Sunday, 6 December 2020

The Hateful Eight by Quentin Tarantino

The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino's eighth film, appeared in 2015. It's a raw, violent, wintry western where a blizzard is effectively one of the major characters. (Tarantino compares it to the monster in a monster movie, which isolates and menaces the protagonists.)

The film begins with a striking credit sequence, yellow text laid in dramatic contrast against the winter blue landscapes.

And what landscapes they are. The Hateful Eight was shot using the revival of a special Panavision widescreen format that hadn't been used for 50 years (the last time was a lukewarm Charlton Heston historical adventure called Khartoum).

There's a documentary on the Blu-ray I watched which charts the heroic efforts by the good folks at Panavision and by The Hateful Eight's cinematographer, Tarantino regular Robert Richardson, to bring back this 70mm technology. They succeeded in a spectacular fashion.

Ironically, releasing the movie in this deluxe format in the UK lend to a petulant spat between two cinema chains over who would have the exclusive rights to show it. (Apparently sharing was out of the question.)

The upshot was that the movie chain I subscribe to, Cineworld, sulkily refused to show this film at all. Thanks a bunch, guys.

Anyway, that's why I am only catching up with this film now, and on Blu-ray instead of the big screen.

The Hateful Eight begins with a bounty hunter tallying up the value of the corpses of the bad guys he's killed. 

This gave me déjà vu for a moment until I realised where my memory was coming from — Sergio Leone's For a Few Dollar More, which I'd recently watched.

The bounty hunter there was Clint Eastwood. Here it is the always welcome Samuel L. Jackson as Major Marquis Warren (a nod by Tarantino to Charles Marquis Warren, a prolific writer and director of B-movie and TV westerns).

From the spaghetti western beginning, The Hateful Eight transforms swiftly into a classic Hollywood western set up — can a prisoner be safely transported to prison before they're rescued by their gang? This is the plot of 3:10 to Yuma, based on an Elmore Leonard short story.

The prisoner in this case is Daisy Domergue, played with spirit and humour by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Her captor is another bounty hunter, John Ruth, portrayed by Kurt Russell looking like Yosemite Sam in his winter plumage.

John Ruth is another bounty hunter, though unlike the Major, his shtick is bringing in his prisoners alive, so that they hang. Hence his nickname, the Hangman.

The Major joins the Hangman — who is super paranoid about Daisy being freed — on the stagecoach so he can escape the blizzard.

Soon they are joined by another refugee from the storm, Walton Goggins as Chris Mannix. His arrival only heightens the Hangman's paranoia.

A paranoia which, by the end of the film will prove richly justified.

The motley crew on the stage coach take shelter  from the burgeoning blizzard at an isolated way station, the bizarrely named Minnie's Haberdashery.

Here they find a healthy — or, rather, unhealthy — assortment of very suspicious characters any one, or more, of whom might be in league with Daisy and looking to slit the Hunter's throat.

With our characters isolated by the storm and not knowing who to trust we are now in Agatha Christie territory — specifically And Then There Were None or The Mousetrap.

Indeed, with everyone locked in this rambling shack and the blizzard howling outside we might almost be in for a locked room murder story.
However, when violence erupts it is much more savage than that rather genteel genre ever depicted. Indeed, The Hateful Eight's final stage of evolution is into what is effectively a back-woods horror movie.

The Hateful Eight is very violent indeed. Indeed it's brutality proved a bit of a turn-off for me. I was particularly unsettled by the casual bashing of poor old Daisy Domergue.
Now, Daisy is set up as being a ruthless and pitiless killer in her own right. The problem is that we only know of this through dialogue and by inference.

We never see Daisy do anything wicked, so that makes the violence against her seem entirely unjustified.

But I am an enthusiastic admirer of Quentin Tarantino and I've learned that I can't always judge his movies on my first reaction — that kind of mistake led to me wrongly dismissing the terrific Inglorious Basterds, for instance.

So I'll watch the movie again and in the meantime just close my observations here with some of its praiseworthy aspects.

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Ennio Morricone provides a powerful score — the first time Tarantino has hired a composer instead of using music from his record collection (though there's some of that, too). Morricone's music seems to arise seamlessly out of the action and the ambient noise of the film. 

And it's always gorgeous visually thanks to the brilliance of Robert Richardson (also incidentally Oliver Stone's regular cinematographer). Even when the story is constrained to a stage coach or log cabin, it looks great. And it never feels like the vast 70mm frame is being wasted. 

There also is a typically strong and talented cast, largely consisting of Tarantino regulars. It's fascinating to see Tim Roth (as Oswaldo Mobray) initially channelling Christoph Waltz, although he goes on to add some fine toothy mannerisms of his own.

But the acting honours here really go to Walton Goggins in a superb performance where he subtly transforms his normal voice and physicality to achieve something entirely new. 

This part clearly shows his growth as an actor and one can see him on a trajectory leading to this year's Them That Follow and his career-best performance as a snake-handling hill country pastor.

The Hateful Eight is brutal, shocking and never dull. It's often very funny, and very cruel. The brutality and cruelty are absolutely deliberate, and it's certainly no accident that the first image of the film is a crudely carved and tormented looking Jesus on a wooden cross.

But it is also a skilfully constructed mystery and, full marks to Tarantino, you won't guess the ending.

Or soon forget it.

(Image credits: A terrific selection of posters at Imp Awards.)

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