As the stylised retro credits that roll at the beginning of the film remind us, this is Quentin Tarantino’s eighth film. We might, reasonably, expect something of a slowdown from a director who has said numerous times he’ll only make ten movies. Instead however The Hateful Eight stands as one of Tarantino’s finest achievements combining the best aspects of his early indie style and his ongoing mission to resurrect old genres.
The history of The Hateful Eight has been a troubled one so it’s a joy to see it finally arrive on screens. A script leak back in 2014 caused Tarantino to go into a bit of strop, partly justified, and he threatened to cancel the film and turn it into a book instead. Thankfully the cooler heads of the cast prevailed and convinced Tarantino to start filming. Assembling a strong cast and announcing that the music would be done by the famed western score composer Ennio Morricone, famous for his iconic The Good, The Bad and The Ugly theme, piqued everyone’s interests.
I must admit I’ve been looking forward to The Hateful Eight for a long time. I always look forward to Tarantino films. It’s probably because Tarantino holds that special place in many filmgoer’s hearts of being the first ‘indie’ director they watched. Sure enough the cinema was mainly filled with people my age many of whom seemed like they’d have ‘Pulp Fiction’ posters on their walls. I was slightly concerned however at the fact that it was another western. Maybe concerned is the wrong word. More like annoyance. If Tarantino is really only going to do ten films then I want him to work on some more genres rather than another western.
Thankfully my worries were unfounded with Tarantino producing one of his best films. Whilst Django Unchained was a good film The Hateful Eight is a much more mature piece building on the lessons of his first western back in 2012. The plot is relatively simple. In Wyoming Kurt Russell’s bounty hunter John Ruth is transporting Daisy Domergue, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, to the town of Red Rock to be hanged. Russell’s character is unusual for a bounty hunter in that he always hangs his captives thus keeping Domergue alive and setting us up on our story. Samuel L. Jackson’s Major Warren soon arrives requesting transportation on the stagecoach, followed by Walton Goggins’ Sheriff Mannix and the four, plus their driver, arrive at Minnie’s haberdashery, a lodge and stopover. Once inside the cramped lodge we discover Tim Roth, Michael Madsen and Bruce Dern amongst others and our hateful eight is complete. After that the paranoia, suspicion and, most of all, hatred kicks in and the film really gets going.
Much of the first part of the film makes brilliant use of the snowy Wyoming landscape creating shots that look like they could have been in a John Ford film. The second half drags us in and strands us with the other characters inside the isolated, uncomfortable cabin and, as the film moves forward, squeezes us inside more. It’s not the just the cabin that is uncomfortable but the characters. That’s not to say they’re not interesting-they are, in fact they’re fascinating. What they’re not however is liberal, tolerant people. Everyone’s got a bone to pick whether it’s racism, misogyny or old civil war feuds. These aren’t sympathetic characters and yet we find ourselves picking sides on the flimsiest of basis.
Remarkably for a film that feels so thrilling, tense and exciting to watch there is lots of dialogue and only selected, restricted moments of violence. The actors carry this remarkably well. The Hateful Eight is most definitely an ensemble piece but there are standout performances from Jennifer Jason Leigh, Samuel L. Jackson and Walton Goggins, probably best known for the tv series ‘The Shield’ who really comes into his own. The cast feeds off the script, which, as ever, is filled with Tarantino-speak. Long conversations about nothing in particular, characters switching from arguing with one character to another within a second and long, drawn out stories that build to nasty conclusions. There is also repetitive shouting, essentially a running gag, concerning the way to shut the door. If you’re not into Tarantino’s style of writing you’re never going to like it but for fans, dedicated and casual, this is some of his best writing to date. Polished, enjoyable, interesting, funny but tempered by his mix of genres-western, mystery and even a pinch of horror. Whatever you think of Tarantino there’s nothing else like him in Hollywood cinema at the moment.
Tarantino himself has described The Thing as the key influence on the film along with his own Reservoir Dogs. It’s easy to see why, especially the early Tarantino style. Though he now commands huge budgets this work, more so than other recent outings, is dialogue driven. A group of men and one women are trapped by a snowy blizzard not knowing who is telling the truth about their life and who is lying. From his arrival Kurt Russell, who of course was in The Thing, suspects that one of the lodge’s residents is working with his prisoner. As in Reservoir Dogs the misfits of this piece also believe one of them is a liar but whilst in Tarantino’s debut the group is united, at least by the job, in The Hateful Eight there are no real loyalties or alliances.
This lack of loyalties but range of hatreds and feuds helps Tarantino to explore a number of his favourite topics, most notably US race relations. For once Tarantino seems to offer a somewhat positive message on the future of race relations in America but doesn’t get too ahead of himself. The film is not idealistic. Next to this there are discussions about the differences between ‘civilised’, legal justice and ‘brutal’ frontier justice, sins of the father, the legality of killings and honour amongst soldiers, lawmen and thieves. Tarantino lets his themes do their own talking, never rubbing our faces in it but letting the characters on the screen reveal them through their actions and words.
These actions and words are beautifully set to music by Ennio Morricone, returning to the western genre for the first time in decades. Having Morricone as his composer is just one of many nice nods Tarantino makes to the western genre and pop culture staples of his childhood. At some points Kurt Russell’s voice seems to imitate John Wayne’s and the characters inside the lodge are loving hark backs to western stock characters. As always however Tarantino makes them his own. He even avoids a cameo appearance, one of the things I’ve always found irritating about his films going for, instead, a brief narrator role.
The film has not been released without criticism of course. As ever there have been condemnations and criticisms of his depiction of violence. It’s the usual story. In The Hateful Eight however I do have to admit there were some particularly gruesome scenes-even by Tarantino’s standards and he’s not lost any of his appetite for blood as he’s got older. But sure enough by going too far Tarantino was adding to the black comedy element and once the initial blood splatter shock had passed the audience in the cinema were laughing. What was more striking were the moments of abuse and violence Russell’s character inflicts on Leigh’s captive. These were shocking for a good reason. Beyond this the moments of violence were effective because they were restricted. Dialogue and teasing fills most of the film whilst the actual violence is limited bringing a much bigger punch when it does come.
I recommend seeing The Hateful Eight in the cinema if you can. After all if Tarantino does stick by his promise, and it seems as if he will, then we may only get to experience a Tarantino film, with its own unique aesthetic and brilliance two more times. Tarantino recently said in an interview that he wanted to breathe new life into old genres and make them his own. In The Hateful Eight he has certainly succeeded in putting his own spin on the old western genre. More than that however he has produced one of his finest works to date by bringing together the old and the new in a cocktail of thrills, laughs, mystery, his unique Tarantino speak and, of course, essential over the top violence.