After Quentin Tarantino’s rather awesome and bloody (not to mention highly controversial) Django Unchained, I was surprised the director decided to return to the same Spaghetti Western genre. Don’t get me wrong, I love the guns, the grit and coffee so bad you need a steel gut to survive it. I just thought he may have met his political commentary quota and moved on. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The obvious political themes in Django Unchained manifest in The Hateful Eight in a far more subtle, albeit bloody as hell way. This time round Tarantino also had a more difficult job in creating something that would captivate audiences for 3 hours with minimal set locations. I suppose he cut his teeth on this self-imposed restriction back with Reservoir Dogs. In this case though his maturity as a filmmaker allows him to weave a critical social commentary with a narrative so tight and gripping you’ll think you were stuck right in the cabin with the dirty rabble. It’s this ‘more from less’ that makes me think this is one of his best films to date.
On the surface The Hateful Eight is a simple story. We start on a stagecoach rapidly trying to outrace a blizzard in the mountains with bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth, played by a violent and heavily mustached Kurt Russell. His job is to transport Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the town of Red Rock where the murdering criminal will hang. You see Ruth does things the hard way, no killing and bringing in the bodies for the bounty, not with his sense of ‘justice’. No, he wants them to hang, HANG I say!
They meet up with Col. Marquis Warren (played by Samuel L. Jackson in a role that deserves a medal, globe, or statue, anything!), an ex-Civil War legend turned fellow bounty hunter, stranded on the icy road after his horse had succumbed to the extreme weather. Warren has some dead bounties he needs transporting to Red Rock, and after some tense negotiations at the end of Ruth’s rifle, the Hangman agrees to give him a lift.
Only for this odd pairing to bump into the manically brilliant Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), the son of an infamous Southern Confederate rebel leader who claims to now be the new Sheriff of Red Rock. Ruth is highly suspicious of Mannix’s claim, but with the deadly storm fast approaching, they all head to well-known travelers rest-stop Minnie’s Haberdashery for shelter. It’s here that we meet Bob (Demián Bichir), Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth, back in a Tarantino film after 20 years), Joe Gage (Michael Madsen because ‘Tarantino’) and General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern) – fellow travelers who are also waiting out the storm. (Interestingly these are all names of B-grade movie directors – Oh, Tarantino you!) It’s here that the majority of the movie will take place, so make yourself at home and get comfortable. Just don’t drink the coffee; it’s worse than the stuff in my office.
In true Tarantino style the movie is set in this restricted ‘theatre’ with a few cuts to what is happening outside peppered in. It allows you to focus more on what is being said, creates a sense of claustrophobia and also tones down the pace to a near crawl, something that some may find jarring. Indeed if I can say anything negative about the movie is that nothing, other than dialogue and the occasional face bashing of Domergue by Ruth, happens in the first half. Personally I think that is fine, I am more than happy to hang on every single word these characters say because what they say is hard, extreme and at times absolutely bloody hysterical.
The Hateful Eight is set shortly after the US Civil War and with it, anxieties, revenge, and extreme racism are the benchmark for these characters’ personalities. The social commentary here is bleak as the characters face the realities of what the so-called American Dream means. Freedom? Not a chance when you are black, a fugitive, deserter, ex-soldier, or General and have done things for both personal and patriotic reasons that are more questionable than a drunken night out in Amsterdam. These are explored through Tarantino’s trademark monologues, only this time round he employs really tight camera work that jumps from furtive glances of faces responding to what is being said to constant interruptions that draw out these diatribes to the point of humorous ‘are we there yet?’ questions, much like the overly-long sentence I just wrote. And it works very well.
The racial tension in the movie is almost palpable, with all the characters dropping the “N” word like a hot coal; they are all as bad as each other and all harbour serious darkness in their hearts. However, the chemistry and interactions between Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson and Walton Goggins, the closest we get to ‘protagonists’, truly stands out. Don’t get me wrong, there is enough chemistry between all the characters to make a spin off series of Breaking Bad, but the actual development of their relationship is very interesting, and actually leaves you with a little hope (I said a little!).
Goggins really plays that ‘hillbilly’ card very well in The Hateful Eight and his development, unlike other characters, will surprise you. Roth, sadly not utilised as much as I wish he was, plays the Englishman in such an over the top manner you’ll shamelessly giggle at his mannerisms. Demián Bichir, Bruce Dern, Jennifer Jason Leigh (she is superb) and Michael Madsen also turn in sterling performances that will keep you transfixed as much as you will be shocked. I do feel that they missed out on more character development but I suppose this was necessary to support the few that were allowed to.
Although the first half is relatively tame by Tarantino standards the second half makes up for this with gusto. Remember Tarantino likes to explore his themes in full daylight, whether that be through his use of blacksploitation or violence, he uses these intense lenses to create scenarios that are so over-the-top that you laugh while choking in horror at what you are laughing at. It’s this dichotomy and contradiction that I love in his movies and The Hateful Eight excels, nay, revels in it.
After four viewings I am still enthralled with the film, the language, the underlying themes, the acting and the twists and turns all work so well together that you won’t believe you just spent three hours watching people talk. And all accompanied by the legendary western composer Ennio Morricone’s brilliant Golden Globe-winning music score. It’s not just your ears that will get a workout here though it’s also visually stunning, expertly framed and even the kettle has character. – it’s just a pity we didn’t get the 70mm version!
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Last Updated: January 27, 2016
January 27, 2016 at 15:55
Great review Nick.