Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Samuel L Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Bruce Dern, Michael Madsen, Demian Bechir, Channing Tatum, Zoe Bell, James Parks.
Quentin Tarantino returns to the wild west for his eighth film. But he also tries to return to the epic style of cinema popular in the 50s and 60s, shooting in the long dormant 70mm format. He also includes a rousing orchestral overture at the start, a glossy souvenir program with notes about the production, and an intermission break to try and recreate the movie going Hollywood style “roadshow” experience of that era.
Set in the mid 1870s, a decade after the end of the Civil War, the film opens with a stagecoach making its way across the snow covered Wyoming badlands. Inside the coach is ruthless bounty hunter John Ruth (played with relish by Kurt Russell at his meanest and toughest). He is escorting the murderess Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the town of Red Rock where she will be hung for her crimes. Ruth prefers to bring his quarry in alive so that he can witness them receive the full measure of justice.
But an approaching blizzard forces Ruth to reluctantly give a ride to a couple of other men stranded in the wilderness. The two men are former Union soldier turned rival bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (an exuberant Samuel L Jackson), who prefers to bring his quarry in dead as it saves hassles, and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins, from Justified, etc), a former Confederate renegade who claims to be the newly appointed sheriff of Red Rock. Ruth is distrustful of the two men as he fears that Domergue’s gang will attempt a rescue before the coach reaches Red Rock.
The storm forces the coach and its passengers to stop at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a remote wayside stop. Inside the rustic cabin they find four strangers also supposedly stranded by the storm. There is the Mexican Bob (Demian Bechir, from the tv series The Bridge, etc), who claims to be minding the store while Minnie is off visiting her mother; the urbane Oswald Mobray (Tim Roth), who introduces himself as the hangman for the region; brooding cowpoke Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) who is on his way to visit his mother; and sitting comfortably in front of a roaring fire is legendary Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern) still bitter over the defeat of the South and the death of his son in combat.
Once confined to the interior of Minnie’s Haberdashery, The Hateful Eight becomes more of a chamber piece or theatrical play, and comes across as a deliciously black and violent Agatha Christie-like locked room whodunnit. Tarantino builds the claustrophobic tension as the eight characters test each other, try to draw out their real identities and motives. There is a slow burning atmosphere of suspicion, mistrust and dread as the eight characters engage in a battle of wits. Ruth and Warren suspect that one or all of these characters are in cahoots with Domergue.
But then the coffee is poisoned and the bullets fly. The whole thing erupts into wanton violence and bloodshed and a bloody stand off develops. Many have described the film as Reservoir Dogs in the west.
A film geek from way back who grew up on a diet of television westerns, Tarantino obviously knows the genre and has drawn from some of the classics, from John Ford’s Stagecoach through to the films of Howard Hawks, Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, and Clint Eastwood, but stamping the material with his own signature touches – the literate dialogue, the clever genre references, the time shifting narrative, the clever use of chapter headings, a colourful array of despicable characters, plenty of blood soaked carnage and mayhem, casual misogyny, and heaps of violence.
Tarantino’s decision to shoot The Hateful Eight in 70mm pays off. Oscar winner Robert Richardson’s widescreen cinematography uses the format brilliantly, especially in the opening scenes where he captures sweeping and beautiful vistas of the snow covered terrain. However, here the landscapes are not as oppressive or as ominous as those in The Revenant. Tarantino has also turned to legendary composer Ennio Morricone, best known for his collaborations with Sergio Leone on his series of spaghetti westerns, to create the ominous and driving score that enhances the atmosphere.
As usual Tarantino creates some colourful characters, and he has cast many actors with whom he has worked previously to flesh out the roles. Tarantino has provided Jackson with some of his best roles, and here he responds with a surprisingly robust performance as a man still battling racism a decade after the abolition of slavery. In her biggest and showiest role for quite some time Leigh suffers plenty of physical punishment throughout the film, although verbally she gives as good as she gets. Goggins brings some touches of humour to his role, while Madsen oozes menace although his character is a bit bland. The role of Mobray seems to have been specifically written with Christoph Waltz in mind, and Roth’s performance seems to be channeling him with his urbane manners, effete style and fake charm. There are cameos from Channing Tatum and Zoe Bell to add some spice to the mixture.
After the heights of Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained this sprawling and at times undisciplined and uneven epic is certainly far from Tarantino’s best work. The story itself is fairly slim and simple. The opening hour or so of the film unfolds at an unhurried pace and is heavily dialogue driven, although a lot of it is incendiary as they talk about racism, American history, the legacy of the war between the states, and something called the Lincoln letter. And while some of it is entertaining some of it is also a little self indulgent and pretentious. And with an overly generous running time of 187 minutes, The Hateful Eight will test the patience and good will of even the most ardent Tarantino fans. However there is a shorter version that runs for 157 minutes which will be on general release following the “roadshow” release of the 70mm version.