The Hateful Eight almost didn’t get made. After an unfinished draft of the script leaked online, notoriously combustible auteur Quentin Tarantino threw an almighty strop and shelved the project indefinitely. Thankfully, the writer-director eventually relented, because The Hateful Eight is a magnificent piece of filmmaking, showcasing Tarantino’s iconic blend of humour, heightened violence and unbearable suspense but with an ambition and maturity that points to a filmmaker at the height of his powers.
With it’s chapter divisions, anachronistic soundtrack, fizzing dialogue and, of course, gloriously visceral shootouts, the film is so crammed with Tarantino’s best-know hallmarks it almost feels like the filmmaker’s greatest hits collection. An early scene in which two bounty hunters discuss a letter from President Lincoln riffs on Pulp Fiction’s legendary “Royale with cheese” sequence, the reveal of an imposter hiding beneath the floor boards apes Inglorious Basterds’ introductory salvo, and the whole premise of eight-stranger’s searching for the imposter among them is ripped straight from Reservoir Dogs (as well as being heavily influenced by such 70s TV westerns Bonanza and The Virginian).
The big difference here is that Tarantino is operating on a far grander scale than ever before. By enlisting Ennio Morricone to score his first western in forty years and shooting Colorado’s dramatic snowy vistas in Ultra Panavision 70, the director is suggesting his latest can sit alongside such greats as Ben-Hur and The Greatest Story Ever Told. And that’s not arrogance talking, especially when the result is 187 minutes of pure cinematic delight.
The premise is deceptively simple. Set in Wyoming sometime after the Civil War, bounty hunter John ‘The Hangman’ Ruth and his fugitive prisoner Daisy Domergue race to reach the fictional town of Red Rock before they’re engulfed by a rapidly approaching blizzard. Their progress is halted first be an encounter with Samuel L Jackson’s typically well-tailored bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren and then by a man who claims to be the new sheriff of Red Rock, each of whom hoping to hitch a ride on Ruth’s private carriage.
With the wintry cold now biting at their behinds, the group are left with no option but to seek shelter at a stagecoach passover called Minnie’s Haberdashery. Greeted there by four untrustworthy strangers, our weary travellers soon learn they’re not the only ones interested in Ruth’s highly valuable prisoner.
What follows is an exercise in the art of delayed gratification. Split in six chapters, the plot essentially boils down to a bunch of eccentric characters trading backstories of questionable veracity ad infinitum. Yet such is Tarantino’s masterful orchestration of proceedings, this indulgent verbosity never feels dull. Not since Alfred Hitchcock has a director possessed such a strong knack for creating suspense. Tarantino just throws a bunch of nefarious gunslingers into a room with a loaded gun (or a pot of poisoned coffee, in this case) and lets his flowery dialogue do the work as we wait through gnawed fingernails for all hell to break loose.
Central to this unbearable tension is the sense of division and mistrust the writer fosters between his characters. As soon as everyone arrives at Minnie’s, the story shifts into a murder mystery as Ruth and Warren try to work out who they can trust among this seedy crowd, which is no easy task when no-one is quite who they claim to be. The shifting dynamics as characters form fragile pacts and turn on each other is what makes the story so gripping and absorbing, turning oratory into edge-of-you-seat spectacle.
Naturally, Tarantino has assembled a cracking ensemble to breath life into his words. Regulars Michael Madsen, Tim Roth and Jackson are flawless in keeping up with the writer’s idiosyncratic rhythms, particularly Jackson whose sixth Tarantino outing sees him land his best role yet as Major Warren, a Civil War-vet who rarely gets the respect he deserves owing to the colour of his skin.
It’s the less familiar faces that really standout, though, with Walton Goggins excelling as the deceptively slippery Sheriff Chris Mannix, a much meatier part following his bit-part role in Django Unchained, while Jennifer Jason Leigh owns the room every time she is on screen, spitting Tarantino’s words with pure venom as vicious outlaw Domergue.
Eccentric cowboys and vibrant bloodletting aside, this is also Tarantino’s most mature work since Jackie Brown, fearlessly raising issues surrounding racial tensions, gun laws and notions of justice, hot-button topics that have taken on a greater significance following the director’s recent spat with American law enforcement.
If there is a flaw here, it’s that there’s little reason to care about what is unfolding. Because these eight ‘heroes’ are all entirely despicable, you never really root for any of them to come out on top, which leads to a climax that’s really just a meaningless hail of bullets.
But The Hateful Eight is about the journey, not the destination; and on that front Tarantino has delivered a rip-roaring western teeming in the kind of high-stakes suspense, exquisite violence, bombastic characters and extravagant imagery that few other filmmakers could hope to match.
Runtime: 187 mins; Genre: Western; Released: 8 January 2016;
Director: Quentin Tarantino; Writer: Quentin Tarantino;
Cast: Samuel L Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins
Click here to watch the trailer for The Hateful Eight