The Hateful Eight (2015) Directed by Quentin Tarantino. With Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, James Parks and Bruce Dern.
To the accompaniment of Ennio Morricone, The Hateful Eight opens with a stunning showcase shot of the Panavision Super 70 lenses it’s captured in. We pick up in the deep blizzard of a wintry Wyoming landscape sometime after the Civil War, as a horse-drawn carriage escorts John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) across treacherous terrain. On their way, they encounter Major Marquis Warrena, a fellow bounty hunter in the charismatic form of Samuel L. Jackson. From the offset, the movie sets its stall as a tense examination of deception and lies to survive. For Russell, the film is reminiscent of The Thing; the arduous snowbound setting, the distrust of who is who they say they are, the enemy within.
Tarantino’s 8th film is his tightest and most disciplined since Kill Bill Volume 1. Lengthy though the running time is, it never sags under that weight as the writing allows each actor ample space to bring something new as the story unfolds. Among so many fine performances it’s hard to pick a favourite, which is testament to how well the film itself performs – you could highlight any number of the performances as your standout and I wouldn’t argue. Most prominently, the storytelling is focused and purposeful.
The Hateful Eight doesn’t meander or get away from Tarantino like Death Proof, Kill Bill Vol 2 and parts of Django Unchained did. He’s on tip-top form and it shows from the very start. The reprehensible nature of almost every character creates a thickening air of distrust for anything anyone says, which is underscored when innocents cross their paths. In this world, innocence, like hesitation, is weakness. It doesn’t matter how nice you are to the bad people, they’ll you show no mercy. This is an unforgiving land in which taking prisoners is risky – ‘kill or be killed’ is the motto. You learn that fast or you die.
As we know with Tarantino, his stories are told in chapters (always good for a home viewing tea-break), lending a book-like structure to the narrative. His adoration of cinema is woven into his work with such a sense of geeky affection that it builds a vital edge into each movement. As excesses of inevitable violence erupt, it manages to be both signature Tarantino and fresh in one take. That’s his simple ability as a writer shining through – to invest his audience enough in what has foregone to make them care about what comes. Often in the space of a few lines, each character gains identity and a sense of history.
You get to the end of The Hateful Eight and realise Tarantino has done it again. Once again he takes a genre and seasons it with his own unique spice of dark, irreverent humour to make it feel new again. With two-thirds of the film confined to one location, it isn’t hard to imagine a stage play being born of the material. It evokes memories of Reservoir Dogs, as deepening grooves of mistrust develop between the characters, allowing the audience plenty to chew on. I shouldn’t mention the word masterpiece, because it almost is.