Tarantino’s career. (Beneath the Jackson monologue that goes with it, the warbly piano cover is even in the same key as Morricone’s soundtrack.)
A message of reconciliation, accompanied by a carol in the snow, The Hateful Eight just might be the bloody, shocking Christmas film the world needs at the end of 2016. A Christmas film from the director of Pulp Fiction? An anti-western? A contemporary slice of social commentary? Gripping and surprising, whatever The Hateful Eight is, this is a return to form for Tarantino in all the ways that you least expect.