My notes on Quentin Tarantino’s new film. NB: contains some spoilers.
Not the least perverse aspect of Quentin Tarantino’s eighth (actually, eighth-and-a-quarterth) film is that it’s an epic-length Western – released as a 70mm roadhsow, with an overture and an intermission – in the manner of, say, How the West Was Won which tells the sort of small story that would have made for an episode of Alias Smith and Jones or a set-bound 1950s B. It’s overly ornate and protracted for what it is, but the footnotes and curlicues are a great deal of the appeal. As ever, a finely-chosen cast of star names, favourite character players, comeback kids (here, Jennifer Jason Leigh gets a shot at high visibility after decades of great work) and director’s pets (Walton Goggins is plainly the new Steve Buscemi) rattle off reams of dialogue which is almost all foreplay to some sort of violence. There are one or two anachronisms (no one was paranoid in the old West) but the script runs to quite a bit of authentic-sounding Western talk, including the inevitable profanities and racial epithets.
A long opening in ravishing snowy Wyoming wastes has ex-Union soldier/black bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) – named for the director Charles Marquis Warren – inveigle his way onto a private stagecoach hired by rival John Ruth (Kurt Russell), known as the Hangman because he always brings his captures in alive to go to the gallows. Ruth is transporting fey, mercurial, vicious Daisy Domergue (Leigh) – named for the actress Faith Domergue – to her execution. One of the reasons Warren gets into the coach is that he has a letter from Abraham Lincoln, which elevates his stature in the post-Civil War West and adds a strange, naïve reverence for the written word that turns out to be the emotional core of the climax. Next to be found stranded on the trail is Chris Mannix (Goggins), scion of a Southern marauding outfit and no fan of Warren’s work killing white folks, who happens to be the new sheriff charged with paying out rewards, which makes the others obliged to take him along. This quartet – driven by non-hateful O.B. (James Parks) – pitches up at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a store-cum-eaterie stage stop where they have to hole up during a blizzard, with four (actually five) almost certainly hateful souls – Bob the Mexican (Demian Bichir), sedentary ex-reb General Smithers (Bruce Dern), cowpoke Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) and actual (though, as it turns out, not) hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth, doing a Peter Sellers Englishman). In the basement is a desperate outlaw (Channing Tatum) who doesn’t do much until the second half – making his presence known with a painful bang well after the crew have become suspicious of each other.
With Russell in the cast and Ennio Morricone on the soundtrack, there are even elements of Carpenter’s The Thing tipped into the Western … though the Agatha Christie-like mystery angle gets washed away in a tide of puked-up gore and ball-blasting as everyone’s backstory comes out – including a horrid thing Warren did to the General’s son when he set out to claim the head of the ‘five-thousand dollar nigger’, which is illustrated in gloating widescreen – but some of the more intriguing elements turn out to be red herrings. During the first half, there’s a nice build-up of anticipation about what awful crimes Daisy could have done that merits the high price on her head and Leigh smiles, plays guitar and sings, spits and drops nasty hints … only for it turn out that the charges are non-specific and she’s only wanted for being part of an outlaw gang who all have the same bounty on them. Some of the reveals depend on things withheld from us until late in the day – Warren knows the mysteriously absent Minnie wouldn’t have let a Mexican run her place while she was off on holiday, but lets Bob string out his excuses and explanations well beyond the point when it’s obvious he’s up to no good. Then again, everyone is up to no good – except poor, doomed O.B. – so it has some of the feel of a giallo where all the suspects are guilty of something so the actual killer isn’t much worse than everyone else.
Some of the star names get less prominent roles than might be expected and Reservoir Dogs vets Roth and Madsen wind up riffing on their earlier roles rather than coming to the fore, which does add to the uneasy, unpredictable side of the film. It looks great in widescreen, even when stuck in the trading post for most of the running time, and the cast are a simple pleasure to be around, but – as ever with Tarantino – there’s a sense that he hasn’t let us in on all his jokes. He’s indulgent and whimsical in a way which undercuts the suspense Budd Boetticher would get out of a situation like this inside 73 minutes. There’s so much sheer entertainment to be had from The Hateful Eight that it would be a shame to carp.