Fans of Quentin Tarantino will love his eighth film, a three-hour epic featuring lashings of trademark violence, humour and leisurely dialogue, with plot twists and genre-hops galore. The Hateful Eight starts as a western, then switches to a theatrical closed-door mystery before a blood-drenched finale: And Then There Were None …
No stranger to controversy, Tarantino has had to rebuff allegations of gratuitous violence against The Hateful Eight’s leading female character, Daisy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and excessive use of the ‘N word’. In his defence, the film’s plot, set in post-Civil War Wyoming, involves a bounty hunter handcuffed to a murderer (Daisy), so authenticity requires a certain amount of rough behaviour; and we cannot expect Wild West rednecks to tailor their language to suit 21st Century sensibilities.
Perhaps this old softie has become desensitised to Tarantino’s brand of comedy-violence, but The Hateful Eight is engrossing and entertaining fun. There is nothing here to match the torture scene in his debut Reservoir Dogs, or Django Unchained’s darker moments. With Tarantino, we expect stylised violence, but for much of The Hateful Eight he shows a mature restraint: the ‘mystery’ part of the film consists mostly of dialogue, as the characters try to work each other out; the director tips his hat to Agatha Christie, as the cast sit around sipping tea coffee, until someone laces it with poison …
The film’s title refers to the collection of dodgy characters who find themselves holed up in a stagecoach cabin during a blizzard. By now we are now acquainted with walrus-whiskered bounty hunter John (Kurt Russell) and his fellow passengers, including Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), but who are the four mysterious men snowed in with them? What are they doing there? Is one of them really visiting his mother for Christmas? And what has happened to Minnie, the women who usually runs the place? Is she really visiting her mother too, as Mexican ‘Bob’, suggests?
Bounty hunters John and the Major join forces to try and tease out the truth. They suspect that one or two of the men present are waiting for ‘a window of opportunity’ to kill them and free Daisy. After the stunning snowy landscapes of Wyoming (filmed in Colorado), this enforced claustrophobia could become tedious, but director Tarantino skilfully keeps a lid on the pressure cooker atmosphere. Tiny details become significant, like a stray red jelly bean from the store’s glass jars. There is interior beauty, too, as snowflakes falls through gaps in the roof and dance like dust motes.
Above all, what makes The Hateful Eight a joy to watch is the ensemble acting from Tarantino veterans like Jackson, Russell and Leigh – they clearly revel in each other’s company and the space they are allowed to improvise. The script doesn’t have any madcap digressions of the ‘Royale with cheese’ variety; instead there’s an accumulation of odd sayings and lines that have a more organic feel, in keeping with the time and place. For example, Jackson tells Russell to do something slowly – ‘molasses-like.’
Special mention must also go to Ennio Morricone’s rousing score, his first western for 34 years, and Tarantino’s first original score (he normally uses a jukebox of personal favourites). You won’t necessarily be whistling it as you leave the cinema, but a tinkling music box melody recalls Morricone’s glorious spaghetti western soundtracks of the late 1960s.