Quentin Tarantino’s audacious talent as a screenwriter powers this brilliantly cast, superbly scored and horribly violent epic about a bunch of snowed-in desperadoes
A new film from the brilliant and pitiless Quentin Tarantino has arrived in cinemas, on a colossal 70mm Panavision print. That is a costly specification, evidently responsible in part for limiting the number of British cinemas able to show it, though audiences could next year be watching on their smartphones’ 70mm screens.
The Hateful Eight is another inspired pulp provocation: a Jacobean western that is also an American epic set mostly in just one room: intimate yet gigantic. It is horribly violent, exhilaratingly intelligent, discursive and sinewy – brutal and cerebral in this director’s signature ludic style, and blessed with a superb score by 87-year-old Ennio Morricone. The sinuously catchy theme trails its disquiet across the film’s snowy landscape.
Tarantino creates terrific antihero roles for Samuel L Jackson as Major Warren, a disgraced unionist army officer and suspected war criminal who maintains an eerie composure in a flurry of N-bombs, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, superb as the captured criminal Daisy Domergue, who is repeatedly assaulted and always defiantly refuses to be cowed. Warren participates in misogynist abuse and Daisy is a racist; together they both invite and refuse our liberal sympathy and discomfiture. Tarantino also makes a serious star of Walton Goggins, giving a hilarious performance as the deeply unreliable Chris Mannix, soi-disant sheriff elect of Red Rock, Wyoming.
The setting is the unhealed old west after the civil war: a freezingly wintry and mountainous terrain. Kurt Russell plays the bewhiskered John Ruth, a bounty hunter who is in a stagecoach pulled by a six-horse team, conducting a prisoner across difficult country in a gathering blizzard. This is Daisy, played by Leigh. On the road, they encounter another bounty hunter: Major Marquis Warren, another glorious comic performance from Jackson: glittering of eye, steely of will, vengeful of manner; his presence is as potent as a nugget of sodium. The ingratiating racist good ol’ boy Mannix also makes his appearance.
They find themselves needing a stopover at a roadhouse called Minnie’s Haberdashery; here they encounter ageing southern general Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), taciturn loner Joe Cage (Michael Madsen), and a charmless and preposterous Englishman called Oswaldo Mowbray (Tim Roth). Somehow, these ruthless strangers will have to make the best of things until the road clears. But are these people strangers to each other? Is something else going on?
Booker-winning novelist Marlon James has been called “Tarantinoesque” and what The Hateful Eight does is remind you that this comparison is not just about the violence or the energy: it’s about the writing. Tarantino is just a superlative movie writer. His unashamedly extended dialogue scenes make his actors come vibrantly to life – especially Jackson. The writing delivers line-by-line pleasure and impact, and he is also a master of structural audacity, with some stunning flashback rewinds and POV shifts.
The Hateful Eight are snowed in together like Agatha Christie characters in a country house, or indeed the Big Brother house. But unlike an Agatha Christie story – but very much like, say, Reservoir Dogs – there is no notional authority figure to exert control over everyone. The only authority is violence and superior firepower, or the superior firepower of talk, the threat of violence. Everyone is armed of course, and there are other weapons to hand, and the mere presence of criminals with bounties on their heads creates a market force in favour of violence. This pre-violence tension, including the scattershot N-bombing, is all but intolerable, and coolly sustained by the dialogue.
There is a little of Sergio Leone and the classic pulp westerns of Elmore Leonard, and as a big drama in a little place it could almost be a Sam Peckinpah version of a swearified Harold Pinter. Later, for obvious reasons, it will look like Brian De Palma’s Carrie. But this movie is just so utterly distinctive, it really could be by no one else but Tarantino. The inventive, swaggering dialogue is what drives it onward: quintessentially American. (I continue to think that Inglourious Basterds is the weakest of Tarantino’s films because he strays away from the American wellspring.)
And The Hateful Eight repeats a classic trope from Reservoir Dogs: the idea of being in unbearable pain from a gunshot wound, but still talking, still being a threat. There is a horrible kind of black-comic heroism in continuing to crack wise while being in the same kind of unbearable agony you are planning to inflict on someone else.
“Thriller” is a generic label which has lost its force. But The Hateful Eight really does thrill.
This article was written by Peter Bradshaw, for theguardian.com on Thursday 7th January 2016 15.30 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010