Quentin Tarantino returns to the saddle to deliver another violent and profane western. Though it does cover familiar ground and does run too long, The Hateful Eight is a darkly funny, beautifully shot treat.
In post-Civil War era Wyoming, a blizzard throws together Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson), fellow bounty hunter John ‘The Hangman’ Ruth (Kurt Russell), Ruth’s quarry, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins). Their destination: Minnie’s Haberdashery, so they can hunker down until the snow storm passes. They are greeted by an assortment of strangers including area hangman Oswald Mowbray (Tim Roth), Mexican Bob (Demian Bichir) and retired Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern). As they spend more time together, it becomes increasingly clear that, as Ruth says ‘One of them fellas ain’t who he says he is…’
Though it does add a few new wrinkles and twists to proceedings, the premise does riff a little too closely to the themes Tarantino has visited before. He has acknowledged his own Reservoir Dogs as an influence on this film, and the bar room confrontation in Inglourious Basterds is also referenced in dialogue at a crucial juncture. The Hateful Eight, however, runs longer than the combined length of the former film’s entirety and the latter film’s sequence. Whilst not as bloated or digressive as Django Unchained, Tarantino’s penchant for exceedingly long takes and running jokes that don’t land do weaken what would have been far more effective if it was far tighter in the editing room.
To criticise a Tarantino film for being overly long is perhaps somewhat churlish, especially when The Hateful Eight has so much to recommend it. Tarantino knows how to create suspense, tension, humour and memorable dialogue in his sleep and all of these strengths are on display. It might be his funniest to date, with a special mention going to a very funny use of slow motion on two occasions.
It is also hard to dislike The Hateful Eight when the cast are clearly having a ball. To state the obvious, Samuel L Jackson was born to deliver Tarantino’s dialogue. The writer-director’s distinctive signature always sounds natural when coming out of Jackson’s mouth and having him in the leading role is a treat. Warren is by turns charming, menacing, repugnant, sympathetic, untrustworthy and virtuous and Jackson embodies all of these and more with a funny, fiery turn. Other standouts include Bichir as the amusingly succinct Bob, Goggins as the garrulous Mannix and Channing Tatum playing against type as a badass gentleman outlaw. Having (more than) eight main speaking parts means that inevitably some of the characters get shorter shrift than others, but is still a minor shame that Michael Madsen doesn’t get much to do.
The film also looks amazing. Whether seen in full 70mm (an option not readily available on these shores) or in digital, the compositions by frequent collaborator Robert Richardson are exquisite. Whether lensing the grubby interiors of the cabin and its confined spaces or focusing on the beauty of the wintery vistas, the film is never less than gorgeous and is certainly one of the more visually arresting films in recent times.
Best of all is a first for a Tarantino film: a wholly original orchestral score by Ennio Morricone. The director does add a few signature non-period appropriate musical flourishes, but for the most part the action is underscored by Maestro Morricone’s work. As soon as the main theme kicks in with its ominous bassoon, percussion and orchestral chanting, it is clear that Morricone has crafted something distinctive from his legendary work with Sergio Leone but equally impressive.
A charge that Tarantino’s detractors have often levelled at him is that he or his films are racist and misogynist. This mischaracterisation ignores how big a part of exploitation cinema is in Tarantino’s DNA. It is clear he is depicting seemingly likeable characters who harbour horrible prejudices and commit horrible acts to see how far the audience are willing to forgive them. He also uses Reconstruction era America to offer a timely exploration of how racist attitudes continue to fester in spite of social and political progress. Not many mainstream filmmakers have the huevos to pull that off.
The Hateful Eight has premiered in UK cinemas on 8th January 2016.