With THE HATEFUL EIGHT Quentin Tarantino may well have invented a new sub-genre: the misdirection-Western. The mystery that is seemingly a key plot point from the second act onward is, in fact, pretty incidental. While this might disappoint some, the film is more about the slow-burn of eight character reveals, with sleight of hand, deception and glorious ultraviolence aplenty along the way.
When a group of strangers – bounty hunters, authority figures and ne’er do wells – take shelter from a blizzard in an isolated Wyoming cabin during the aftermath of the American Civil War, tensions soon ramp up and it becomes clear that just about everyone is not who they say they are. Who, if anyone, will survive the night with their lives, secrets and consciences intact?
Tarantino puts forward an interesting thesis on the American justice system. Thanks to the current negative public perception of what the police will resort to in order to “protect and serve” and their bias against certain segments of society, Marquis Warren’s (Samuel L. Jackson) fiery speech on the difficulties of being a black man in a divided country packs a real and uncomfortably topical punch. That said, Tarantino also seems to advocate capital punishment in some circumstances by the end of his film. There’s no reason why you can’t believe the truth of both of these opinions.
I don’t know enough about, or generally notice, a film’s aspect ratio to comment on whether it is clever used or not. The demanding technical requirements for presenting the film how its director wished may well have been the reason UK cinema chain Cineworld pulled it, or it could have been for pettier business reasons. What I do know is that this film looks amazing throughout. The stillness and the careful, almost obsessive, construction of wintery vistas and the oppressive prison that is the interior setting of the majority of the story may well make it Tarantino’s most beautiful film to date.
Both of Sam Jackson’s best performances over the last decade have been with Tarantino. In DJANGO UNCHAINED, he was a self-hating pro-slavery houseboy determined to hold on to his position of relative status, in his way the most despicable character in a film of despicable characters. Here, as Civil War veteran Major Marquis Warren, he is the Oscar-worthy heart, soul and mouthpiece of the film, brimming with fury and ever-ready with a deadpan retort. Almost as good as Jackson is Walton Goggins. Playing maybe-Sheriff Chris Mannix, he gets a lot of the funniest moments as the bigoted idiot among the Eight. The latest on Tarantino’s long list of career reinventions in Jennifer Jason Leigh who makes scene-stealing feral prisoner Daisy Domergue terrifying and funny in equal measure, wisely avoiding becoming a parody of the mentally ill. Tarantino’s slick-as-usual script gives everyone in the impressive ensemble their moment and every character multiple shades, ambiguities and contradictions.
Tarantino usually likes to launch straight in with a shock and a spatter of scarlet (or inky black if he’s shooting in black-and-white). The Hateful Eight is is measured, almost glacial in its pacing. Tarantino is taking his time and doesn’t care if you notice it. The first shot, of religious icon smothered in snow remains unbroken throughout the slow crawl of the opening credits accompanied by the primal build of Ennio Morricone’s score. Nothing much beyond introducing the characters actually happens before the first hour is through. Fret not though, everything kicks off in the film’s second half and, gratifyingly, you have no real idea which way the plot is heading.
The release of a new Quentin Tarantino film is always an event and it never takes long for the comparisons to begin. QT’s Eighth film (if you count the KILL BILL volumes as one) comes within a hair’s breadth of his 1990s heyday in ways that, for me, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS and Django didn’t quite reach. As well as tearing into American injustices without mercy, it’s hugely entertaining and every stylistic quirk and plot twist or character blindside has a clear purpose for being there. Let us indulge Mr Tarantino for taking his time and leaving things unresolved for the sake of the impact of this story once it all gets going. SSP