Racial tensions flare and scenery is chewed in Tarantino’s entertaining if overlong Old West chamber piece.
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins
Runtime: 187 mins
Release date: 8 January 2016
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: The Hateful Eight is not Quentin Tarantino’s eighth film. Unless you want to count Kill Bill: Volume 1 and Kill Bill: Volume 2 as a single film, this is Tarantino’s ninth film. Chalk it up to mischievous marketing, the kind of thing that brought us his unique spelling of bastards.
Anyway, The Hateful Eight sees Tarantino returning to the Western, or at least the same time period as his previous release Django Unchained. John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), notorious bounty hunter, rides through the snow in a stagecoach with his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh with a black eye). They come across Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), who carries with him a letter from Abraham Lincoln. They then come across Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), ex Confederate soldier (the film is set just after the Civil War).
These four decide to wait out a blizzard at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a watering hole, where they meet: stablehand Bob (Demian Bichir); Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth with an English accent), supposedly a hangman; Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a man writing his life story; and Confederate general Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern). So that’s our eight. (But, hold on: there’s also O.B., the stagecoach driver, so that makes nine. Oh Tarantino, you scamp.) And it quickly becomes apparent that someone “ain’t who they say they is.”
If that all sounds a bit Reservoir Dogs to you, you’d be right. A bunch of men in an enclosed space, all accusing each other with colourful language; it does harken back to Tarantino’s first film. Where The Hateful Eight differs from Reservoir Dogs, however, is in running time. Dogs is a lean 100 minutes, whereas Eight comes in at 167 minutes: a little under three hours. And therein lies the problem.
I’ve no problem with long films. Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown are both two and a half hours, and they’re two of Tarantino’s best. But The Hateful Eight shares Django Unchained’s problem: there comes a point when the narrative tension comes to a head, we reach a climax…and then the film carries on. Don’t get me wrong; The Hateful Eight is never less than entertaining. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that the last forty minutes or so were extraneous and, I’ll admit, a little self-indulgent.
That self-indulgence gets in the way of what might have been an interesting message. Early on Goggins’ Chris Mannix says that “when n****rs are scared, that’s when white folks are safe.” Later on, Jackson’s Major Warren says, “The only times black folks are safe is when white folks is disarmed.” Maybe, somewhere in this film, buried under the blood and profanity, is an interesting comment about race relations, and how they haven’t changed much in 150 years.
Like I said, though, the film is entertaining as all hell. As usual, Tarantino’s script crackles with energy and oozes wit. The performances are great across the board; Tarantino really doesn’t get enough credit as an actor’s director. Samuel L. Jackson is back to his commanding self after his, frankly terrifying, turn in Django Unchained. Walton Goggins impresses as a n****r-hating good ol’ boy. Michael Madsen growls his way through his lines, and Jennifer Jason Leigh chows down on the scenery.
Special mention has to be made of Robert Richardson’s Ultra Panavision cinematography. Shot in 70mm, the film uses the format to great effect in the opening snowbound scenes, then uses it to turn the cramped interior into its own mini-landscape. There’s a real sense of space, despite the claustrophobic nature of Minnie’s Haberdashery, not dissimilar to Sergio Leone’s use of distension in his Westerns.
Speaking of Leone, The Hateful Eight also features an original score by Ennio Morricone (unlike the pilfering of Morricone’s work done by Inglorious Basterds). It’s a fine score, building tension and adding to that sense of space in small confines. That’s not to say Tarantino doesn’t do any pilfering this time around. The film has Kurt Russell trapped in the snow, so Tarantino obviously borrows music from The Thing (but not a shape-shifting alien prone to bouts of bloody body horror, more’s the pity).
It’s just a shame that Tarantino can’t maintain the tension promised by Morricone’s score. There’s a lot to like about The Hateful Eight. It is often funny, sometimes shocking (a showstopper of a speech by Jackson being a highlight), and never less than entertaining. But with a bit of editing, both of script and film, and it could have been a great deal more than that.