Since 2009, his films have taken on both a very different and very familiar style of filmmaking, with him venturing into the territory of spaghetti Western meets historical revisionism popularized by Inglourious Basterds. This has produced a particularly dividing effect for mainstream audiences as to whether he’s improved as a filmmaker, or if his indulgence has actually made him worse.
The same dividing effect can be applied to his most recent release, The Hateful Eight, a movie which has become something of a theater going event due to its unique 70mm roadshow release, which is the version I’ll be reviewing today. Blending all of Tarantino’s most famous tricks and stylistics into one beautifully twisted package, it continues to see Tarantino evolve as a craftsman, but perhaps take a small misstep as a storyteller. But I do mean only a *small* misstep, as the film still remains as engrossing as we’ve come to expect of the man.
Taking place in a post-Civil War Colorado mountain-range, The Hateful Eight centers on a group of eight strangers forced to hole up in a small cabin until a strong blizzard passes over. These include bounty hunter John Ruth “The Hangman” (Kurt Russell), who is transporting violent gang member Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock to hang, joined along the way by former Army Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson). The other members include a sheriff (Walton Goggins), Domergue’s potential executioner (Tim Roth), and several others who are similarly waiting for the blizzard to end. However, as time goes on, suspicions arise that one of these men may be in league with the prisoner Domergue, with continuous accusations being tossed, and tensions eventually boiling to their breaking point. Who will survive to the end of this deadly gathering?
If there’s one thing that Tarantino has improved at since his earlier films, it’s his general attention to technical detail. The Hateful Eight has heavily advertized its usage of Ultrapanavision cinemascope, utilizing a 2.76:1 aspect ratio used scarcely in Hollywood’s Golden Age, most notably in Ben-Hur. It’s with this format of filming that Tarantino regular Robert Richardson is able to evoke some very striking imagery. While most of the film takes place within one limited location, Richardson is clever in how he’s able to use the photography to enhance the cluastrophohic isolation of the setting, showcasing sublime trickery and emphasis on character expressions to hit home the escalating tension. That’s not to say he doesn’t get to stretch his legs, with Tarantino allowing him to photograph genuinely haunting and striking vistas that bring out the most of the bleak snowy environment.
Another notable change of pace for Tarantino is his use of an original score this time around. After a collaboration that was never to be in Basterds, and a quick original song in Django, Ennio Morricone makes his grand return to the Western soundscape that made him a household name. While Tarantino does feature tendencies of source songs and orchestral pieces (including unused compositions from Morricone’s The Thing), the body of the music is dominated by Morricone’s grim, intentionally scratchy original themes, playing like an icy, purgatorial trip into the twisted and unruly insanity of each character, while still possessing odd beauty in the meantime. It’s the kind of score that seems destined to win an Oscar, which I’d be happy to see Morricone do.
Technically speaking, this is one of Tarantino’s finest works, and in its three hour roadshow presentation, it’s a spectacle and experience that demands to be seen. It also happens to help that the conceptual content to go with it is some of the most entertaining I’ve seen all year… but very darkly entertaining, at that.
“Starting to see pictures, ain’t ya” taunts Samuel L. Jackson as he gleefully, maliciously recounts a twisted bit of history hitting home for Bruce Dern’s elderly Confederate general. This moment is only a small part of a much longer sequence where the film hits its peak of suspense and depravity, but also double-acts as Tarantino directly referring to the audience, with the intimacy between each character leading to some of the most nihilistic characterization in Tarantino’s portfolio. “Hateful” is the most appropriate word to use when describing this group, feeling like the unholy love children of the Coen Brothers and Cormac McCarthy as they consistently throw vicious digs at others, relishing in the emotional and physical hurt they inflict on them, and at once it feels both difficult to watch, yet too hypnotic to turn away. This is where Tarantino’s signature conversations are at their most engaging, as always using it to slowly build boiling tension until exploding in violent fashion, and when I say violent, I mean it, with the players growing increasingly remorseless and distrusting with every passing minute, and even the comedy being some of Tarantino’s most twisted yet. It becomes fascinating how deeply Tarantino looks into the lowest and most evil sides of humanity, and while it does stumble a bit during the “fifth chapter”, it’s incredible how enthralling it remains right through to its maniacal finale.
But as great as the characters are, the main reason they work so well is because of the flawlessly selected ensemble players that work so well off of each other that not a single one feels like they upstage the other. For MVP status, that honor goes to Tarantino staple Samuel L. Jackson in what is easily his best performance since Pulp Fiction 21 years earlier, playing well to all of his strengths as an actor, and revealing new, terrifying layers that we’ve never seen from him before, at first appearing more honest than the other players in the film, but growing just as cold and unforgiving as any of them with every scene. But like I said, one is not more important than the other, with the rest of the cast being filled out by the superb likes of the gruff Kurt Russell, the hysterical Walton Goggins, and a slew of talent like Tim Roth and Michael Madsen that have collaborated with Tarantino several times before. One who hasn’t, however, is Jennifer Jason Leigh, slipping into the unpredictable and psychopathic skin of Domergue with sinister ease, and despite being something of a punching bag to other characters, every time a hit is landed on her, it’s only an intense matter of time before that comes back to bite them in the end.
While not quite to the same high standards of Pulp Fiction or Inglourious Basterds, I loved The Hateful Eight from start to finish. It’s technical merits and delightful presentational gimmicks aside, it’s impeccable craft is more than matched by its content, seeing Tarantino’s writing at its most analytically dark, and continually evolving as a filmmaker. At three hours long, it certainly may not seem like an easy sit, but it’s a credit to how good a director is when those three hours feel like half that time.
****1/2 / *****