United States. Directed by Quentin Tarantino, 2015. Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demián Bechir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern. 187 minutes (roadshow edition).
In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, The Hateful Eight, would turn out to be a Western homage to the John Carpenter version of The Thing. Tarantino pretty much built his career by recontextualizing chunks of genres and even specific films and assembling the pieces into something new. When Ennio Morricone, who famously swore off scoring Westerns and Tarantino films, agreed to compose the music for a film about Kurt Russell snowbound and stranded at a remote outpost…well, we should have seen that as a clue to what was going on.
To which I say: cool! I’ve always wanted to see QT play around more with horror elements in his directorial work; I thought Grindhouse would have been much more interesting if he’d directed Planet Terror, not Death Proof. The Hateful Eight doesn’t quite qualify as a horror film, but it’s the closest Tarantino has yet come.
Tarantino casts Russell as a bounty hunter escorting his latest quarry, the murderess Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to the hands of the law (and, not coincidentally, a handsome payday), only to find the two trapped at a Wyoming outpost by a brutal blizzard alongside some shady characters: a fellow bounty hunter and former Union war hero (Samuel L. Jackson), a one-time Reb terrorist turned lawman (Walton Goggins), a retired Confederate general (Bruce Dern), the local executioner (Tim Roth), a quiet cowpoke (Michael Madsen), and the Mexican left to take care of the outpost in the owners’ absence (Demián Bichir). The distrustful Ruth suspects one or more of the men may not be what he says he is, and believes a plot to free Daisy might be underway.
The story unfolds in classic Tarantino style; in the three-hour “roadshow edition” (featuring extra footage, a musical interlude, and an intermission), almost everything before the break consists of talking, and everything after it consists of action. Dialog-heavy sequences almost always live and die on the actors performing them, doubly so in QT’s efforts. Much of the cast are veterans of previous Tarantino films–Madsen and Roth have been with him since Reservoir Dogs, Jackson since Pulp Fiction–even minor players such as Dana Gourrier and Zoë Bell. Something about working with him seems to fire up his frequent collaborators; Jackson in particular, who seems more engaged with his material than he has in other recent projects such as Oldboy. But the standout here is Leigh, who interprets Daisy as a nexus of chaos given human form.
Tarantino returns the favor by giving the cast great material to work with: meaty dialog and vivid characterization. None of the dramatis personae are heroes or even particularly sympathetic; instead, they’re bastards and psychopaths to a man (and woman). Russell, ostensibly on the side of the law, spends much of his time beating up Leigh; Jackson’s true self hides behind a well-constructed veneer that’s nevertheless as fake as Roth’s Monty Python accent. With the assistance of Morricone’s creeping sinister score, Tarantino never allows the audience to become too comfortable with this lot, with new information constantly forcing us to re-assess what we think we already know. Of course, everything eventually goes south, but there’s no catharsis in the graphic violence that ensues, no sense of karma or justice playing out.
Even at three hours, The Hateful Eight keeps a steady pace–not slow or brisk, but deliberate, not allowing any sequence to drag. The much-vaunted Ultra Panavision 70 format does wonders for the snow-covered exterior vistas, which we knew it would; surprisingly, it plays just as well in the interiors, bestowing a sense of intimacy to the close-quarters sequences.
Like him or lump him–and I’ve been known to do both–Quentin Tarantino remains one of our most steadfastly singular filmmakers, and The Hateful Eight constitutes another feather in his cap. Nobody else could make a film like this. For that matter, nobody else would even be allowed to make a film like this, and that’s what makes it special.