I haven’t watched or thought about a film in the past five months as much as I have The Hateful Eight. I’ve seen it four times now and considering it’s length, it’s weight and it’s ambition, that’s a pretty substantial amount of time to dedicate to a film like this. The thing is: there’s no other movie being made in the world quite like The Hateful Eight. No-one else apart from Quentin Tarantino could dream up and get away with making this. He has got to a point now where he is in a league of his own. With total carte blanche to produce whatever the fuck he wants, Tarantino no longer seems interested in chasing perfection or delivering mere entertainment. What we have now is a filmmaker unafraid to indulge in his worst habits and limit his audience in the search for his own tempo. Tarantino has never been one to compromise or kneel before his critics. He commands a huge audience and remains, to this day, the most popular and influential filmmaker of his generation. He just so happens to use that power to make some of the weirdest and most singular American movies currently in the mainstream.
The Hateful Eight is Tarantino’s longest film to date (not counting the combined duration of both Kill Bills) and is also his most contained. Essentially unfolding in two locations; a stagecoach and Minnie’s Haberdashery; a small log cabin establishment based on the outskirts of a town called Red Rock, the screenplay feels designed for the stage as much as the big screen. There are eight main characters and a handful of supporting faces, each brought to life by a mix of Tarantino regulars and newcomers. On the stagecoach are two bounty hunters; John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), Ruth’s prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Red Rock’s new Sheriff, Chris Mannix (Walton Gogins) and the stagecoach driver, O.B. (James Parks). At Minnie’s they find a confederate general (Bruce Dern), the Hangman of Red Rock (Tim Roth), Bob the Mexican (Demian Bachir) and the mysterious cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen). Funnily enough, Minnie and her partner Sweet Dave are nowhere to be found. All of these characters boast a wicked tongue and, needless to say, none of them are to be trusted.
For three of it’s six chapters, The Hateful Eight appears to be a chamber piece about racial tensions. A monstrous blizzard keeps everyone indoors and it doesn’t take long for conversation to turn to bloody conflict. For it’s remaining chapters, the film introduces a mystery surrounding a poisoned pot of coffee (or “coffy” as Tarantino writes in his screenplay), presents us with the resolution before concluding with the bloody fallout. Plot-wise, it’s as simple as they come but thematically it is anything but and sits like lead in your belly. Simultaneously Tarantino’s most serious film and his most rambling, he expertly balances tone throughout the extensive run-time. At times it is a dissection of racial and gender politics in post-Civil War America, at others it is the blackest of comedies, embracing bad taste, crude language and offensive concepts with way more aplomb than you would expect in a film that looks this prestigious.
Shot in glorious 70mm Robert Richardson’s photography transforms close-ups into landscapes and landscapes into vistas. Considering most of the film unfolds in interior close quarters, 70mm seems like an unconventional choice but then again not much about this western is conventional. Like Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master before it, the grand treatment heightens the intimacy to new levels. Forced to widen his compositions and slow his cutting rhythms, this is easily the classiest looking picture Tarantino has ever directed. Light and background action gain higher importance. You’ll notice dust dancing in beams of light and pay attention to every movement of each character even if they’re out of focus in the background. It is expertly directed, Tarantino has never been as meticulous with his staging and coverage as he is here. With images this crisp, everything needs to be on point and the costumes and production design are equally accomplished. By the third or fourth viewing, you enjoy certain scenes merely through appreciation of the textures of the characters’ costumes and detail in the set dressing. Did everyone catch the snow-shoes forming angel wings behind Daisy the first time around? I certainly didn’t.
The Hateful Eight is also something of a landmark in Tarantino’s filmography by the being the first to have an original score. Tarantino usually mixtape his movies using inspired jukebox cuts or choice score selections. This time around he enlists his favourite composter, the legendary Ennio Morricone, to give the film it’s own aural identity. Tarantino has had trust issues with composers before, never daring to hand his film over to another pair of hands but his gamble with Morricone pays off in spades. The maestro’s score is not only one of the best Morricone has composed recently, but one of the best in his entire oeuvre. With a career spanning over fifty years and five hundred titles to his name, that’s one hell of a compliment. I’ve worn the soundtrack out since buying it last December. I am obsessed with it. The vinyl is never far from my turntable and the mp3’s still enjoy heavy rotation on my iPod. The constant instrumentation and use of unique themes are a welcome change of pace for Tarantino and it makes the additional music – a White Stripes track, a cut from David Hess’s Last House on the Left soundtrack, as well as some unused takes from Morricone’s work on The Thing – even more impacting and deliberate. The only sound vying for more prominence on the soundtrack than Morricone’s strings is that of the characters’ voices.
Ever since Death Proof and Inglourious Basterds – my two personal favourite Tarantino films – dialogue has become increasingly important to the pulse and design of his movies. In the films leading up to Death Proof, characters discussed pop-culture and chit-chatted mainly as a counterpoint to what they were doing or thinking. There were long reams of quotable speech, no doubt about it, but it wasn’t until Inglourious Basterdsthat he really started using chatter as a weapon and as set-piece. Watching that film is to see Tarantino gain control of his talents and become something of a master with wordplay, accent and language. The dialogue doesn’t just compliment or juxtapose against the scene, it is the scene. Chances are your favourite moments in Inglourious Basterds involve little more than characters talking over a table, yet they are among the most thrilling of any film made in the past decade. He continued this approach in Django Unchained by slowing everything down in it’s final third to bubble and stew over an extended dinner scene between our heroes and the diabolical Calvin Candie. Tarantino takes that idea to it’s zenith in The Hateful Eight, essentially building an entire movie that is nothing more than extended dialogue scenes loaded with threat and tension. There’s rarely a moment here in which characters aren’t mid-conversation and more often than not, the character’s take their sweet time in reaching a point. Tarantino made a conscious decision here, as Major Warren says in Chapter Four, to “slow it way down”. For some viewers that might be the film’s fatal flaw.
Many, like myself, adore Tarantino’s writing and can enjoy it in extended doses while others prefer when he is more succinct and focused. For casual moviegoers who love Django Unchained, Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs – genre films which offer enough surface pleasures to please most tastes – the length and vernacular of The Hateful Eight can be punishing. Audiences waiting for action will find the characters’ constant tangents and monologuing tiresome, perhaps concluding that there is not a big enough trade-off between the two for the film to be wholly satisfying. Let’s not forget: there isn’t a single gunshot fired in the movie until well over ninety minutes in and geysers of blood don’t make an appearance until halfway through chapter four. The word “boring” has been applied to Hateful Eight more than any other film in Tarantino’s canon. It also doesn’t help that this is easily Tarantino’s coldest film to date. Not just in terms of the snowy atmosphere, but the feeling it leaves in your gut when all is said and done.
The Hateful Eight unfolds in a cold, cold west that is unrelenting in it’s savagery and prejudice. There’s an edge and harshness to the language and violence that is more hard hitting than anything Tarantino has attempted. When John Ruth vomits blood all over Daisy and punches her two front teeth out, it isn’t fun in the same way Django shooting a bunch of racist rednecks is fun, it’s outrageous but inherently brutal. The same goes for the film’s centrepiece; a story recounted by Major Warren in which he cruelly humiliated, molested and murdered General Smithers’ son, Chester. Heck, the film ends with Mannix and Warren crudely lynching Daisy before bleeding out into oblivion themselves. In short: this isn’t a Tarantino film that rewards your patience with entertaining release. It’s a visceral film, but not an obviously fun one which many viewers have found off-putting.
This is the first Tarantino movie in a while to be met with a somewhat mixed response. As with all his movies it has come under fire for it’s abundance of racist language and also it’s treatment of it’s sole female character. Personally I don’t have a problem with either issue and find their handling appropriate in regards to the material and period. The criticisms go beyond it’s controversial content and themes, however. The 70mm Roadshow Presentation (which, frustratingly, I haven’t seen) was initially plagued by technical complications and was seen by many critics as a misjudged endeavour with varying degrees of success. Speaking personally, I myself haven’t come across many people who claim to enjoy the film on the level of Tarantino’s others and found it’s languid pace self-indulgent, plodding and far too long. In fact, many declared it his worst film by a considerable margin. When I saw the film on the big screen with a semi-packed audience, I found that gauging the vibe in the room was almost as fun as the film itself. You could spot certain members of the audience tuning out while others were completely dialled in. I heard audible groans at various points and there was a general sense that the crowd was getting repeatedly restless and frustrated. About four chapters in I even saw one girl, presumably on a date, ask her boyfriend in a raised voice “why the fuck did you bring me to see this?” She spent the rest of the movie flicking on her phone, clearly counting the minutes down until she was freed. Finally, as Daisy is savagely hung she looked at the boy a final time and shook her head in disbelief. I never knew you could read regret of a movie choice in the back of someones head until that night. It should come as no surprise then that The Hateful Eight is currently Tarantino’s lowest grossing film since Death Proof and, for what it’s worth (not a right lot) retains the second lowest Rotten Tomatoes rating of his career. Is this a sign of Tarantino losing his audience? I don’t think so. He’s just refining it.
For all it’s strengths and weaknesses, there is something purely Tarantino about this movie that I haven’t felt since Reservoir Dogs. Despite it’s debt to western legends like Peckinpah and Corbucci or the allusions to John Carpenter’s The Thing and Agatha Christie shadings, The Hateful Eight might be the least referential movie Tarantino has ever made. The film lives and breathes through it’s characters first and foremost and doesn’t appear to exist in the encyclopaedic rolodex of kaleidoscopic genre heritage that, say, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill and Django Unchained do. Sure it employs some colourful fonts for main titles and boasts a cast and crew of genre heavyweights but this film is more interested in environment than any Tarantino movie before it and feels grounded in reality where his other films feel designed and heightened. In thinking about what keeps me returning to The Hateful Eight so frequently I have come to two conclusions. First of all it’s all the things I have spoken about above: the little things that make all great movies great, the characters, the design and the attitude as well as the nuance in the writing and performances.
Within it’s mammoth length and freewheeling conversations, there is a lot of detail to be mined. Jackson, Goggins, Leigh and Russell all put in near career-best work but it’s only on the second or third viewing that you really begin to appreciate the work of the supporting cast. O.B. becomes more endearing and sweet with every watch and Bachir’s line readings as Bob the Mexican become even more humorous. I really love Roth’s work as Oswaldo Mobray and Madsen’s turn as Joe Gage. They aren’t as immediately showy as John Ruth, Daisy Domergue Major Warren or Chris Mannix but there’s a lot going on there. Think about how elaborate English Pete Hicox’s ruse is in comparison to Grouch Douglass’. The fact he creates this English fop character says a lot about his own personality. Hicox gets into the role so substantially he even prepares a monologue about the Justice system for Ruth and Domergue just to make his act all the more convincing. Is Hicox basing his performance off of the real Oswaldo, whom, we assume, was dispatched off-screen? Who knows! But the fact I’m asking these questions shows that the film has captured my imagination beyond what’s merely on screen. Another of my favourite moments in the film is as simple as Joe Gage wrapping a handkerchief around his neck after Major Warren has stuck a knife into it. Tarantino takes the time to show Gage rid himself of one handkerchief, getting another, preparing it and eventually wrapping it around himself. This sort of inconsequential business would be cut from a shorter, more brutally trimmed movie entirely but with it intact it suggests a pride to Joe Gage we wouldn’t have had otherwise. I can’t imagine the film without it. The fact all of these characters are lying bastards brings up more questions than the film answers, which is also part of the fun. Is Chris Mannix really the new Sheriff of Red Rock? (I think he is.) Is Daisy telling the truth about the gang waiting for them back at the town? (I doubt it.) Did Major Warren really kill Chester Smithers? (I think so.) And so on and so forth.
The second thing that keeps me returning to The Hateful Eightcomes down to this: this is such an unexpected movie for Tarantino to make. In the wake of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained I assumed Tarantino would make something smaller and compact but not quite like this. As I mentioned earlier, the running time might be epic but the content and scope is anything but. It is two (very) long scenes and a flashback. That’s it. For me the film shows Tarantino working at a fascinating new pace and moving in a slightly different direction. Where many see it as a misstep, I see it as a conscious evolution. That evolution is worth studying. I feel the exact same way about Death Proof, a film I initially wrote off for being too chatty and too slight on the “slasher” angle that the film was marketed on. Now it has become a firm favourite of mine, endlessly re-watched, for the exact same reasons I dismissed it in first place. Sometimes the filmmakers you love are more ahead of you than you think.
Django Unchained is my least favourite Tarantino movie because it is his most traditionally plotted. It is little more than a rescue/revenge spaghetti western – an exhilaratingly entertaining and vicious one at that – but it feels slight in terms of characterisation. It wasn’t the Tarantino western I wanted after Inglourious Basterds. It was too straight forward and not surprising enough.The Hateful Eight, on the other hand, is exactlythe western I wanted after Django Unchained. I know it is a flawed film and think many of the criticisms I’ve discussed are valid. But as a cinephile and Tarantino fan with an extremely packed and eclectic media diet, this movie delivers something fresh and unusual for me that I find absolutely addictive. It’s got to the point now where I will happily put the film on in the background just to be in it’s presence for a while. I enjoy it. Sure, I notice moments which are perhaps too long, that could be cut or aren’t essential but I also realise that I don’t care. I like the film the way it is. I like the constantl wordplay, the endless tangents and enjoy that it is messy, bloated and indulgent because Tarantino’s indulgences seem to be in tune with my own tastes.
The more loyal his fanbase becomes, the closer Tarantino gets to becoming the kind of cult director he has always looked up to and stolen from. He’s far too renowned now to become as obscure as somebody like Jack Hill or Corbucci – his position in the pantheon of all-timers is cemented as far as I’m concerned – but that doesn’t mean he can’t make films that slip through the cracks to be appreciated at a later date. I know Tarantino is a populist at heart and he wants his films to be enjoyed by the biggest crowd imaginable. He is proud of his talent and influence and is happy to be embraced by populist and arthouse audiences alike. The driving creative force behind all of his movies is his ambition for a sterling legacy. Tarantino has discussed at length his desire to leave behind a solid-gold filmography for the cineastes of the future to discover. He theorises that each film should be as satisfying as the last, no matter what order they are selected. Despite what many may think, I don’t believe that The Hateful Eight will be the dud that breaks the streak. It might be his worst film in terms of restraint when it comes to pacing but it is easily his best in regards to his craft confidence as a filmmaker. With time and distance I think this will be seen as one of his boldest and most uncompromising works. It’s one of the most interesting American movies made in this decade and one I am still trying to unravel and dissect. It is already one of my favourites.