The Hateful Eight review - frustrating but fitfully brilliant
In Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino continues his fond assault on the cherished tropes of the western. He began it in 2012, with his glorious spaghetti opera Django Unchained, but you could argue that he's been making westerns from the very start. If you'd replaced the sharp suits and thin ties of the hoodlums in Reservoir Dogs with chaps and Stetsons, it wouldn't have made too much difference, and Hateful Eight has a good deal in common with Tarantino's spectacular debut.
Because although it begins on a stagecoach that's careering across a wintry plain, most of Hateful Eight takes place in a shabby coach lodge filled with armed and dangerous adversaries who talk now, kill later. They talk a lot, and the echoes of Mr. Tarantino's previous works are enhanced by the presence of regular collaborators like Tim Roth and Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs), Kurt Russell (Death Proof) and of course Samuel L. Jackson. He's appeared in all but two of Tarantino's films, and is the best interpreter of the film-maker's baroque and stylised vernacular. His menacing performance is the only thing that holds this tricky and elaborate film together.
Tarantino has always enjoyed pushing his audience's attention span through long, talky scenes, and begins here as he means to go on. A stagecoach is thudding glumly through a desolate, snowy landscape when a dark stranger steps into its path. He identifies himself as Major Marquis Warren, a Civil War veteran and bounty hunter whose horse has died. He's looking for a ride but the driver tells him he'll have to talk to the passenger who's hired him.
In the cabin sits John Ruth (Kurt Russell), another bounty killer who's transporting a bloodied and cackling woman called Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the town of Red Rock, Colorado to stand trial for murder. He's not keen on sharing his coach but reluctantly agrees, and soon they're joined by one Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a former red-neck militiaman who claims he's Red Rock's new sheriff.
Tensions regarding the recent war soon surface between Mannix and Warren, and things get worse when a blizzard forces them to take shelter at an isolated stagecoach lodge called Minnie's Haberdashery. Warren knows it, and is puzzled to find that the owner is nowhere in sight and has apparently left the place in the care of a shifty-looking Hispanic gentleman called Mexican Bob (Demian Bichir).
Also on hand are a terse cowboy called Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), an unctuous Englishman, Mobray (Tim Roth) and a crusty Confederate general (Bruce Dern). Everyone's armed, and it's a recipe for disaster, especially as the blizzard threatens to strand them for days. And meanwhile they talk, joking, telling stories and waiting for the right moment to strike.
Tarantino has said his film was inspired by TV shows like Bonanza and The Virginian, but for long periods Hateful Eight feels more as if Harold Pinter or Luigi Pirandello had decided to have a pop at writing a western. The screenplay has the rigid formality of a stage play, and as usual with Tarantino's writing, seems out to take on both high and low themes. At one point Mobray draws an imaginary Mason-Dixon line down the draughty room, and we seem to be heading for a learned treatise on the Civil War.
That never happens, however, because all the time the tension is mounting, whipped up by Ennio Morricone's frantic score, and an explosion of violence seems only a matter of time.
Hateful Eight ends in the usual tiresome Tarantino bloodbath, but not before the film has trawled the underbelly of American history, pinpointing the country's obsession with violence and race and using the word 'nigger' 100 times at the very least. It's good and bad, trashy and brilliant, flimsy and substantial all at the same time. And as for Tarantino? He's maddening, frustrating, totally unique.
The Hateful Eight (18, 168mins)
Read Chris Wasser's 2* review: The Hateful Eight review: Tarantino loses the plot with this unimaginative bore-fest