Quentin Tarantino, 2015, USA
‘The Hateful Eight’ is both expansive in its 3 hour running time and use of Ultra Panavision 70 and claustrophobic in its locations, namely a carriage and then Millie’s haberdashery (of course it helps that this haberdashery is a big place). The snow and a storm outside keeps everyone in. It’s no surprise that this has been adapted into a stage play. It wants to be both epic and a chamber piece. And of course, there was the typical controversy that comes with each of his new releases: firstly, the leaking of the script and then, upon release, the Ultra Panavision 70 proved a stumbling block as the Picturehouse, Cineworld and Curzon chains did not have the equipment to screen this format and so would not be showing the film.
On the epic side, the snowscapes that define the opening act are glorious. They reminded me of ‘The Great Silence’, but you expect blatant homage in a Tarantino flick and I am sure they allude to others I don’t know. Homage is part of Tarantino’s language.
That and rip-offs: on the soundtrack, you will hear not only a grand new score by Ennio Morricone, but also the expected choices from Tarantino’s album collection: now using The White Stripes and Roy Orbison is one thing, but the score also includes ‘Now You’re All Alone’ from the ‘Last House on the Left’ and more Morricone with ‘Regan's Theme (Floating Sound)’ from ‘The Exorcist II: The Heretic’. I had the same reaction as I had with the ‘Inglourious Basterds’ use of the Moroder/Bowie title song for ‘Cat People’: I could get past the post-modern incongruity, but here was the use of another film’s entire theme song and not only would this kick me out the film’s internal reality, but it felt a steal rather than a homage. It's as if Tarantino can't get past other people's films. And besides, ‘The Hateful Eight’ already had music by Morricone so why need anything else, let alone take from another Morricone score? Aside from that, Tarantino’s narration leading the audience into the second half was a gigantic misstep that also kicked out any goodwill the film had gathered until then. You can almost feel him enthusing, “See, I’m storytelling here!” But this proves only a momentary glitch.
The length of 'The Hateful Eight' (yeah, about that counting...) will of course trigger claims that it’s too long, but the joy is surely in its taking time to unspool. There may be padding, but if it’s working for you, the indulgence of the padding will provide enjoyments too. The script wants to take its time setting characters up and letting the true identities reveal themselves. The basis of the plot is that John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is a bounty hunter transporting notorious Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) when they bump into another bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson), and then find themselves holed up at Minnie’s Haberdashery with other suspicious types. But Ruth is certain that someone will try to spring Daisy – but who?
And as a chamber piece, the cast give it their all, as you would expect, and enjoyable they are too. There has always been room in Tarantino’s universe for hamming it up and Tim Roth channelling Christophe Waltz leaves no chamber pot unturned, redeemed by the fact that it all turns out to be an act. Only Zoe Bell truly fails to hit the right pitch. And although there is no one to care about – these aren’t real people but movie types – there is fun to be had in the unfurling of the interactions.
The gravest critical thematic conclusion is that all these hateful men are unified in their misogyny against a hateful woman. But I don’t believe this is so: I perhaps wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s equal opportunity to have Daisy as loathsome and as formidable as any of the men, but I think accusations of misogyny are misplaced when Tarantino’s full oeuvre is taken into consideration. The first time she is punched, it is perhaps the only time in the film that the audience’s empathy is engaged with the violence: it’s hurts and there’s no doubt it is gratuitous and feels wrong. From then on, when she is physically abused, it’s more slapstick and a running gag. I would say the ugliness is equal opportunity. Otherwise, the violence is just part of the palette.
The shallowness of the film, whilst in no way impeding the enjoyment, perhaps makes me have greater respect for the bonkers ending of ‘Inglourious Basterds’, which at the time I felt betrayed the subtleties of its earlier scenes: there is no doubt it was reaching and perhaps there's some merit to that. ‘The Hateful Eight’ has no such genre peculiarities. Deeper readings of narrative may have the opening snow on a crucifix resembling a KKK hood, Minnie’s Haberdashery as an American democracy which is then divided up as a platform for Civil War grievances*. And maybe all that is there, but I wouldn’t venture ‘The Hateful Eight’ as meaningful or thematically profound: it’s just a well presented and enjoyable film, featuring many of Tarantino’s strengths and weaknesses.
* There certainly seems some inconsistencies with the Major’s claims that Minnie was bigoted against Mexicans although there is an argument that is just another of his lies. Sure, I'd say without doubt to Tarantino's attention to detail; but then there's some to-do about a revelatory blood stain and candy caught in floorboard gaps, and then considering the recent massacre revealed in the second half, don't those floorboards seem greatly absorbent of bloodstains?