The Hateful Eight: Formally beautiful, still pretty nasty

The festive season was great for movie buffs. Star Wars fans received a huge early present with the release of the hotly anticipated Episode VII – The Force Awakens.

In the US, Quentin Tarantino afficianados were treated to the release of the motormouth auteur’s eighth feature, The Hateful Eight. Set in the fantasy world of Quentin Tarantino’s head, it received criticism for alleged misogyny, as well as causing the usual hand-wringing from some circles about the director’s love affair with the N-word.

Forever controversial, The Hateful Eight may well be Tarantino’s most ambiguous and divisive film to date, and might even test the patience of some of his devotees.

The Hateful Eight (2015)

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walter Goggins, Tim Roth, Bruce Dern, Michael Madsen, Demián Bichir

Set in a snowy wilderness somewhere after the American Civil War, we first meet bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) with a stack of stiffs he needs transporting to the town of Red Rock, where he can cash the corpses in for the price on their heads.

The weather’s closing in and he hitches a lift on a stage coach with a fellow bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell), who is also taking a fugitive to Red Rock. This one’s alive and chained to Ruth’s wrist, the maniacal Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

Picking up another passenger (Walter Goggins) along the way, a redneck who claims he’s heading to Red Rock to be the latest sheriff, the party seek refuge at a stagecoach lodge called Minnie’s Haberdashery as a blizzard approaches. There they meet a number of other travellers seeking shelter from the storm, including Red Rock’s English hangman (Tim Roth), a taciturn cowboy (Michael Madsen), an elderly Confederate General (Bruce Dern), and  gruff Mexican Bob (Demian Bichir) who claims the owners of the lodge left the business in his hands while away visiting relatives.

Warren is suspicious; he knows the owners of the haberdashery personally, and suspects foul play. The rest of the film plays out as an ultra-violent whodunnit, as the despicable characters holed up in the storm trade insults, form uneasy alliances, and try to figure out who the bad guys are. Which will be tough, because they’re all bad guys.

At almost three hours long, The Hateful Eight is a tough slog with no-one to root for. Instinctively we side with Jackson and Russell, but that becomes troublesome – Major Warren is a cruel liar and is possibly psychotic, and Ruth a paranoid blusterer with a nasty habit of punching his prisoner very hard in the face, which is played for laughs.

Hateful Eight

Formally, the film is a thing of beauty, with Tarantino making the unusual choice of shooting in 70 mm. It’s an old format that was once used for huge widescreen epics like Ben Hur and Lawrence of Arabia. QT uses it largely for indoor work, for Sergio Leone-style mega close ups and splitting up the interior of the lodge into clearly defined territories for the characters.

Tarantino has always enjoyed using lengthy dialogue to build up tension before scenes of explosive violence – take the beerhall scene in Inglourious Basterds, for example. Here he takes it to the extreme, with over an hour of chit-chat between the characters before the first shot is fired.

The Hateful Eight is one of Tarantino’s most grown up scripts, and the writing is so good that there’s little time to get bored. Sometimes Tarantino has a tendency to over-write, because he’s in love with his own voice and thinks his characters are so amazingly cool. This can get a little smug, so thankfully he’s in a more sombre mood here.

Performance-wise, Jackson makes the most of his first Tarantino lead since Jackie Brown, making Major Warren a fierce, intelligent presence capable of both nobility and excruciating cruelty. Russell makes a big noise but doesn’t give us much to work with, and the film really belongs to Jennifer Jason Leigh as Domergue. Crude, cunning and impervious to the beatings she receives from the film’s male characters, she grows in stature as the mystery unfolds.

Some people have claimed that The Hateful Eight is misogynist because of how Domergue is treated. I disagree. Throughout his career, Tarantino has written some very strong roles for women, from the iconic Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction to the courageous Shosanna in Inglourious Basterds.

Daisy Domergue is another juicy role, and Leigh dominates the movie, even when standing quietly just off the shoulder of Russell as he huffs and puffs. When the bullets start flying, it becomes clear that the fate of every man in Minnie’s Haberdashery depends on her.

While it may not be misogynist, The Hateful Eight is still a pretty nasty film by even Tarantino’s standards, and is unlikely to win the director any new disciples. People who don’t like his films may well see this as his worst effort to date, the point where his self-indulgence tips over into full blown hubris. Hardcore QT fans will be dancing in the aisles.

***

The Hateful Eight opens on Thursday, January 7 in Kino Scala, Kino Art and in major cinemas across the country.

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