Lock up a bunch of wordy characters in close quarters with a mystery to be solved, and you have a pressure cooker in your hands already. Add the sharp tongue and morbid wit of the kind that only Tarantino can write, and you’ve got something truly special, something to bite your nails off for. The Hateful Eight belongs to that unique Tarantino brand that is a dark comedy, a period piece and a spaghetti western at the same time, all working together to create a symphony of atmosphere and character. Intentionally harking back to a time when overtures, intermissions and stage-like theatrics dominated the screen, the film is Tarantino’s love letter to Sergio Leone and John Carpenter, with a blood-soaked twist. Breathtaking visuals and delightfully ‘hateful’ characters filling every moment of its long runtime, this is one that ranks right up there with the artist’s best work.
Set in post-Civil War United States (perhaps a few decades after Django Unchained, if you are on who believes in the shared Tarantino-verse), The Hateful Eight takes place for the most part within closed doors – from John ‘The Hangman’ Ruth’s carriage to Minnie’s Haberdashery. Ruth (Kurt Russel), a bounty hunter carrying his bounty to Red Rock, picks up two passengers on the way to take shelter from the blizzard – one, familiar face and fellow bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson) and two, a Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) who claims to be the new sheriff of Red Rock. The unlikely group then move toward Minnie’s Haberdashery, the only cabin around the parts, on the road to Red Rock. Once there, they find themselves locked in for three days with the other four travellers who have all stopped for shelter on their way to Red Rock. Trust isn’t something that is thrown around lightly for these men, and it seems that everyone has something to hide. What ensues is the most cruelly tense game of Clue, filled with racial anxiety and memories from the Civil War; and one by one, the masks start coming off.
Tarantino has kept no secrets about his love of cinema and it is known fact that his approach to filmmaking is inspired by classic genres and directors, to which he adds his own bloody wit. One of his greatest influences is the classic spaghetti western of the likes that Sergio Leone made a name out of, something most marked in Django Unchained, until now at least. In The Hateful Eight, he recreates a Mexican standoff in spirit, split eight-ways between the passengers shacked up at the Haberdashery in the thick of the blizzard. It is a setting most reminiscent of another of my favourite films – John Carpenter’s The Thing, also with Kurt Russel – where a group of researchers are huddled up in a cabin in the Arctic, at first unsuspecting of the trespasser present among them. And once you get down to the nitty-gritty of suspicion and uncovering the secret, the film has a quaint old Clue feel to it, if you replace the high-brow satire with witty slurred conversation with enough tension to turn diamonds from coal. Set in the shifty times around the Civil War, there is enough to divide the men against each other to begin with, even without adding the individual agendas that seem to cross each other’s paths. It is ultimately an inspired piece that while paying tribute to the history of cinema, leaves the inimitable Tarantino mark upon it.
The art of the captivating back-and-forth between characters is something that Tarantino has basically written the book on, showing us early on in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction the amount of intrigue and curiosity he can fuel into a single line. It is easily the highlight of any of his films for me, and The Hateful Eight does not disappoint. In fact, in the more-than-capable mouths of Samuel Jackson and Kurt Russel – clearly the standouts of the show – it does more than not disappoint: it delivers in heaps. Every line uttered in this screenplay – which I could just read like a book, how many movies can you say that about? – carries weight, has purpose and is shot as if gunpowder straight from the pistol. And with a screen-time running just shy of three hours, it is no easy feat that Tarantino succeeds in. Consistency is the name of the game; the script servicing all its characters in equal fashion and carrying the voice of the political times without being cluttered in its swagger. Watching these characters deliver these stern lines made me feel only pity for those who read the leaked script earlier in the year, as watching all of it unfold is pure cinematic experience at its best.
I do not need to sing songs of the performances in The Hateful Eight, with the cast a line-up of Tarantino’s usual suspects – Kurt Russel (Death Proof), Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs), Tim Roth (Pulp Fiction) and Sam Jackson (because of course) – with a few faces new to the peculiar genre he has created. Adding another staple in Christoph Waltz would have disturbed the precise balance of the cast, and instead we have Tim Roth playing a similar character to what Waltz plays usually. However, the spotlights are deservedly shone on the two that we start out with: Russel’s John Ruth and Jackson’s Major Warren, who in their respective roles are equally deserving of not only the Oscars, but also of being heralded in the ranks of Jules (a younger Jackson), Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) and Monsieur Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Russel’s John Ruth is gruff, indomitable and yet honourable in his bounty-hunting ways, while Jackson’s Major Warren is seen channelling the badass motherfucker at his most no-nonsense self. Although any one scene singled out from this film could be shown to display acting nuances across the board, a particularly gripping one is found in the scene Jackson shares with Bruce Dern’s General Smithers, where the Major retells his meeting with the General’s beloved son during the war – arresting is the only word.
And if that wasn’t enough, this spectacular display of acting and writing is accompanied by a score from none other than Ennio Morricone, whose notes you might remember from such classics as A Fistful of Dollars, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, and The Thing. There are soundtracks – playing mere serenade to the scenes unfolding on screen – and then there are soundtracks, where the score becomes a character in itself, adding another layer to the whole affair. Morricone’s score for The Hateful Eight falls into the latter: every twang of the Jew’s harp and every strum of the guitar sending sweat down the viewer’s spine, in anticipation of the next moment. The whole experience elevates to operatic quality both within the dusty confines of the Haberdashery as well as the snowy vistas through which the carriages make their way, and it would be remiss without this fitting score. From the overture at the start, and making its way through all the chapters as the masks start falling off, the experience is something only this director could have conjured.
And speaking of the director, to address all critics of the bloodshed and villainy that haunts his movies, it is possible to enjoy films without necessarily being packed with social commentary and backed by morality. If the title wasn’t suggestive enough, this is not one for the faint-hearted, but it definitely deserves to be seen by everyone else: irrespective of your attitude towards violence in real life. As Tarantino himself has said repeatedly, if you aren’t aware that it is but a film that you’re watching, you’re either a time-traveler from the 1800s or not mentally capable of watching any movie (I paraphrased, of course). One of the many reasons that people go to the movies for still remains an escape from reality and the mundane day-to-day, a particular craving that Tarantino has been servicing for years with his tales of extremity. The Hateful Eight does not aim to profess, is not a statement on the political situation around the Civil War, but instead uses the time and place – and everything that comes with it – as set-pieces to create a suspenseful and above all, exciting production which is sure to thrill audiences with the right mind everywhere.
The Hateful Eight is another homerun for not only Quentin Tarantino, but for the cast and Morricone as well. The tension and drama is built so subtly that you cannot see the many hands working the gears behind, all adding up to birth a new masterpiece that is equal parts Wild West and whodunit. The strings of its puppet-master are strong enough to take in and engross its audience with the cleverly played out chapters of revelation. Brimming with moments, lines and visuals all worthy to form a course on filmmaking, the director’s eighth movie is another milestone to be remembered. It is an affectionately crafted love-letter to what the director loves most: cinema, and its ability to sustain drama without blowing the load soon. Or, as Major Warren says of Russel’s character which can be twisted to mean the director’s abilities, ‘When the handbill says “dead or alive”, the rest of us just shoot you in the back from up on top a perch somewhere and bring you in dead over a saddle. But when John Ruth ‘The Hangman’ gets you, you hang.’