For his eighth film, Quentin Tarantino has mashed together the Spaghetti Western, Agatha Christie murder mysteries, and his own distinct sensibilities into a three-hour epic with an overture and an intermission, all shot in 70mm Ultra Panavision and featuring a score by the revered Ennio Morricone. The Hateful Eight is a rousingly successful attempt to reach back and grab some of the most glorious elements of Classic Cinema and pull them into a fresh-feeling and brilliantly written piece of modern moviemaking. Cementing 2015 as the year of the snowy western after Inarittu’s masterful The Revenant, The Hateful Eight is a gorgeous, funny, and very exciting addition to Tarantino’s catalogue.
Combining the paranoid intimacy of Reservoir Dogs and the epic take on American history of Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight spends the majority of its luxurious three-hour run time in Minnie’s Haberdashery, a single-roomed cabin in 1870s Wyoming. It’s in this store, suspiciously abandoned by its owners, that our eponymous eight are forced to make their bed for the night, with a wild blizzard preventing any sort of escape. As implied by the title, no one here is a particularly heroic or even decent individual, from merciless bounty hunter Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson) to racist confederate general Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern) to prisoner-awaiting-hanging Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Transporting this prisoner is John Ruth (Kurt Russell), a bounty hunter famed for his propensity to actually bring his targets in alive, and it’s Daisy’s presence that leads to such unease in the cabin.
At least one of the eight plans on getting Daisy free, and those that don’t still might be enticed to take her in themselves once Ruth reveals the $10,000 reward. Tarantino ratchets up the tension brilliantly, words hanging in the air as heavily as any bullets. Extended dialogue sequences are a treat to see and hear as characters suss each other out, forming and breaking alliances constantly. For the first 45 minutes, it’s a less stylised Tarantino at work as he builds this Old West world, still hurting from the Civil War, but by the interval, and particularly in the film’s second half, you realise that no one else could have written this.
To deliver what is at times peak Tarantino dialogue, he’s assembled possibly his best cast to date. Jackson has never ben better than he is here, Tim Roth (as English hangman Oswaldo Mobray) manages to balance a performance that is half Christoph Waltz and half something else even more vicious, and Walton Goggins finally gets the film role he deserves as Sheriff Chris Mannix. Slimy, yet oddly charming, Goggins’ Mannix is also the source of much of the film’s black comedy whilst having an entirely unpredictable character arc. But it’s Jennifer Jason Leigh who just about steals the show as the villainous Daisy, jaw-droppingly evil and looking progressively more monstrous as the film wears on. A snarling speech she gives to the rest of the cabin after the first bullets start flying, delivered while covered in blood and missing some teeth, is absolutely demonic and one of the year’s most startling scenes.
Tarantino’s real masterstroke with The Hateful Eight is his incredible awareness of precisely when the audience needs a jolt of action. The second you feel that there may be too much (admittedly fantastic) dialogue and not enough shooting, guns are drawn and used, before the whole thing veers sharply into murder mystery territory. Narrated by an omniscient voiceover, the film’s second act is packed with twists and betrayals, and once the tables have been reset, the final third is absolutely thrilling. Even as the stakes raise and the walls and floors get soaked more deeply in claret, the sense of fun only heightens, with plenty of cheer-worthy moments as the story barrels towards its conclusion. The 180 minutes fly by – though this is obviously assisted by the interval – thanks to pitch-perfect pacing and the ever-changing balance of power in the Haberdashery.
It’s also a very nice film to just look at for three hours. Vibrant colours saturate the screen, and the occasional landscape shots are simply stunning. It’s a bold move by Tarantino to take a 70mm camera, built for vast vistas and endless plains, and, for the most part, station it in a single large room, but it’s a gamble that absolutely pays off, giving the cabin itself an epic sweep and lending huge power to the close-ups. Minnie’s functions as both a house for the action and also a representation of America itself, the people within divided along lines of gender, race, and institutional allegiance. At one point, Mobray even comes up with the idea of dividing the cabin between the Northerners and the Southerners. Tarantino’s take on this period of American history has already proved deeply divisive and rarely comfortable, but no matter where you stand on his politics, the commentary here is found in few other places in mainstream cinema and should at least spark a conversation.
The Hateful Eight doesn’t quite dethrone Pulp Fiction as Tarantino’s masterpiece, but I would argue that it comfortably slots in as his second-best work to date. Melding genres seemingly effortlessly with his trademark wit and gift for dialogue, he’s crafted an absolutely brilliant western that ranks among the genre’s most enjoyable. Consistently hugely entertaining and featuring four great performances and four more exceptional ones, The Hateful Eight is one of very few films this year that I wanted to go on for longer, if only because it’s going to be a long time before we see a film like this again.