The Hateful Eight Review
Quentin Tarantino’s eighth film – as it says prominently on a tagline – bears a marked resemblance to his first, the seminal Reservoir Dogs. In both, a band of ostensible strangers are thrown together and hothoused in a large interior space, and an ever-shifting current of allegiances and enmities is formed as they play a frenetic poker game of sussing one another out where the stakes could be as high as life or death.
It starts with impressive 70mm Panavision views of the wintry Wyoming landscape in the mid-1870s. A chance meeting of two bounty hunters occurs when erstwhile Union Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) hitches a ride on a stagecoach where John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is transporting prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the town of Red Rock to see her hang and collect a ten thousand dollar reward. Soon they pick up another passenger, Chris Manix (Walton Goggins), an ex-Confederate who claims to be the new sheriff of Red Rock. Naturally Ruth is suspicious and fears the two may be in league to rob him of his bounty, an issue which becomes the central theme of the movie.
So the identity of everyone who crosses Ruth’s path is hugely important, and when a blizzard forces a long stopover at the way station Minnie’s Haberdashery – so like the warehouse in Reservoir Dogs – the occupants come under similar scrutiny and the ensemble of eight is complete. They consist of Bob the Mexican (Demián Bichir), taking over from Minnie in her absence; ex-Confederate General Smithers (Bruce Dern), still wearing his uniform with gold braided insignia on the sleeves; and two Reservoir Dogs stalwarts, Oswaldo Mowbray (Tim Roth), a dandified English hangman, and Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a cow poke heading home to spend Christmas with his mother – the unlikeliest of the reasons presented for being on the road.
Each character is developed through dialogue that is copious even by Tarantino’s standards, and flaws and inconsistencies in cover stories are probed in an atmosphere of slow-burning tension. Tim Roth’s Mowbray also seems false, a caricature of an Englishman – a bit like English Bob in Unforgiven – but he has the paperwork to back up his claim to be a hangman. As ex-Confederates, Manix and Smithers form a natural partnership and provide obvious opposition to Warren, who is both ex-Union and black. Taking up the mantle from Django Unchained, the politics of slavery and black subjugation are thoroughly put through the mangle and the Civil War is re-fought in microcosm.
Here Samuel L. Jackson shines through in an excellent set piece, ridiculously exaggerated in a way that only Tarantino can get away with. He’s playing a very different kind of nineteenth century African American to his marvellously detailed Stephen in Django, which was a performance deeply immersed in character, much removed from Jackson’s regular screen persona. With Major Warren he’s back on more familiar ground – an archetypal grinning avenger like Jules in Pulp Fiction or Ordell in Jackie Brown. Warren comes to dominate the later part of the film, as the imperative need to root out the bad guys turns it into an Agatha Christie with him in the Poirot role, feverishly untangling the strands.
The rest of the cast also do well in their larger-than-life roles. Kurt Russell’s bounty hunter, long haired, handlebar moustached and grizzly, recalls Jeff Bridges in the True Grit remake; and ‘old timer’ Bruce Dern is a totally convincing patrician racist. Walton Goggins too gives a standout performance, earnest and comical by turns and an interesting counterpoint to the Tarantino usual suspects. As the only significant female character, Leigh’s Daisy Domergue really comes in for some harsh treatment – black-eyed, smacked in the face, broken toothed and covered in blood, puke and hot stew, so that by the end she resembles a climactic Carrie and is as equally unhinged.
The customary violent climax is as extreme and protracted as anything in Tarantino’s cannon, perhaps gratuitous, perhaps misogynistic, depending on your point of view and whether or not you perceive the elements to be within postmodernistic brackets. Whatever, it still feels like movie violence – compare it to the much more realistic carnage in The Revenant – and that same ambience permeates the entire film. Ultimately there is an emptiness at the heart of The Hateful Eight – the notion that it’s an exercise in spectacle and cleverly convoluted plotting rather than a piece of true storytelling – and at the end it does rather paint itself into a corner.
By his eight film, Tarantino, renowned for referencing other movies, is now heavily referencing his own. As well as the aforementioned similarity to the set-up of Reservoir Dogs, the whole Minnie’s Haberdashery scenario is an extended replaying of the bier keller scene in Inglourious Basterds, where suspect identities are put to the test in a knife-edge battle of wits. Then there are the chapter headings of Kill Bill, a piece of rewinding with Tarantino’s own voice narrating, and an odd late insertion of backstory, which some might find jarring. Yet within this quirky approach there is an undeniable strength and uniqueness, and when one considers notable directors of westerns – such as John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood – each of their films bears the brand of their style and couldn’t belong to anyone else; and on the basis of two westerns, that’s true of Tarantino too.