In January 2014, Quentin Tarantino officially announced that he would be following up his successful western Django Unchained with yet another trip down the trail with The Hateful Eight. However, the script was leaked shortly after this announcement and he abandoned the project - seemingly in favour of releasing it as a book instead. After a successful live script read at the United Artists Theatre in Los Angeles, Tarantino again changed his mind and decided to go ahead with making the film. It's now close to 25 years since he arrived on the film scene with his blistering debut Reservoir Dogs and in that time he's only released eight films with the intention of retiring after his tenth. That said, he's made enough for us to reflect on his style and in some ways you could say that - although the genre is very different - this is as close in structure to his debut than any other film he's done.
In Wyoming, after the civil-war, John "The Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell) is on his way to the town of Red Rock. He's also escorting a fugitive - Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) whom he intends see at the end of a rope. En route, they encounter bounty hunter and ex-soldier, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) who happens to be the newly appointed Sheriff of Red Rock. Before they get there, however, a blizzard forces them to take shelter at Minnie's Haberdashery. Here they encounter four more strangers; Bob "The Mexican" (Demian Bichir), Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) and ex-Confederate General, Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern). These eight strangers soon learn that not everyone is entirely who these say they are and making it to Red Rock will be harder than they thought.
There's a moment in The Hateful Eight where we're informed that "The name of the game is patience". Unfortunately, this advice comes later in the film when we've already learned this for ourselves by that point. Tarantino has never been as leisurely as he is here and it would be wise to prepare yourself for his lengthy and almost interminable first half as for approx an hour and 15 mins there's little else but talking. A lot of talking. It's a fairly straight forward affair and, with the exception of the distinct dialogue, Tarantino's trademark style is nowhere to be seen. Gone too are his pop-cultural references and chronological playfulness. This is very much a deliberately paced Tarantino. So deliberate that it feels like it's playing out in real time which is an approach that may leave many viewers colder than a ranchers ass on the snowy peaks of Wyoming. However, patience is a virtue and if you have it, it will be rewarded in the second half where the expected trademarks and stylistic flourishes appear with a bang, amidst a literal haze of blood, bullets and brains. For sure, The Hateful Eight becomes "a mushroom-cloud laying motherfucker. Motherfucker!"
When Tarantino decides to shut up shop and play out the majority of his action in a confined space, his use of the the small space is skilfully handled; he segregates the room into a North and South divide with race and politics adding to the magnitude of the characters' wildness. After building slowly he goes on to, essentially, craft a whodunit; a murder-mystery chamber piece (that shares more than a few passing resemblances to Tarantino's debut) and could easily transfer to the stage with it's concentrated and ferociously loquacious interactions. That said, it's a bizarre choice for Tarantino to set his story so minimally and confined when he's decided to shoot the film on 70mm with Panavision anamorphic lenses and a wide aspect ratio that's normally suited to grand, outdoor filmmaking.
As a result, claims of self-indulgence wouldn't be out of place. You get a slight whiff of Tarantino's ego on display but this extends mostly to the writing; some scenes definitely go on too long and it would seem that Tarantino hasn't listened to the critics who felt that Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained suffered a similar problem. He certainly knows how to write - there's no question about that - but he also doesn't know when to stop writing.
That said, his ability to stage tension has only grown stronger in his development as a filmmaker and despite overlength and messy denouements, Basterds and Django still contained some of the most intense scenes he's ever delivered. The second half of The Hateful Eight very much keeps in tune with that. His propensity for violence is ever present but never been as brutal or gratuitously playful as it here. The recurrent Mexican stand-off used in Dogs, True Romance and Pulp Fiction is, once again, on display as well. In fact, the whole film feels like one big stand-off as each of the characters continuously suss one another out before it eventually culminates in true Tarantino fashion.
With the opening landscapes and the poundingly effective score by Ennio Morricone you could be fooled into thinking that Quentin is out to emulate the classic spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone but this is really where the comparison ends. By his own admission, Tarantino was more influenced by John Carpenter and his classic paranoid horror, The Thing - of which Morricone was also the composer. In fact, there are three tracks throughout the film that were unused from The Thing's original score. With this in mind, it would also explain the canny casting of Kurt Russell and the intense interaction in Minnie's Haberdashery are very reminiscent of the closed quarter, paranoid exchanges in Carpenter's classic.
The performances, for the most part, are fantastic; Jackson, as always, was born to deliver Tarantino's crisp and colourful dialogue while Russell fits the bill perfectly. He's channeled John Wayne before in Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China and it would seem that QT is happy for him to deliver in the same deadpan, grizzly fashion. Jackson may rejoice in his profane and detailed monologues but it's Russell's one-liners that hit the mark. Jennifer Jason Leigh, as the rare female of the piece, gets more to do in the second half but for the first she's merely fodder for her male counterparts' consistent beatings and putdowns. Screams of misogyny can be heard across the plains and it's really not as funny as Tarantino maybe intended. The welcome touch of humour comes in the form of Walton Goggins who seems to enjoy spouting Tarantino's dialogue as much as Jackson but, sadly, it's the Reservoir Dogs duo who suffer the most; Roth's English gent feels like he belongs in another film and Madsen is sorely underused. His quiet, brooding "cow puncher" always feels like he's got more to offer but he simply doesn't materialise. It feels like a waste of Madsen's effortless presence much like his underused character in Kill Bill.
When all's said and done, though, this is Tarantino we're talking about. Despite his glacial pace, occasional padding and some underdeveloped supporting characters, this is still another hugely enjoyable outing. Let's put it this way, it's never dull. Tarantino doesn't do dull but I did have to question whether there's enough material here to warrant a near 3 hour running time.