Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Bruce Dern, Demian Bichir, Michael Madsen
At a time when the film industry has become almost uniformly digital, Quentin Tarantino remains a passionate supporter of the celluloid process. With his eighth film, The Hateful Eight, he has put his money (or rather, someone else’s money) where his mouth is and chosen to shoot the film in the long dormant Ultra Panavision 70mm format. The last film to be shot on this super wide screen format (2.76:1) was Khartoum in 1966. Yet while employing a film format which is associated with epic spectacle, with its minimal locations The Hateful Eight is probably Tarantino’s smallest scale film since Reservoir Dogs – though twice as long and with fifty five times the budget, indicative of the increasing excess of Tarantino’s work.
Bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) is taking wanted murderer Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock to collect the $10,000 reward. While most bounty hunters prefer the ‘dead’ option in ‘dead or alive,’ when John “The Hangman” Ruth catches you, you hang. With a blizzard closing in behind him, Ruth reluctantly agrees to give a ride to two hitchers: one is another bounty hunter, former Yankee Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), the other the soon-to-be sheriff of Red Rock and former Confederate soldier Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins). The stagecoach is forced to stop at nearby roadhouse Minnie’s Haberdashery to take shelter from the blizzard, where they find a collection of oddballs also hunkering down: a talkative Brit (Tim Roth), a silent cowboy (Michael Madsen), a Mexican (Demian Bichir) and an elderly Confederate General (Bruce Dern). Snowed in like the set up for an Agatha Christie mystery, this group of characters must deal with their history and conflicts, tension and mistrust as they must wait out the blizzard.
On select screens capable of projecting in 70mm The Hateful Eight is receiving a roadshow presentation. An exhibition format from Hollywood’s classical era the roadshow presentation is designed to make seeing a film an event. As such these screenings include an overture, a twenty minute intermission and a glossy program. While Tarantino’s efforts to recreate the event film experience are laudable, what he seems to have missed is that The Hateful Eight is not at all the type of film that would have been given the roadshow treatment back in Hollywood’s heyday. Roadshow presentations were reserved for spectacle, for musicals and grand epics. In contrast, The Hateful Eight, with its minimal settings feels stagey and theatrical.
With the first third of the film taking place in a stagecoach, and the final two thirds in the haberdashery, the claustrophobic staging of The Hateful Eight seemingly doesn’t take advantage of the epic scope of its Ultra Panavision format. The format is here used less for sweeping landscapes (though there are some), than for monstrous close-ups. But even inside, Tarantino and his cinematographer Robert Richardson use the width that Panavision affords them, often staging scenes with characters at extreme opposite sides of the frame.
As a writer and director, Tarantino has never been a believer in brevity. With a runtime of over three hours, The Hateful Eight is a very wordy film, featuring the kind of protracted dialogue scenes that only Tarantino can get away with, and only he would even try to. With eight different people in the one space there are many relationships in operation which give opportunities for different dialogues with different dynamics.
Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell are the stars of the show by virtue of having the most to say. Both give fantastic heightened, almost hammy performances befitting the text. Going back to Pulp Fiction, Tarantino knows how to write for Samuel L. Jackson, or perhaps rather, Jackson knows how to perform Tarantino dialogue. Here the actor seems to relish the opportunity to take the lead, when he is so often a supporting player, and gets to deliver his grandest monologue since Ezekiel 25 in Pulp Fiction. Kurt Russell, who has worked with the director before in Deathproof, is doing a Tarantino version of John Wayne while sporting a fearsome moustache. But while Jackson and Russell dominate our attention – and Walton Goggins gets to take a big step in his evolution as a big screen actor – it is Jennifer Jason Leigh who will stay with you. She is a menacing presence despite being silent for most of the film, but when she does start to talk she makes the film hers. Daisy Domergue is the film’s most extreme role. She is a monster, a heightened antagonist befitting this world Tarantino has created, and Leigh embraces it whole heartedly. It must be said that there is a level of discomfort that comes from the perverse pleasure Tarantino seems to take in watching Domergue get hit in the face, and this has attracted some commentary. But while violence against women may be Tarantino’s final frontier in his mission to shock and surprise his audience, rather than it being evidence of underlying misogyny it seems more likely that Tarantino is merely treating his female antagonist the way he treats his antagonists.
Tarantino is a master of setting up characters and establishing a situation, and that stands in The Hateful Eight. The first half of the film, despite its length, is engrossing. Minnie’s Haberdashery is a powder keg. We expect an explosion. But Tarantino restrains himself to the point that the first bullet is not fired until just before intermission. While it would be too strong to suggest the film’s second half underwhelms, the payoff doesn’t quite match the build-up – a new character is introduced two thirds of the way through and the film loses direction. There is an inevitability to the second half bloodbath. Funnily enough it is all just a bit too Tarantino. And it raises a greater point about Tarantino’s body of work. As a director he has failed to develop and to challenge himself in the last twenty years. He seems content making films for himself. Now this is fine for his fans – a lot of people really like what Tarantino does, and I am one of them – but he is a supremely talented director and it would be a tragedy if we never get to see what he is really capable of. He seems to operate with very little restriction. The Hateful Eight, like Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds before it, is much longer than it needs to be and would benefit from some tightening up. Tarantino has said on many occasions that he is only going to make ten films and then retire. If he is a man of his word that means there are only two left. It would be really interesting to see Tarantino work with someone who will push back against him, giving him some limitations and challenging him to creatively compromise.
Adding to its Western cred, The Hateful Eight features an original score from legendary Italian film composer Ennio Morricone. The 87-year-old Morricone provided the music for the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and here writes his first western score for forty years. Tarantino doesn’t usually use a traditional film score, preferring to score his pictures with found music (and he has used samples of Morricone’s music in previous films including Kill Bill and Django Unchained), but if you can get Morricone you take full advantage. While the score doesn’t soar to the heights of his work on Once Upon a Time in the West and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, it provides a strong sense of place and weaves The Hateful Eight into the history of western films.
Despite this slightly disappointing lack of ambition, with the director seeming more interested in pushing the envelope with the format than the story, The Hateful Eight is still rock solid Tarantino, with all the excess, swagger, style and the deluge of N-words that entails. Possibly Tarantino’s funniest film, The Hateful Eight will undoubtedly please fans of Tarantino’s work, but may leave a few wanting just a bit more.
Review by Duncan McLean
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