Tarantino’s gunslingers get cabin fever...
No one could ever accuse Quentin Tarantino of a lack of self-importance. The Hateful Eight, his first western if you obey his call to view Django Unchained as a ‘southern’, begins with a sketch of a horse-drawn stagecoach dwarfed by red, snowcapped mountains, the word OVERTURE printed on the screen. Said overture lasts several minutes.
Ennio Morricone’s music is at once lush and menacing, the full orchestral swells layered with music-box tinkles, ominous drums and grumbling horns. The mountains fade, the music dies. ‘The Weinstein Company Presents’ fills the screen and disappears to ensure the next title has the screen all to itself: ‘The 8th Film By Quentin Tarantino.’
It is, of course, all part of Tarantino’s quest to make The Hateful Eight an event, along with the 187-minute running time, a 12-minute intermission and the decision to shoot in Ultra Panavision 70, as favoured by mid-20th-century epics like Ben-Hur, The Fall Of The Roman Empire and The Greatest Story Ever Told (well, if it’s good enough for God…). But event or no event, you need to deliver quite the gift if you’re to package it so elaborately. Thankfully, Tarantino is one generous sonofagun…
Set a few years after the American Civil War, The Hateful Eight tells of eight strangers holed up in a log cabin while a blizzard rages outside. We’re first introduced to John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the former a bounty hunter who’s taking the latter, a crazed outlaw, to the town of Red Rock to hang.
Their stagecoach twice encounters wandering strangers on the icy road: Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a former union soldier turned bounty hunter; and then Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a southern renegade who’s heading for Red Rock to take up the position of sheriff.
These four meet four more when the blizzard forces them to seek refuge at Minnie’s Haberdashery in deepest Wyoming. Inside is Bob (Demian Bichir), a Mexican who’s looking after the joint while Minnie visits her mother, plus Red Rock’s flamboyant English hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), taciturn cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) and Confederate General Sanford ‘Don’t Give a Damn’ Smithers (Bruce Dern). As Mobray crows, “Looks like Minnie’s Haberdashery is about to get cosy for the next few days...”
With Robert Richardson’s camera now locked on to (into?) this veritable vipers’ nest – only rare slogs to the stable or outhouse, and a magnificent flashback at a key moment, allow for the pristine 70mm to take in the great outdoors – part of the fun is trying to figure out who’ll bite first. Tarantino’s verbiage unspools, heavy on exposition but as satisfying to suck on as the oversized pipes wielded by these grizzled characters.
It’s quickly apparent that backstories entwine, loyalties exist, grievances lurk. But just who is in cahoots with whom? It’s a tricksy business made all the more slippery by ever-shifting character dynamics, on-a-dime mood flips and genre switcheroos: western to murder mystery to grand guignol farce.
The Hateful Eight is by no means as tight and dynamic as Reservoir Dogs – it again evidences the writer/director’s migration to novelistic filmmaking, replete with chapter headings, snatches of narrative voiceover and leisurely pacing – but it’s a superior entertainment that marks Tarantino’s most mature outing since Jackie Brown.
Themes that have always percolated in his work bubble to the surface, with the post-Civil War timeframe facilitating an openly political film. “Only time black folks are safe is when white folks are disarmed,” comes Warren’s riposte to the endless racial slurs hatefully tossed his way, most of them from Mannix.
The action might be set in the 1870s but its musings on race and guns are still depressingly relevant, and, for all its narrative twists, exploding heads and flickers of anachronistic music (The White Stripes’ ‘Apple Blossom’, David Hess’ plaintive ‘now You’re All Alone’ from The Last House On The Left), it frequently offers an unusually sombre tone.
As for the performances, they’re anything but hateful, with Jackson, Roth and Leigh stealing the show. The wide lensing means several characters are normally in any one shot, tucked into the deepest, darkest corners of the cabin, and the cast’s relish of the theatricality of Tarantino’s dialogue fits perfectly given the characters each don masks to hide their true purpose.
Leigh especially deserves awards attention, somehow maintaining Daisy’s mischievous glint through a series of punishing ordeals, with her face variously punched, soaked in stew, vomited on and drenched in splattered brains.