Review: The Hateful Eight

Like Marmite, Quentin Tarantino films appeal to some and not others. The Hateful Eight is as furious and shocking as expected, and I’d rate it higher than both Kill Bills and Inglourious Basterds and alongside Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained in terms of his best, because it’s excellent. It’s tense to the point of discomfort, violent to the point of horror and so witty and well-written that it could only have been made by Tarantino.

In 1800s Wyoming, bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is escorting fugitive Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the town of Red Rock, driven by coachman O.B. (James Park), and along the way, ahead of a huge blizzard, they pick up Civil War veteran Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins). They’re forced to stop at Minnie’s Harberdashery, a waypoint, where Mexican “Bob” (Demián Bichir), dandy Brit Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) and old southern general Sanford “Sandy” Smithers (Bruce Dern) are already stranded. In the words of Warren, “somebody ain’t who they say they is”, however, and all hell breaks loose.

It felt strange watching this – a western, set in the north, amid snow, and focused on survival – after The Revenant. Here though, it’s just one interior set that makes this work. How many people might ruin a movie by setting it in one room? Tarantino however has form with Reservoir Dogs, and he manages to build such tension with his script that you’re drawn in completely. As expected, the characters give absolutely excellent speeches, monologues or arguments, with Jackson benefiting most with one astonishing speech, and Tarantino’s chapter structure nicely breaks the movie between six major elements. The haberdashery itself is a remarkable set; flawlessly decorated and feeling like a real location atop a snow-covered hill.

Acting-wise, these films live and die on the actors and actresses. So it’s good that less famous, character-actors have been expertly picked here. Jackson’s best performances are always in Tarantino films, and I think this might be his best – Warren is a complex, shifting character but also the main comic relief, even in the film’s darkest moments, and Jackson has such a way with the writer’s words that he completely holds your attention, tackling a complex character with ease and humour. Russell also provides a sparring partner, as the hilariously-moustachioed Ruth, who despite seeming to be the one to root for initially, has shades of grey that mean you’re always wondering whether you should like him or not.

Hateful-Eight-posterThis conflict is not in question when it comes to Leigh’s horrific, snarling Domergue, who’s integral to the plot, and the actress absolutely thrives playing such an unhinged, wretched figure. She knows exactly what’s coming, and even if there’s a change in plan, you suspect Domergue has some disturbing way to capitalise on it, Leigh channelling psychopathic glee in an unsettling way. The best of the rest is Goggin’s Mannix, who also embodies the constant shifts in perception of each character, giving his southern racist interesting quirks that chip away at your early assumptions, and his path through the story gives the actor some great scenes to show off a mix of southern charm and menace.

Madsen, another Tarantino regular, doesn’t have much to say (probably because he’s not the greatest actor), but his solid, silent menace is a good match for the seemingly simple yet mysterious Gage. Roth, I felt, was a little disappointing, and seems to have taken Christoph Waltz’ place as the erudite, chatty European, though he gets opportunities towards the end to make a little more impact. I could say the same for Bichir’s ‘Bob’, who’s permanently hidden behind a beard and a fur coat, but has the same sort of effect as Madsen. Finally, Dern has a lot less to do than the rest, but the older actor is excellent when he’s onscreen, drawing your attention every time he speaks, and even showing some raw and desperate emotion – again making you feel very strange about your first impressions of the character.

There are also a host of other characters I won’t mention because of spoilers. One in particular is a great surprise – a cameo revealed in the opening credits, but one which gives the actor a role filled with menace, charm and malevolence. Parks’ O.B. is also worth a mention as the comedic and put-upon driver who unluckily ends up trapped with the eponymous eight.

The film looks and sounds remarkable – unsurprisingly – with legendary composer Ennio Morricone writing Tarantino’s first original score, along with a couple of more contemporary songs (it’s Tarantino after all). The soundtrack, from the outset, pummels you with doubt and unease, and it feeds into a link I thought was spectacular thematically, to John Carpenter’s The Thing. The gruesome, sci-fi horror is also set in an inescapable snowbound location, also features a tense Morricone soundtrack, also stars Kurt Russell, and deals with issues of trust, lies and a great deal of gore, and the snowy, desolate cinematography of Robert Richardson evokes the older film’s Arctic setting.

This all leads me to the 18 rating, which is more than justified – as with any Tarantino movie, expect to hear the n-word so much that it becomes uncomfortable, while the violence on show is spectacular, special effects wizard Greg Nicotero giving brutal scenes of bloodshed an extra jolt of splatter. If there’s anything to complain about, it’s that the beginning takes a little too long to get the point, and that a great actor in Roth is more or less wasted in the story (even though this ends up making sense).

However, it’s still one of QT’s very best films, and just like Django Unchained, I came out wondering what he’ll bring us next.

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