Say what you want about his handling of race1 or his cribbing from other filmmakers2, but one thing’s certain about Quentin Tarantino: love him or hate him3, he’s one hell of a showman.
That’s perhaps never been clearer than with the recent hubbub surrounding the screening of The Hateful Eight.4
Not only is it not being shown at several notable UK cinema chains, including Cineworld5, but the Odeon Leicester Square6 is currently being dominated by an Ultra Panavision 70 “Roadshow” version of the film, which includes an interlude scored by illustrious film composer Ennio Morricone7, a twenty-minute intermission8, and a program.9
Running a potentially bum-numbing 187 minutes all in, the program puts this format of The Hateful Eight — apparently Tarantino’s preferred10 — in a pantheon that includes the likes of Lawrence of Arabia, Gone with the Wind, and Cleopatra.11 In any case, it’s the sort of film-going experience I’ve not seen in my lifetime and one perfectly suited to the grandiose theatrical style of the film at hand.
Opening amid the snow and sunlight of 1870s Wyoming12, The Hateful Eight takes its time in drawing together its characters. The natural beauty13 contrasts with the (exquisitely snappy) human ugliness that is to unfold.
First, we have John Ruth AKA The Hangman (a wonderfully whiskery and belligerent Kurt Russell)14, and his prisoner, the leering, foul-mouthed Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh)15, making their way across the landscape in a stagecoach that John Wayne himself would have been proud to be shot at in.16
Shortly they are joined by one Major Marquis Warren (a sharp-dressed, sharp-eyed Samuel L. Jackson), a fellow bounty-hunter and former Union Officer with a bounty of his own to collect.17
If that weren’t enough they18 are also joined by Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins)19, a rambling, vaguely goofy ex-militiaman and supposed Sheriff of Red Rock, their shared destination. Desperate to get out of the encroaching blizzard, the coach’s occupants — and driver — seek refuge at Minnie’s Haberdashery, an isolated stopover.
It’s here we finally encounter20 the other four that make up the title group: Bob The Mexican (Demián Bichir channeling Eli Wallach)21; the impeccably mannered, improbably named Oswaldo Mowbray (Tim Roth, reunited with Tarantino after twenty-three years)22; “Cow Puncher” Joe Gage (Michael Madsen)23; and, last but not least, Confederate General Sanford “Sandy” Smithers (a wonderfully tetchy Bruce Dern).
Once the full bunch are neatly confined to the Haberdashery24 for the duration, The Hateful Eight begins smoothly switching gears, transitioning from a history-driven commentary on some classic Western subjects — namely the Civil War and atrocities committed during which25 — to a parlor-room murder mystery26 to a bloody climax that enjoyably apes much of Tarantino’s past work27; even if the whole thing never quite narratively pays off.28
Past glories and familiar pleasures these may be (including the ad absurdum bandying of a certain racial slur), but the film feels vitally alive. It’s just a shame when that the finely-tuned mechanism begins to wind down and character agendas come to fore the focus swings inexorably away from verbiage and towards violence.29
While the film’s title is obviously a homage to John Sturges’ iconic men-on-a-mission movie30, this is Tarantino at his broadest and most literary: Murder on the Orient Express meets Elmore Leonard with a healthy dose of Grand Guignol.31
Jackson continues to be the perfect cinematic embodiment of wily indignation — his hackles go up, nostrils flare, eyes widen, and you know someone is getting trampled.32 Warrens’ gleefully nasty monologue to the unrepentently bigoted Sanford about his outrageous33 treatment of a would-be headhunter is spellbinding; the camera pedestals up to crotch level as Dern’s eyes reflect dawning horror. “Starting to see pictures, ain’t ya?”
Meanwhile, Russell’s interrogative, unexpectedly sentimental Ruth stirs the pot34 while Leigh adds a spiteful spice to the stew35, and the rest of the cast bubble along nicely, popping to the surface as the script demands.
While it’s become a cliche to say this of settings, Minnie’s Haberdashery is a character in its own right: wide, expansive, full of nooks, corners, and potential murder weapons36 — the sort of space, if you have to be indoors, that lends itself to the widescreen format.37
In the end, though, The Hateful Eight boils down to wit and blood (often in tandem)38 and a few under-cooked notions about racial relations in Reconstruction Era America.39 Self-indulgent? Certainly.40 Revisionist? Undoubtedly. But with apparently only two films left till self-imposed retirement, it’s hard to think how Tarantino will top this magnificently abominable spectacle.
1 As two of the foremost debaters of race politics in modern cinema it’s a shame — if perhaps somewhat inevitable — that Tarantino and Spike Lee should be permanently at loggerheads. Maybe Samuel L. Jackson could arrange a sit-down.
2 Working my way through the Godard collection has reminded me just how much he owes to the likes of Vivre Sa Vie, from which Mia Wallace’s speech in Pulp Fiction about comfortable silences is lifted almost wholesale. There’s also, in the case of The Hateful Eight, Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence and Robert Altman’s Mr. & Mrs. Miller (as two other wintry Western); the latter of which I owe a debt to Rob Daniel at Electric Shadows (www.electric-shadows.com) for pointing out.
3 I kind of have mixed feelings about him personally. He’s a loudmouth and a braggart, but he’s generally pretty with it; the worst you could accuse him is being a purveyor of insensitive cine-literate schlock. I sorta comes down to what The Dude says about Walter in The Big Lebowski: “You’re not wrong, you’re just an asshole.”
4 A troubled production from the off, The Hateful Eight was actually canned for a bit after the script leaked. Tarantino only decided to go ahead with it after a promising staged reading, though he did revise the ending a bit; more on which later.
5 After Cineworld put out a general statement to this effect — “”Sadly we haven’t been able to come to an agreement with the distributor which means it won’t be shown at Cineworld” — the distributors in question, Entertainment Film, actually released their own press statement, which put the blame squarely at Cineworld’s door and, in a hilariously ballsy move, apologized to Unlimited card-holders for the inconvenience.
6 The apparent bone of contention between the two was apparently that Cineworld wanted the roadshow version screened at Picturehouse Central — which seats 344 — instead of Odeon Leicester Square — which seats 1,680 and was packed out at the screening I attended. There’s may be more to the story than this, but, if not, way to through your toys out the pram, Cineworld.
7 Which includes unused excerpts from his score for John Carpenter’s The Thing (strangely appropriate given the parallels). In any case, it proves an inspired choice: the evocative use of strings creates a genuine sense of dread straight from the overture. Glad that Tarantino and Morricone were able to kiss and make up after the former swore never to work with the latter again. It couldn’t have hurt that The Hateful Eight is refreshingly light on the anachronistic soundtrack; only a touch of Roy Orbison and The White Stripes to leaven the mood.
8 Which was nice. I got ice cream.
9 And only £20 a ticket. Given going to any screening at the OLS will set you back £15, it’s well worth the few extra quid, if just for the augmented experience.
10 While I respect a filmmaker with strong ideas about how their films should be viewed, I’ll confess to having been tempted to write this review as though I’d only watched The Hateful Eight on my phone… as an illegal download… on the Tube… in vertical… and then Tweet it at him. I may yet.
11 Or, as the program puts it, “pays homage to and recreates the grand film exhibition style popularized in the 1950s and ‘60s and that brought audiences to theaters with the promise of a special event.”
12 The version of the screenplay that’s available online for Oscar consideration (http://twcguilds.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/H8_SCRIPT_CleanedUp_Final1.pdf) puts it “six or eight or twelve years after the Civil War”, which puts The Hateful Eight at least a decade and a bit after the events of Django Unchained; more on this later.
13 The opening shots — where the uneven snow drifts mirror the broken clouds overhead and snow piles up beneath a stone-hewn roadside crucifix — are breathtaking. Come Oscar time cinematographer Robert Richardson’s gonna likely find himself facing off against Emmanuel Lubezki for the similarly snowy The Revenant. Given Lubezki shot in twelve countries, freezing conditions, using all-natural light, while The Hateful Eight was shot largely in a slightly chilly cabin in Colorado, it could make for an awkward night if Richardson walks away with the trophy. Still, at least the venue will be heated.
14 Russell’s casting would seem to be another callback to The Thing, which, along with Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino cites the film’s key influences.
15 Along with her moving vocal performance as the painfully insecure Lisa in Anomalisa (Charlie Kauffman’s upcoming stop-motion animation), 2016 may be the year that Leigh starts getting the public recognition she deserves after years of sterling supporting roles.
16 The cinematic slaughtering of Native Americans may be the least problematic part of Wayne’s legacy. For more on exactly how Duke was a louse watch Trumbo. Watch Trumbo regardless. It’s got Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo via Foghorn Leghorn and is generally a lot of fun.
17 Major Marquis Warren is just the latest in the pantheon of great screen presences that have come about courtesy of Jackson-Tarantino. His first appearance here, sat sidesaddle astride a stack of three frozen corpses, is the stuff actor’s dreams are made of. Jackson even gets an obscure little callback (perhaps unintentional) to Pulp Fiction when, with Tim Roth present, he asks someone to be calm. The fact that Mr. Blonde from Reservoir Dogs is kicking around makes it all the more meta. Throw in the fact that Marquis’ sartorial choices — yellow lapels, red tie — vaguely recall Jamie Foxx’s powder blue suit in Django — which The Hateful Eight was initially conceived of as a sequel to — and that’s more or less “a bingo”.
18 “They” also includes the stage driver O.B. (James Parks). Given he’s not a member of the titular octet every time he ventures out into the snow I was sure he wasn’t coming back.
19 Who is finally starting to be recognised as a major player after years of first-grade work on TV; most recently as silver-tongued career criminal Boyd Crowder in Justified. Presumably the fact that Justified was inspired by Elmore Leonard who was a notable influence on Tarantino’s style gave Goggins some useful preparation.
20 After the better part of an hour of travel mainly given over to conversations ranging from Civil War atrocities to correspondence with the late President Lincoln.
21 Brilliantly/bizarrely, Bichir apparently taught himself to play piano in order to do justice to a scene where Bob painstakingly single-fingers out Silent Night on the piano. Admittedly it’s an important moment.
22 As a delightfully smarmy supposed hangman pontificating on the need for dispassion in dispensing justice, Roth is something of a scene-stealer; making the most of a supporting role clearly written for Christoph Waltz, who, one supposes, was busy making Spectre. Let’s hope the presumed difference in pay compensates for the definite artistic gulf.
23 Who, as time passes, increasingly resembles Mickey Rourke. All the more impressive, Madsen did it without decades of cumulative plastic surgery.
24 Having given us the lie of the land upon their arrival — and indeed, staked them out — it’s a shame that the film never returns to such exotic locales as “the outside privvy” and “the barn”.
25 While very much “on the side” of Warren, Tarantino’s script doesn’t dismisses his counterpoint— Lost Causer Mannix —outright. Burning black settlements in rejection of unconditional surrender is certainly an atrocity, but Marquis certainly isn’t on the side of the angels. Even Sandy Smithers gets some feeble pathos when he plaintively enquires about the fate of his lost son.
26 The Hateful Eight has been called Agatha Christie with guns, but the film never invests in its clues. Who dropped the jelly bean? Why is the door latch broken? When the answers do come about it’s neat, but that’s about it.
27 Let’s just say it’s not the first time someone has ever been gut-shot. Or the last that we’re likely see Red Apple tobacco.
28 Returning from the interval to find Tarantino himself narrating another look at the previous scene is a touch disconcerting. Then again, elegance and simplicity have been falling on the list of Tarantino’s narrative concerns. They likely now sit somewhere below “chapter headings”.
29 The mistrust and tension that’s present straight from start means it was always likely that x or y might catch a bullet. I just occasionally found myself wishing it all meant a bit more. Then again, I didn’t complain when the eponymous beastie was chowing down indiscriminately in The Thing, so maybe it’s a human agency thing.
30 And true enough, each of the eight claims to be on a mission: Ruth is taking Domergue to hang; Warren is cashing in corpses; Mannix is en route to his signing in; Bob is manning the store till the owners return; Mowbray is returning to duty as the Red Rock hangman; Gage is heading to visit his mother on the other side of the mountain; and Smithers is going to commemorate his son. Their real agendas are quite another matter to unpick.
31 Heads detonate, blood is vomited (in gouts). Effects gurus Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero certainly earned their salt on this one.
32 As the film’s gun-toting sleuth — pistolero Poirot, Magnum-wielding Marple, etc., etc. — he’s definitely got no compunction about dealing justice before all the facts are in. As he says to Ruth the Hangman — so called ‘cause he always brings his bounty in alive — “Nobody said [the job’s] supposed to be that hard, either!”
33 Morally and just, you know, generally.
34 The other Western Russell’s in this year, Bone Tomahawk, promises to be even more explicitly gory. My review should be winging its way shortly to one site or another.
35 Tarantino revealed to Christopher Nolan (of all people) that he wrote a draft of the screenplay from Daisy’s POV alone, just to justify all the brutal shit he puts her through.
36 I kept waiting for someone to get spiked with that hammer they keep using to nail up the front door. Spoiler alert: no one does. 🙁
37 I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself the king of infinite space if I had Tarantino to film it. When he suddenly cuts to a tracking shot from above the ceiling, looking down at the characters through the loose boards, there’s a release of tension I didn’t realise was present.
38 I refer you to the previous footnote when I quote Ruth in saying, “Now, Daisy, I want us to work out a signal system of communication. When I elbow you real hard in the face, that means: shut up.” In this case, the punctuation came before the sentence.
39 There’s a half-baked commentary on racial harmony in there somewhere. With the bandits having already taken out Minnie’s idyllic Little House on the Prairie/United Colors of Benetton-style former occupants (including a cheery, if out-of-place Zoe Bell), black and white can only come together — notably while dying — to string up someone worse. Who that’s meant to be, though, who knows.
40 Much like this review you may think.