(c) FilmColony / The Weinstein Company
You may be one of those people who regard filmmaker Quentin Tarantino as a let-down. You thought his early movies like 1992’s Reservoir Dogs and 1994’s Pulp Fiction showed tremendous potential and nodded approvingly at 1997’s Jackie Brown, which was calmer, less flashy and more reflective in tone and suggested an increasing maturity on Tarantino’s part. But then you rolled your eyes at his 21st-century output: the Kill Bill movies in 2003 and 2004, Death Proof in 2007, Inglourious Basterds in 2009 and Django Unchained in 2012.
All that adolescent, cheesy stuff that you thought Tarantino had shaken off with Jackie Brown was suddenly back – squared, perhaps even cubed. Copious references and homages to trashy old B and Z-grade genre movies. Sequences of such violence and bloodiness that you wondered if he filmed them with windscreen-wipers fitted on his camera lenses. Barrages of unsavoury racial epithets, particularly the n-word, usually fired off by or fired off at Samuel L. Jackson. And scenes that went on and on and on because the characters in them never shut up, Tarantino being infatuated with the sound of his own voice (or his own dialogue), with the result that his films were hours longer than they needed to be.
Quentin, you’ve commonly thought over the past decade, I’m not angry with you. I’m just disappointed.
Well, if you’re one of those people, I have good news. You’re going to detest his latest, The Hateful Eight – ‘The eighth film by Quentin Tarantino’ as it’s grandly described on the credits – because in it he happily commits the above sins against mature filmmaking all over again.
That’s bad news for you, actually. But it’s good news for me because I like the schlock-movie references, bloodshed and relentless talking in Tarantino’s movies. (Admittedly, I get a bit fed up hearing the n-word all the time, but I suppose I can forgive him one over-indulgence.) So I went home from seeing The Hateful Eight well-satisfied.
(c) FilmColony / The Weinstein Company
The movie is Tarantino’s second western and it takes place sometime after the American Civil War. We meet half of the titular eight in the film’s first two ‘chapters’. They are bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his unladylike lady prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh); another bounty hunter Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson); and a former Confederate militiaman called Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) who claims to be travelling to a town where, improbably, he’s just been appointed sheriff. Warren and Mannix appear at different times to hitch a ride in Ruth’s private stagecoach, which makes him suspect they’re in cahoots to steal his prisoner and lift the bounty-money for her. However, the animosity that develops between Warren and Mannix because of their war records – Warren served as a Yankee officer and was responsible for a lot of Confederate deaths – suggests that a secret alliance is unlikely. That or they’re very good actors.
Chapter three sees the stagecoach arrive, just before a blizzard makes further travel impossible, at a store-cum-refuge in the middle of nowhere called Minnie’s Haberdashery. And here the rest of the eight are introduced: Bob (Demian Bichir), a cheery Mexican who says he’s running the haberdashery for Minnie while she’s off visiting her mother; Mobray (Tim Roth), an aristocratic and garrulous Englishman who professes to be a hangman; Gage (Michael Madsen), a surly and solitary cowboy who spends his time scribbling his memoirs into a notebook; and Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), a sour old man whom Mannix and Warren recognise as a Confederate general of considerable repute or notoriety, depending on which side of the war they fought on.
Ruth is soon seething with paranoia because he sees these four strangers as additional possible threats to his prisoner and bounty. But plenty of other questions emerge. What’s really happened to Minnie and her staff at the haberdashery? What became of the son whom Smithers is now in the territory searching for – and did Warren play a role in his death? Is the letter that Warren keeps producing from his pocket and flashing around truly proof of a friendship he once had with Abraham Lincoln? And is anyone in the snowbound haberdashery actually telling the truth about who they are and what they’re up to?
Chapter three ends with violence and the film’s first fatality. By chapter four the blood is flowing freely and during chapters five and six… Well, this is a Tarantino movie. You know what to expect.
Several critics have pointed to Agatha Christie as a major inspiration for The Hateful Eight and dubbed it Ten Little Indians-out-west. But the main template for the film’s plot, wherein a group stuck in a confined space try to identify one or more hostile imposters hiding among them, is surely Tarantino’s own Reservoir Dogs. This is underscored by the fact that two of the original ‘Dogs’, Tim Roth and Michael Madsen, reappear here.
I should say that the film’s also reminiscent of John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of The Thing, partly because of the hidden-imposters plot, partly because of the bleak snowy setting and partly because of Kurt Russell being in it. Russell, of course, played McCready, the embattled hero of The Thing. Indeed there’s a scene in The Hateful Eight where one character forces the others at gunpoint to line up against a wall while he tries to figure out who the enemy is; which evokes the famous scene in The Thing where Russell ties up his remaining colleagues prior to doing a blood-test that’ll determine who’s human and who’s secretly got tentacles.
(c) FilmColony / The Weinstein Company
The way the common criticisms of him are framed, Tarantino just can’t win. On one hand, it’s fashionable to deride him as a shallow, sensationalist gobshite whose work is a monument to his trashy taste in movies. Yet his modus operandi is in many ways quite highbrow. As an artist he’s as literary as he is cinematic, writing film-scripts like playwrights write plays. He defines his characters as much by what they say as by what they do and how they look. He takes genuine pleasure in the ebb and flow, and the cut and thrust, of dialogue. And he gives his scenes a theatrical length that allows his actors and actresses space to properly act. Incidentally, he also insists on dividing his films into ‘chapters’, which is a rather literary habit.
Of course, in doing this, he lays himself open to the other line of attack, i.e. that his films are uneconomical, excessively talky and never know when to stop. (For the record, The Hateful Eight has an imposing running time of three hours and seven minutes.)
But if, like me, you appreciate a movie where words – as opposed to, say, CGI – are the thing that matters, you’ll find much to cherish in The Hateful Eight. It helps that the words here come out of the mouths of a first-rate cast. Jackson is his usual inimitable self as Marquis Warren (a character named after the writer, director and producer Charles Marquis Warren who specialised in westerns, both movies like 1951’s Only the Valiant, 1968’s Day of the Evil Gun and 1969’s Charro! and TV shows like Rawhide and Gunsmoke). Russell and Bruce Dern are good value too and I suspect Tarantino cast them because of their past western credentials. Russell played Wyatt Earp in Tombstone (1993) and Dern made several westerns in his youth, including 1972’s The Cowboys, at the end of which he shot John Wayne in the back – the scumbag.
But the most memorable performances are those by Walton Goggins as the gormless and unreliable Mannix, a man who needs to keep his limited number of wits about him if he’s to survive events in Minnie’s Haberdashery; by Jennifer Jason Leigh as Ruth’s prisoner Domergue, a sly, cackling and occasionally rabid creature whom you really wouldn’t want to be handcuffed to; and by Tim Roth as the delightfully pompous Mobray, who seems to channel Richard Harris’s English Bob character in Clint Eastwood’s classic 1992 western The Unforgiven. Demian Bichir and Michael Madsen make less of an impression, though, never quite managing to elbow their way past the other, larger-than-life characters to claim part of the limelight for themselves.
I didn’t feel breathless after seeing The Hateful Eight in the way that I did after seeing Pulp Fiction 22 years ago; but I’d still rate it as Tarantino’s best movie since the 1990s. It’s more substantial than the schlock-obsessed Kill Bill movies and Death Proof. And it makes more sense than Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, both of which seemed to abandon the laws of logic whenever it suited Tarantino’s storytelling. That said, I did detect one lapse of logic in it – when the tensions that’ve simmered between the Yankee Warren and the Confederate Mannix and Smithers boil over halfway through the film, you expect repercussions afterwards; but there aren’t repercussions and this sub-plot abruptly disappears. Otherwise, and especially compared to its two predecessors, The Hateful Eight’s plot is fairly cogent.
The Hateful Eight won’t win Tarantino new fans or win back the respect of those who went off him post-Jackie Brown. But if, after nearly a quarter-century, you still have a fondness for le cinéma Quentin-ique, this should keep you satisfied till the ninth film by Quentin Tarantino – which will hopefully be due sometime around 2020.
By the way, I like this picture of him with Miss Piggy.