Like the characters on offer in the film itself The Hateful Eight has not had an easy journey. When Quentin Tarantino was first writing it someone leaked an early draft of the script online. In typical QT fashion he blew a gasket and insisted he would never make the film. But, after a hugely successful live reading of the script he changed his mind. And it’s a good thing too because The Hateful Eight is arguably QT’s most assured and relevant films in quite some time.
A Western with a social commentary? Sounds a bit strange right? But there is method to the madness here, and madness is something that comes almost as thick as the snow outside in The Hateful Eight.
The film follows bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) as he transports his latest capture Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to hang in the town of Red Rock. As a blizzard closes in he picks up Civil War hero Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and former Confederate solider Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins). But with the weather preventing them from travelling further the stagecoach is forced to rest up at Minnie’s Haberdashery and it soon becomes apparent to Ruth that at least one of the people in attendance has ideas on freeing Domergue, no matter the cost.
In typical QT fashion The Hateful Eight starts slow, introducing a plethora of characters, most of them of the scum and villainy variety and immersing us in their tics and flaws. At over three hours it would be easy to see some of the early scenes as indulgent by the writer director. But, and this is especially true if you see the 70mm Special Roadshow Engagement version, The Hateful Eight is an event movie. That term has been diluted over the years by blockbuster films but this is a throwback to true cinema in its purest form. The kind of cinema that the likes of David Lean and Sergio Leaone conjured: grand, epic, sprawling stories that immerse you completely to such a degree that when the intermission comes up, as it does in certain editions of The Hateful Eight, you find yourself gasping for breath.
QT is aided brilliantly by the cinematography of Robert Richardson who manages to make the intimate location of Minnie’s look as breathtaking as the deserts of Lawrence of Arabia and the ever-present score of Ennio Morricone. Both these master craftsmen take QT’s style, direction and story to levels previously unseen in his work. For while Django Unchained was also a Western this is a different beast all together. It’s a Western on a bigger scale and canvas. The location might be more contained but the story and the hook are more engaging than Django’s mission of revenge. There’s a sense of oppression from the snow and cold outside, a hint of John Carpenter’s The Thing mixed with slow-burning mystery.
It’s easy to boil down The Hateful Eight into a whodunit, a case of which of the people in this room can you trust, especially given the way that they all seem untrustworthy in so many ways. But more than anything QT seems to be using the aftermath of the American Civil war to very specifically comment on the continued division, primarily surrounding racial prejudices in the country, that still exists today. Given his recent attendance at an anti-police brutality protest lines such as “The only time black folks are safe, is when white folks is disarmed.” It’s a recurrent theme throughout the film that resonates in ways QT has rarely accomplished.
The other issue here is that age-old one of violence in cinema. And there is a lot on offer in The Hateful Eight, blood literally spewing, heads popping as bullets rip through them and enough claret being thrown over Jennifer Jason Leigh to make you wince. But, and this is arguably true of all of QT’s films, the violence is intentionally over the top. It’s cartoonish, akin to watching an Acme Anvil fall on the head of Wile E. Coyote. In doing so QT has made a black comedy with a sense of intelligence. While he’s making a point he’s also looking to entertain and, yes, perhaps shock a little. But make no mistake, this is a filmmaker in full control of his craft and it is a joy to behold.
His cast are typically brilliant, spitting QT’s trademark dialogue with obvious glee. Russell excels as the gruff, bear-like Ruth. Samuel L. Jackson is almost as cold and engaging as the weather outside and Tim Roth is clearly reveling in playing a dapper Englishmen. But the two revelations are Jason Leigh and Goggins. Jason Leigh, who it has to be said is put through similar hardships to Bruce Campbell in The Evil Dead, is wonderfully deplorable as Daisy. She’s full of sneers, venom and her beaten-up but still fighting mentality is a genuine joy. Meanwhile Goggins is the lynchpin of the film. You rarely know which side he’s on, more often than not question his intelligence, but throughout you cannot take your eyes off him. It is a crime that he has not been more widely recognized by awards season.
Full of bile, blood, snow and sheer reverence at the imagery on display The Hateful Eight feels like a return to his origins akin to Reservoir Dogs but matured, honed and staggeringly well made for Quentin Taratino. Like the Western itself QT has become a bastion of cinema. And long may it continue.