The Hateful Eight, dir. Quentin Tarantino, HOME, January 17 2016
Few films receive the levels of interest and attention that a new Quentin Tarantino release does. Over the last couple of months you’ll have seen the images everywhere. Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell standing in the snow with their guns firmly grasped in their fingers. The close-up of Jennifer Jason Leigh and her black eye. The horses dragging a cart through the white landscape, a red trail snaking through the snow behind them. And wherever you saw those images – whether on the side of a bus or blazoned on the nearest billboard – they’ll have been accompanied by the pull quotes from our best and worst newspapers and magazines. Even at HOME, Manchester’s newest and best cinema, you could see these quotations on the movie poster in the entrance to the building: ‘Only Tarantino can do this’ says the Telegraph; ‘Agatha Christie with gags, guns and Samuel L Jackson,’ says The Guardian; ‘Tarantino’s masterpiece’ exclaims the Daily Mail. But are we really meant to believe that? Does Tarantino’s latest really beat Kill Bill? Does it rate higher that Reservoir Dogs? Does The Hateful Eight really pack more of a punch than Pulp Fiction?
On the evidence of the first hour, the answer would be no. Although all of his films feature multi-layered scenes of complex and drawn out dialogue, when asked for a favourite feature of his work most people would pick out the fast-paced action and intense violence. In his latest, despite the dead bodies being transported by Jackson’s bounty hunter character, the action is notably absent. Instead, we are treated to a long-winded and somewhat meandering discussion between the film’s four key characters. This section definitely has its moments, there’s no doubt about that: it’s funny at times and there are quips and one-liners that match up to any of those in the Tarantino armoury. Most importantly however, it’s a great vehicle for the acting abilities of Jackson, Russell, Jason-Leigh, and newcomer Walton Goggins. This overly long opening maintains the interest with its rhythm and dialogue, but it doesn’t get the blood boiling in the way that the openers of Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction do.
Hints as to why the above papers waxed lyrical about the film begin to appear when the horse and cart carrying these characters arrives at Minnie’s Haberdashery. With the main bulk of the cast now together in a room, the racial and political tensions start to simmer, and the already palpable gender divide (more on that later) becomes all the more prominent. Still, though, as The Hangman (Kurt Russell) insists on getting to know every person in the room on an intimate basis, there is still half an hour or so of introductions to get through.
If this film had been directed by almost anyone else, it might have become boring by now. If a film takes an hour and a half to set the scene it’s probably going to be a flop. But this is Tarantino. Even when there is such a long lull in the excitement there’s something so captivating about his characters that we still can’t tear our eyes from the screen. And, luckily, this so-so hour and a half has been leading to an hour that really does rival the brilliance of the films mentioned above. Driven by Jackson, as so many of Tarantino’s best moments are, this film explodes into life during a brutal and brilliant monologue which culminates in the first of many murders. Following this we see so many of the Tarantino staples, and we see them done expertly: creative killings; film-altering flashbacks; changing perspectives, and surprising twists and turns that never seem too contrived. And, of course, a hell of a lot of gore. For a while, it feels like he might just have surpassed much of what came in his previous seven films.
And then there’s the ending. As well as the hype and excitement, there’s something else that comes with every Tarantino film. Controversy. With Django Unchained we had concerns over the treatment of race. With Pulp Fiction it was drugs. And if we go back to the release of Kill Bill, you might remember the debates over the excessive use of violence. With The Hateful Eight the debate has so far been quieter than usual. But, when it has poked its head out of the sand, misogyny has been the issue on many people’s minds. As a huge Tarantino fan I have often found the claims against him to be nothing more than nonsense. This time, though, I find them harder to brush off. I don’t for a second think that the man who created Kill Bill and Jackie Brown is a misogynist, but I do feel that the violence towards the only main female character in this film did go a little too far. She is hit repeatedly in the early sections of the film. It’s uncomfortable to watch. Can we justify it simply by suggesting that Tarantino was trying to show just how ‘hateful’ his characters are? Without giving any spoilers, there’s a scene at the conclusion which leaves a particularly nasty taste in the mouth. It does a lot of the things that Tarantino is often accused of and against which I have defended him in the past. It’s gratuitous for gratuity’s sake; it’s brutal with no real reason, and it’s a scene that is pretty hard to swallow.
So, how to sum up what can only be described as a mixed review? This is a film worth watching for the moments when it hits its heights; it’ll make you laugh, cringe, cover your eyes with your fingers, and marvel at the majestic cinematography and top-notch acting. But it’s also a film that requires a great deal of patience. And depending on your sensibilities it could also leave you feeling a little bit squeamish as you walk out the door. Tarantino’s masterpiece it isn’t, but there are sections that demonstrate just what a master he can be when he’s at the top of his game.