A group of disparate gunmen converge in an isolated mountainside cabin during a blinding-white blizzard in The Hateful Eight, “the eighth film by Quentin Tarantino” as proudly denoted by the opening credits.
It’s that kind of self-indulgence that might turn some off from the film, which seems to throw all of the director’s trademarks into one big stew. Out of all the Tarantino movies, this one might be the most Tarantino-y, and you’ll either be into that or you won’t. Ultimate sign of Tarantino indulgence? Halfway through the film, the director himself steps in to narrate the onscreen events.
This is also the director’s longest film to date, clocking in at 168 minutes (187 minutes in an extended 70mm “roadshow” version, which isn’t showing in Prague), though along with Reservoir Dogs it’s his most focused, dialed-down narrative.
Yet while nearly the entire film takes place inside that cabin, The Hateful Eight never feels overlong, and maintains a steady tension right through to the final scenes. Tarantino is a master at wringing suspense out of tense encounters, and the entire film plays out like an extended riff on the German pub sequence in Inglourious Basterds or the Candyland dinner in Django Unchained.
The stakes are set up from the film’s opening scene, when a horse-drawn coach encounters Civil War veteran Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) on its way to Red Rock. With a snowstorm on the horizon, Warren thinks he’s found salvation.
Not so fast: inside the coach is bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), chained at the arm to his prisoner, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Ruth is escorting Daisy to be hanged in Red Rock and expecting resistance from her gang to turn up, so he isn’t keen on taking any passengers. Even though he’s met Warren before.
And that’s the hitch. Key to the Ten Little Indians tension in The Hateful Eight is who characters say they are and who they really are, and who’s on who’s side even if/when all the cards are on the table. The characters are playing a careful game of cat-and-mouse chess while we try to work things out, and Tarantino toying with us.
As the blizzard hits and the coach makes an indefinite stop at Minnie’s Haberdashery, more characters come into the picture: there’s stagecoach driver O.B. (James Parks); Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who claims be Red Rock’s new sheriff; Oswaldo Mowbray (Tim Roth), apparently the new hangman; Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a former Confederate General; cowboy drifter Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), and Bob the Mexican (Demian Bichir), apparently filling in for Minnie.
Tarantino has always been a provocative filmmaker, and he toys with the audience just like Warren does with Smithers in one of the film’s standout scenes. There are more uses of the N-word than some may be comfortable with, and film erupts, at times, into the most graphic bloodshed the director has ever unleashed on the screen.
But more interesting are subversive notes of racism and casual violence towards women the film touches upon along the way. Despite all the onscreen carnage, the film’s conclusion even seems to offer a glimmer of hope for contemporary US race relations.
And many will chastise the film for simply containing violence against women at all (Leigh’s character is repeatedly brutalized throughout the film) without confronting what it really does: like the vicious beating suffered by the cultured Nazi officer at the hands of his uncouth US captors in Inglourious Basterds, the violence against Leigh’s character here is actually a sly comment on the audience’s thirst for blood (watch the film at a crowded cinema, and you’ll be amazed how often these scenes get a laugh.)
I caught The Hateful Eight in the 70mm version in the US, which isn’t currently screening in Prague; while the image seemed a little soft, there was a wonderful, deep contrast between the stark whites in the blizzard and deep hues indoors, all beautifully captured by regular Tarantino cinematographer Robert Richardson. In any version, this is a gorgeously shot and staged film.
The film’s original soundtrack, conducted by Ennio Morricone and performed by the Czech National Symphony Orchestra (and recorded in Prague under Tarantino’s supervision earlier last year) perfectly sets the chilly mood – especially in the film’s roadshow version, which features an overture and entr’acte that includes music not heard in rest of the movie.
Morricone’s work here is exceptional, wonderfully evocative and on a par with the maestro’s best work; it won a Golden Globe for Best Original Soundtrack this weekend and should net the 87-year-old composer his very first Oscar for Original Music (he won an honorary Oscar in 2007), as long as Academy voters don’t penalize it for incorporating elements from his previous work; unused portions of his soundtrack to 1982’s The Thing were utilized for some selections.
A number of plot details and even the staging of certain scenes have been directly lifted from a 1960 episode of the TV series The Rebel, which you can watch on YouTube.
Not that the director’s cribbing from pre-existing sources – something that has been noted throughout his career – makes any difference to the quality of his final product. The Hateful Eight is pure cinema from a master storyteller, a wonderfully suspenseful B-movie western blown up to epic length and proportions.