Murder he wrote! At one point in writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s eighth offering for the devoted cine-literati, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled into a stagebound Agatha Christie drawing-room mystery, but with cowboys. The eight title suspects have all been acting suspiciously, Samuel L Jackson takes on a funky Hercule Poirot mantle as he lists the motives and opportunity for a key nefarious poisonous act, and the culprit (or culprits, no spoilers here) is brutally unmasked.
Despite the strange genre clash, it’s this strategic set piece that finally gives the much-needed lift-off to what must be said is Tarantino’s most unhurried and dialogue-heavy firework display to date. Many will happily find this measured approach gives the actors time to flesh out their splendidly scripted roles and so make themselves deserving of the violent confidence trick Tarantino ultimately pulls. Others will give a resounding cheer that this Reservoir Dogs-gone-West has hit its talky stride by heading to a high noon indoors and a fistful of upended clichés. Worth bearing in mind what Channing Tatum’s late-arriving character says, “The name of the game is patience”. It sure is!
Once upon a time in the west, just after the American Civil War, bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) takes a stagecoach through a Wyoming blizzard with latest victim Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to claim his reward in Red Rock. But as the wintry conditions deteriorate, and former Union soldier Major Marquis Warren (Jackson) and so-called sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), hitch a desperate ride, they are forced to shelter at Minnie’s Haberdashery. In this remote mountain stopover, they meet Mexican Bob (Demian Bichir), British gallows expert Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth, in a part surely designed for Christoph Waltz), cowpuncher Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) and Confederate General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern).
As this grizzled wild bunch of shady archetypes and antiheroes with colourful pasts huddle together in collective snowbound distrust where no one is really who they say they are, secrets, lies, shifting loyalties and betrayals explode into gunfights and bloodshed. It’s then that Tarantino’s sometimes brilliant, often hilarious, frequently subversive and sneakily witty vision of a totally immoral western frontier eventually saddles up with conviction.
Divided into six chapters – one even uses the modish device of a revealing “Earlier that morning” flashback – this frost-bitten frolic references post-Civil War realities including die-hard attitudes to slavery in the wake of abolition, ongoing rivalry between Union and Confederate veterans, the financial struggle of the southern states and, most pertinently of all thanks to devious Major Marquis, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. It’s yet another dazzling Tarantino confection of hard fact and pulp fiction hewn from a multitude of western inspirations, particularly the 1950s films of Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher, and vintage 60s/70s TV shows like The Virginian and Bonanza, which always featured comparable siege/hostage episodes.
As with Tarantino’s Django Unchained, the work of spaghetti western maestro Sergio Corbucci can also be plainly divined, in particular The Great Silence, which shares the same bleak, desolate landscape where a snow-drenched setting represents the iciest of prisons, both literal and psychological. There have been other snowbound westerns before – Day of the Outlaw, Will Penny, McCabe and Mrs Miller – but few have rarely captured the claustrophobic whiteout feel needed to enclose the characters so starkly involved in allegorical duplicity.
Such a chilly atmosphere is greatly enhanced by the decision to film in the vintage 70mm Ultra Panavision system, which gives a gorgeous intensity to the interiors (wonderfully realised by Kill Bill production designer Yohei Taneda), a potent intimacy to the more powerful close-ups, wide-angled exclamation marks to the surprise plot twists and really makes the outlandish gore pop.
Perhaps extra vistas of the magnificent snowy landscapes could have been included to maximise the process, but clearly Tarantino’s intention here is to capture epic emotions more than empty spectacle.
As for the much-vaunted Road Show presentation – complete with overture, intermission, and entr’acte music, and how premium price tent-pole musicals (The Sound of Music) and big-canvas history lessons (Ben-Hur) were launched – it’s a mere affectation. It’s the sort of retro fun the director enjoyed when he made released the Grindhouse double bill in 2007, but hardly a necessary gimmick. Especially as a Tarantino voice-over gets you back up to speed once the second part commences. It also demonstrates in a negative way what a film of two halves The Hateful Eight actually is.
No quibbles with the haunting if understated score by iconic composer Ennio Morricone (the judicious use of cues from his Exorcist II: The Heretic soundtrack is a huge surprise) or the acting from the Tarantino rep company. Jackson proves once again how much in scary synch he is with his director and the excitably engaging Walton Goggins has the best breakout impact in the most Leone-looking of parts. New to the QT roster is Jennifer Jason Leigh, who puts in such a game performance you’ll be applauding her solely for withstanding being relentlessly punched, battered, slapped, vomited on and covered in more blood than Carrie on prom night.
Rich in quintessential Tarantino moments, savage black humour and unpredictable jagged edges, the cult wunderkind doesn’t quite elevate the genre in the uber-enhanced manner to which we have all become accustomed. You do have to dig a little deeper in more key areas to find the sly gold in them thar snow-crested hills. But it is there, if you come to this good, bad and ugly deconstruction well prepared.
The Hateful Eight is released in cinemas on 8 January 2016