Director: Quentin Tarantino (2016)
Quentin Tarantino’s new western is a slow burning fistful of cinematic dynamite which explodes all over the screen.
In a set up surprisingly reminiscent of Agatha Christie, eight hateful desperadoes are brought together one night by a Wyoming blizzard.
The discovery of loose connections leads to the opportunity to settle old scores and much bloodshed.
It’s a major work from an important director and a minor masterpiece of the genre.
Building on the strengths of Django Unchained (2013), Tarantino’s burgeoning maturity after a mid career slump of Kill Bill 2 (2004) and Death Proof (2007) suggests the mouthwatering prospect his best work is yet to come.
The Hateful Eight (2016) is proclaimed as Tarantino’s 8th film. With one eye on his legacy the 52 year old director recently speculated he would only make 10 movies, adding he felt he would never dominate the Academy Awards with multiple wins for a single film.
His current upward trajectory suggests his tenth and possibly final film could easily sweep the Oscars board.
In any circumstances I very much doubt Tarantino will go quietly into the cinematic night of his own accord.
With two consecutive westerns under his gun belt, Tarantino seems to have found his meter in the genre, itself the great American art form.
His previous best work was Jackie Brown (1997) based on the novel Rum Punch (pub. 1992) by Elmore Leonard.
The inestimable crime writer produced a raft of novels, many of which ended up on screen. Notable examples are Hombre (1967) Get Shorty (1995) and Out of Sight (1998).
However he began his career as a prodigious writer of pulp westerns. Three-Ten To Yuma (pub. 1953) was filmed in 1957 as 3:10 To Yuma starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, and filmed again in 2007 with Christian Bale and Russell Crowe.
Should Tarantino feel the need for inspiration he could do worse than tackle another of Leonard’s many works.
Until then we have The Hateful Eight which as rich in character and performance as any movie Tarantino has made thus far.
The former enfant terrible of Indie cinema takes a more mature and traditional approach.
He throws out the pop cultural references in favour of discussions on justice and the morality of the civil war.
Also out are the eclectic rock soundtrack and in comes a score by the maestro of spaghetti westerns, Ennio Morricone.
As good as it is, it’s no disservice to suggest it’s not the greatest work from the composer of the score for The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, among many others.
And it’s worth the entrance fee to be able to savour it on a cinema sound system.
A majestic opening shot features a vast snow-filled plain with a stagecoach driving past a frozen crucifix.
This elegant, eloquent statement of intent gives an icy indication of the grand guignol the passengers are heading towards.
This is cinematographer Robert Richardson’s 5th Tarantino movie after Django Unchained (2013), Inglourious Basterds (2009) Kill Bill 2 (2004) and Kill Bill (2003).
His ridiculously impressive CV includes 6 Scorsese films, 9 by Oliver Stone and works by Robert Redford, Barry Levinson and Robert Reiner.
Plus he’s one of only two living persons to win 3 Oscars for his craft. There’s another 5 nominations in there as well.
Colorado stands in for Wyoming and camera movement is kept to practical minimum while capturing the magnificent icy vistas.
Once inside in the relative warmth, Richardson’s camera glides about the confined space to skilfully illuminate the dialogue.
Even with 2 screenplay winning Oscars from 3 nominations, his sharp wordcraft is among the best Tarantino has written, it’s no wonder actors return to work for him time and again.
Heading what is now practically of troupe of Tarantino regulars, Samuel L. Jackson plays Major Warren, a former Union soldier turned bounty hunter.
Our first encounter him reprises the entrance of John Wayne in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939).
Other visual influences are Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and Robert Altman’s McCabe And Mrs Miller (1971).
With his frozen bounty in tow Warren hitches a ride on a private stage hired Kurt Russell’s bounty hunter, known as The Hangman.
It’s always great to see Russell in anything and seeing him in wrapped up in a blizzard raises pleasant memories of John Carpenter’s sci-fi chiller The Thing (1982).
The Hangman is transporting outlaw Daisy Domergue to the town of Red Rock to be hung. Jennifer Jason Leigh brings a fierce humour to her demented portrayal.
Her heavily bruised eye resembles the stylised look of Alex from Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), and suggests some impending ultra violence.
Vying with Leigh as the most valuable player in the uniformly excellent cast is Walton Goggins. He plays a racist former confederate soldier called Chris Mannix.
Other returning Tarantino regulars include Michael Madsen, Zoe Bell and Tim Roth channelling Terry-Thomas.
Caught up in a blinding snowstorm the travellers reluctantly take refuge together in an isolated holding post where other guests are warming themselves.
This fraught atmosphere demonstrates Tarantino’s ability to and it frequently wrong foots us in our expectations of where the story is going.
All the characters have nicknames referring to their status, The Prisoner, The Sheriff and so on.
When doubt is shed on their self-declared personal narratives, this remove from their professed identities adds layers to the slowly building snow drifts of lies, fear and mistrust.
As we’ve come to expect from Tarantino, there is a non-linear narrative. This gives a greater opportunity for character development than a more straightforward approach to structure would allow.
There’s a crude and confrontational tale Major Warren tells Bruce Dern’s aged General and some may feel this scene is evidence the director hasn’t yet shaken off his juvenile sense of humour.
However it serves a narrative purpose and there’s a sense Tarantino can’t resist baiting his film with poisoned morsels for unwary detractors.
Domergue suffers repeated physical abuse. It’s not the violence itself which worries, that can be justified by the milieu and far worse treatment is meted out to women in the westerns of Leone and Eastwood.
What’s problematic about this violence is its use as a literal punchline. The abuse of a captive woman, the only female character of note, is intentionally used to draw laughs from the audience.
The defence could reasonably claim more and greater violence is trespassed against other characters and done in an equally intentionally comic and more grisly manner.
Plus her tolerance for pain and patience for revenge tells us a great deal about her character.
Production of The Hateful Eight ran parallel to the Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle The Revenant (2016).
Although superficially similar in their brutal nature and western setting, the two frozen features are very different beasts except in the extremes of their ambition.
With The Hateful Eight distributor Harvey Weinstein stealing a commercial march by opening in the UK a week earlier, it’s doubtful a mass UK audience could stomach two similar seeming films in quick succession.
With this in mind I expect The Hateful Eight to win at the box office but The Revenant to win bigger at the Oscars.