Review: The Hateful Eight

The Hateful Eight is Quentin Tarantino’s eight feature film, and unmistakably so. The poster proudly exclaims it as “the 8th film from Quentin Tarantino” (sic) and it has gotten more media attention over the past few weeks/months than most movies do from pre-production to DVD launch – it may however have been overshadowed a little by Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but still. That’s not only because this is a new movie from Tarantino – director of Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained and more – or that he has teamed up with master composer Ennio Morricone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West), but also because he seems set to front a renaissance for analogue film; or more precisely, put 70mm film in the mainstream consciousness with a massive roadshow in North-America.

The Hateful Eight1

Set in a snow-ravaged post-Civil War America, where a bounty hunter called John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) is en route to Red Rock with his latest bounty; the lively and audacious Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). On their way, they run into a company of people; the Tarantino-patented Samuel L. Jackson-badass, Major Marquis Warren. There’s also a man who may or may not be the new sheriff of Red Rock, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins); a theatrical Brit, who happens to be a hangman, Oswaldo Morbray (Tim Roth); a proficient Mexican called… Bob (Demián Bichir); a disgruntled and retired Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern); and a mysterious Cowboy-archetype with a remarkable hairdo named Joe Gage (Michael Madsen). Forced to take up residence at a local haberdashery until a storm passes, the group is in for “a cozy next few days”.

It becomes a murder mystery;  a game of Cluedo where each suspect is a Tarantino-character through and through, with all the gruesomeness in actions, intentions and words that entails. Whereas your typical game of Cluedo will end with a player screaming something a long the lines of Mrs. Scarlett used a Dagger to Murder Professor Plum in the Kitchen, The Hateful Eight will not be that peaceful or bloodless. It will however feature bullets, knives, coffee, fists, lies, deceit, blood-vomit, disturbing anecdotes, hateful words and much more.

A murder mystery of this sort feels unorthodox for Tarantino, and so does the location; it is almost entirely set in the aforementioned haberdashery. It becomes a tense chamber play, and feels at once reminiscent of the basement scene in Inglourious Basterds – an auteur alluding to his own, (in my opinion) greatest, work – and it works wonderfully well. The dialogue is as sharp as ever, and delivered with exceptional authenticity-and-or-charm by all parties. It pushes the story forward at a slow, but fiercely precise pace, albeit the third and final hour does feel somewhat rushed compared to the first two.

The final hour explodes into blood and guts and violence, which is of course to be expected from Tarantino, but unlike Inglourious Basterds‘ climactic cinema-slaughter, or Reservoir Dogs’ eruption of identities and alliances, The Hateful Eight’s bloodbath feels more like the result of the runtimes’ end, and audiences expectation – no, demand – for blood, than a natural and justified conclusion to the story. Not to say all the violence in the movie is unjust; a midway confrontation between two parties feel authentic and real, and carries a lot of the same tension seen in Sergio Leone’s best westerns. The same can be said about the final few minutes, which has been soaked in controversy for different reasons. But it wouldn’t be a Tarantino movie without controversy.

From accusations of misogyny and racism, The Hateful Eight is already in the midst of countless heated debates. While all these debates and discussions are completely and absolutely necessary, I do think it is painfully reductive to discount it on all accounts. I’m personally torn on the subject; at the one side I don’t think the male characters in the movie both physically and verbally assault Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Daisy on account of her gender, but rather her actions and character. On the other side, I do find it a bit excessive at times; especially the frequency in which the n-word is tossed around – and the “realism” card doesn’t really fly with me, for the sole reason that Tarantino doesn’t advocate for realism in much else. It’s a difficult matter to talk about with any great meaning or insightfulness in a review, but I do encourage people to search out these discussions, whether you agree with the accusations or not.

Tarantino’s commentary on a post-Civil War America is obvious and poignant. But it is more interesting to look at the movie as a commentary on a lot of contemporary political issues, especially when you take Tarantino’s own personal political stances into account; it is as much a commentary on extrajudicial killings as it is a murder mystery, and there are some painfully clear parallels from that to modern America’s police brutality. It doesn’t shy away from judgement of the Confederate side, which again feels relevant today with all that happened in relation to this in North-Carolina last year. There is, as always, too much politics and controversy in Tarantino’s movies to talk at length or with any great meaning in a single review, but there is a lot to be uncovered.

As I mentioned earlier, The Hateful Eight is Tarantino’s attempt to bring 70mm film into the mainstream, and I think it’s safe to say he succeeded. The North-American roadshow has been a huge success if social media and film bloggers are to be believed, and to further underline its success, let me say it has sold out 37 screenings at the Cinematheque in Oslo, Norway, which I’m pretty sure is a new record¹.

I was sadly not able to see it in 70mm – the nearest and only screening is located 7 hours away by train – but I’m still able to confirm that the cinematography by Robert Richardson is beautifully composed. The movie opens with a slow and carefully paced backwards pan, a snowbound totem in the foreground of the vast and desolate snow-covered plains; a single stage-coach approaching way-back. He continues to shoot these exterior shots with the same craft; the mountainsides are grand and ominous, the snow-storm right looming over them from behind with promise of certain death. When it moves inside, and stays there for the most part, Richardson’s lens is still as professional and learned. The many close-ups highlight the actors’ abilities with extraordinary precision, while the wider-shots, at times utilises a soft-focus between certain characters, are there to enhance the narratives underlying theme of trust and straining alliances. It may sound odd that Tarantino chose this movie – this cramped location – for revitalising 70mm, but as the frames are packed with details and warmth, it never feels odd.

There is an element of The Hateful Eight, however, that – to be somewhat hyperbolic – overshadows all the positives, and cancel out all negatives; Ennio Morricone’s masterful score. The opening scene is indeed remarkable for Richardson’s cinematography, but it is Morricone’s addition that makes it an immediate classic; an opening scene that will be talked about in film school in the future, and by cinephiles as much as possible. Morricone, who IS the composer for Italian-Westerns, delivers Tarantino’s best score to date, and I don’t want to talk too much about it, because it needs to be experienced raw and unspoiled. I will say, however, that L’Ultima Diligenza di Red Rock builds and builds until it crescendoes in a bombastic orchestral moment of pure catharsis and ecstasy, that I’ve been listening to non-stop for the past week.

To draw it closer to a conclusion, let me quickly give praise to the people on-screen; Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern and Tim Roth delivers as they always do, and I do think Tarantino is the only director who truly knows how to utilise Michael Madsen. Walton Goggins is as charismatic, energetic and loveable as is his usual under-appreciated self. It is Jennifer Jason Leigh who steals the show, however. Not only does she give arguably the best performance of the lot, but she does it in much more difficult circumstances which I won’t go into in fear of spoilers. Her character may also be the strongest; she gets an ambiguous backstory, her motivations are mysterious and questionable, and she’s an actual badass. Every character is a badass, but not every character feels as memorable as she does. There’s also a guest star that feel entirely out of place, especially with the surprise ruined in the opening credits, but luckily it doesn’t take up much time.

The Hateful Eight, with all cinematic jargon aside, is a fantastically funny and thrilling three hours of acute, fast and intelligent dialogue, blood and guts, and more violence. It may be controversial, but it’s also far from black-and-white in its controversy and provocation. Editor, Fred Raskin finally convinces me that he does indeed deserve to carry on the torch passed to him when Sally Menke so tragically passed away in 2010, and Morricone’s music may place it as one of my recent favorites alone. Now, excuse me, while I go back to listening while re-watching all seven seasons of Justified, because I need more Walton Goggins in my daily life.

¹There’s been no official statement about it, but as far as I can recall – or uncover through Google – it is a record.

Per Morten Mjolkeraaen

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