"One of them fellas is not what he says he is," bounty hunter John "The Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell in heavy whiskers) drawls midway through Quentin Tarantino's latest feature. It's a line that sums up the slippery nature of this most contradictory of films and could equally well be applied to the director.
In keeping with most Tarantino movies, The Hateful Eight combines crudity and sophistication, prolix writing with blood-spattered action scenes, acute psychological insights with cartoonish characterisation. As ever, Tarantino wrong-foots us. We expect Peckinpah, but we get Agatha Christie. The film is touted as a widescreen epic in "glorious 70mm", but turns out to be a chamber piece, set almost entirely in a single location. What makes it such a pleasure to watch, in spite of its strange loops and digressions, is the childlike glee with which, as always, Tarantino has tackled his material.
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The setting is Wyoming in the dead of winter, a few years after the end of the American Civil War. Tarantino is determined to make us very aware that it is utterly freezing. The wind whistles. The widescreen cinematography shows off the snowy landscapes to great effect. John Ruth is en route to Red Rock to deliver his captive, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the authorities. It's a point of principle for him that he keeps his prisoners alive so that the authorities can hang them. "I want to hear her neck snap with my own two ears," he says.
Hitching a ride in the stagecoach is fellow bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson), first seen sitting in the snow, smoking a pipe with three dead men as company. Also soon aboard is the rodent-like Chris Mannix (played by Walton Goggins from The Shield) who claims to be the new sheriff of Red Rock. The weather worsens, there is an almighty blizzard and everybody ends up in Minnie's Haberdashery, sheltering from the storm.
This is the first western scored by legendary composer Ennio Morricone since the early 1980s. His brooding, atmospheric music evokes memories of Sergio Leone films, but The Hateful Eight turns out to be nothing like Once Upon a Time In the West or The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. In Leone's movies, the protagonists – notably Clint Eastwood's man with no name – are taciturn in the extreme. Here, they can't stop talking. It's a case of rabbit, rabbit, rabbit as Samuel L Jackson and Kurt Russell chatter away like old fish wives.
Jackson's Major Marquis, a former US cavalryman, is inordinately proud of a letter written to him by President Lincoln. Russell's John Ruth is keen to hear about the letter and discuss the ups and downs of the bounty-hunting business. Daisy is handcuffed to him and every so often he'll give her a slap or a punch to keep her in order.
Once everyone is ensconced in the haberdashery, the film begins to resemble Tarantino's own twisted and macabre version of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. No one is quite what they seem. We know that someone is going to try to rescue Daisy. As the winds whistle and howl outside, the cavernous interior of this rickety building (whose door needs to be nailed shut) becomes the battleground.
Taken on one level, The Hateful Eight could seem very offensive indeed. Daisy is the bounty hunters' own pet punch bag. She is continually being slapped and hit. Jennifer Jason Leigh has a look of a battered Popeye about her as she soaks up the punishment. The attitude of the other characters toward Major Marquis is often racist in the extreme. Tarantino being Tarantino, the screenplay comes layered in irony and self-reflexive humour.
Words are the weapons, at least at first. Somehow, as the mystery thickens, the film manages to deal in surprisingly trenchant fashion with racial politics in post-Civil War America. "The only time black folks are safe is when white folks are disarmed" is one of the Major's lines that has an obvious topical resonance.
Major Warren takes an extreme dislike to Confederate General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), who sits morosely in an armchair. Tim Roth, looking as if he is on leave from a Lucky Luke comic book, is the dapper, well-spoken Englishman. Michael Madsen is in familiar psychopathic groove as Joe "The Cow Puncher" Gage. Demián Bichir is the volatile Mexican, Bob.
In his familiar style, Tarantino uses stock characters and situations from old westerns but pushes them to new extremes. He elicits humour from the most unlikely situations. For example, John Ruth and Daisy are handcuffed together for much of the film. Although they detest one another, they can't help behaving like an old married couple.
We all know that the chatter is just a prelude to some bloodletting. When the poison is finally served and the violence begins in earnest, the transition is seamless. There is no sense, however, that the characters have talked themselves out: even amid the carnage, people in extreme agony are still able to spit out Tarantino's expletive-laden lines with as much conviction as they shoot their guns.
One of the drawbacks of the director's joshing, tongue-in-cheek approach is that there isn't much room for exploring character. The performances here are flamboyant and enjoyable but, in their broader moments, come close to pantomime-style mugging. Only Jackson brings a depth and pathos to his role.
At about three hours, The Hateful Eight may seem absurdly long, given its relative lack of incident and its contorted plotting; but when the storytelling is as fiery and vivid as it is here, the film doesn't outstay its welcome in the slightest.