‘Event cinema’ is a term that has largely been reduced over the years to that of the tent pole picture, so it’s nothing if not refreshing to see a filmmaker so brazenly and assuredly resurrecting celluloid’s largest format when presenting his latest work.
Everything about writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight draws attention to itself, from the use of Ultra Panavision 70mm – a film connoisseur’s wet dream and a format so rare (barring Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master) as to be virtually unheard of since Hollywood’s golden age – to the employment of an overture and intermission; giving the movie a brazen air of regality.
The promise of extra footage to entice people to seek out the film’s 70mm ‘Roadshow’ isn’t the first time QT has presented two different versions of the same movie; he did something similar with his grindhouse homage Death Proof back in 2007.
It’s fair to say The Hateful Eight is on a different scale; however, with great pomp and circumstance comes the risk of great pitfalls and while the director largely succeeds in his endeavour, it isn’t without the flaws that have come to be synonymous with Tarantino flicks.
Tarantino’s gift for movie dialogue is legendary and virtually unparalleled in modern cinema, but what the director hasn’t received enough credit for over the years is his inherent understanding of how to stage a scene and where to place the camera.
Filming in 70mm is a gamble as it can amplify bad technical decisions; but in the case of The Hateful Eight the use of Ultra Panavision serves to add an extra layer of complexity and subtext to what are already masterfully staged confrontations between his core characters.
The film has attracted comparisons to QT’s 1992 debut Reservoir Dogs (not least of which from the director himself) for sticking to a single location for much of the running time. However, it’s a full 30 minutes before we arrive at Minnie’s Haberdashery as the film patiently sets out its stall with an increasingly uneasy stagecoach journey involving bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell), who is transporting wanted criminal Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock to be hanged, fellow bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who claims to be Red Rock’s new sheriff.
As wordy a chapter (or two) as this is, it establishes the mood of mistrust, paranoia and violence (filmed using a string a tight shots that juxtapose the vast and unforgiving wintry Wyoming landscape) that permeates much of the film. The suspicion that all is not as it seems is encapsulated in a single shot of Domergue, nursing a bust lip caused by a punch, who we see staring mischievously at Warren as if to shrug off the act of violence before turning away and letting her guard slip for a moment as the pain takes hold; only to laugh it off again as she realises she’s once again being looked upon.
The sense of foreboding and Old Testament justice (signaled by the evocative shot of a snow-covered crucifix) is ratcheted up in typical QT fashion as the action moves into Minnie’s Haberdashery and an increasingly bloodthirsty standoff slowly plays out among the odious octet – who also include Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth channeling Terry Thomas), Mexican Bob (Demián Bichir), Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) and Confederate General Sandford Smithers (Bruce Dern) – as a blizzard imprisons them to their fate.
There are moments here of the sort of brilliance that only the former video store clerk could conjure up. The disjointed narrative, so often a staple of Tarantino’s work, is employed to sterling effect and the performances, as ever, are uniformly excellent. Madsen and Roth haven’t been given this much to do for a good long while and Russell once again proves that the more unpredictable he is the better.
Goggins is on breakout form following a highly respected career in TV, while Leigh is arguably the best thing about the film, giving a shrewd and disarming performance that gets under your skin. However, it’s Jackson who once again lifts his game for a Tarantino picture and has a blast delivering the director’s typically colourful dialogue; in particular a comically nasty monologue an hour or so in that finally cranks the film into top gear.
The vice-like score by legendary composer Ennio Morricone fits the jittery mood of the film. Indeed, it’s rather fitting the majority of the score was originally written for The Thing (1982) as The Hateful Eight‘s creeping sense of paranoia between a small group of characters trapped by worsening weather is more than reminiscent of John Carpenter’s classic (minus the Thing of course). The score also fits the film’s whodunnit narrative that tips a wink to Hitchcock.
Too much of anything can be a bad thing, however, and the luxuriant running time cries out for a further edit. The opening hour, as satisfying as it is, spins its wheels and sees the director at his most indulgent. Tarantino is like a screenwriter’s equivalent of Dickens; a beautiful writer who can’t help penning a paragraph when a line will do.
The abundant use of the N-word has inevitably drawn heavy criticism and it’s certainly difficult to defend a movie that employs such a charged word so often. Jackson has defended Tarantino, pointing out his dialogue fits the characters and the time in which the film was made, while QT himself has spoken of how dealing with race in America is something he has to offer the western. Whether you buy that is up to you.
As Tarantino nears the self-imposed end of his career (10 films and he’s out), a question remains as to whether his best work is behind him. The Hateful Eight is often provocative and brilliant, but Tarantino has let himself become his own worst enemy.