By: Anthony Miglieri
Quentin Tarantino’s newest film is a nearly three-hour extravaganza rife with homage, violence, and cunning dialogue. Anyone familiar with the filmography of Tarantino, beginning in 1992 with Reservoir Dogs, would likely recognize that this brief synopsis applies to several of his nine films. While The Hateful Eight may not offer as much originality as Tarantino’s best work, it is still a very good film from a still-potent filmmaker.
After a long sequence in the back of a carriage introduces us to four of the titular Eight, including bounty hunters John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) and Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), as well as Ruth’s current bounty, outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the film settles into Minnie’s Haberdashery, a small wooden cabin wherein the characters take shelter from the ever-raging blizzard outside. From here, The Hateful Eight rarely changes location, and the cramped quarters of the establishment seem to constrict the eight suspicious characters until paranoia leads to the inevitable bloodshed for which Tarantino is known.
Most of the freshness that is present in The Hateful Eight lies in its initial plot structure. While many of Tarantino’s previous films have featured protracted scenes taking place in one location and focusing on a single, extended conversation, almost the entirety of The Hateful Eight relies on this concept. This conceit, which could have easily grown stale in lesser hands, is fantastically effective in conjuring an alternately chilly and fearsome atmosphere. With the aid of its retro, ultra-wide 70mm cinematography, the movie creates a unique landscape of sight and sound, what with the continuous movement of various characters in the background and the fireplace calmly crackling against the audibly furious winds just outside the haberdashery’s walls.
As is expected with Tarantino, the dialogue, which segues from seeming small talk to murderous threats and back again, is exemplary, astonishing in both its vulgarity and its thoughtfulness. Per usual, the writer-director coaxes a multitude of dark comedy in his lines. Another of Tarantino’s trademark tropes, extreme violence, is also present in all its blood-spouting, limb-hacking glory. Befitting The Hateful Eight’s small cast, the body count isn’t as vast as in Kill Bill or Django Unchained, but each lethal act is significant and brutal.
Tarantino’s inimitable knack for creating bold, memorable characters is also on full display here. The personalities at the center of The Hateful Eight are almost all great, nuanced and despicable in one way or another. The cast all wonderfully bring the director’s characters into the film’s world. In addition to the myriad Tarantino favorites, including a cool, venomous Kurt Russell, a typically fantastic Samuel L. Jackson, and a delightfully snakelike Tim Roth, there is a slew of equally vibrant newcomers in Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, and Demián Bichir. Elsewhere, Bruce Dern is very good as a crusty former Confederate general, but he ends up having little to do in the progression of the plot. Michael Madsen and Channing Tatum are relative weak links in the cast, Madsen mostly because of the limited purpose his character serves, and Tatum because his leaden, quasi-pretty boy persona simply does not mesh with the volatile atmosphere that Tarantino routinely establishes in his films.
Although The Hateful Eight brings intensity and professionalism in spades, it is the first film in which Tarantino doubles back on himself a bit too noticeably. Admittedly, the single-location conceit of The Hateful Eight has an obvious predecessor in Reservoir Dogs, but the new film effectively distances itself from that 1992 debut with its clever subversion of plot expectations and its luscious atmosphere. However, several other instances of borrowing from previous Tarantino films cause The Hateful Eight to lose some of its bite. For instance, one particularly sharp detour in the non-linear storyline, some of the overlong running gags, and part of the story’s final outcome feel as if they should have been overcome or better honed by Tarantino.
Despite the high expectations that unfailingly accompany the release of a new Tarantino movie, The Hateful Eight delivers on nearly all fronts. Unfortunately, that it is so satisfying is part of its minor downfall, as Tarantino is caught dipping back into his stellar catalogue to redress elements he’s dealt with before. It must also be acknowledged, though, that one of the few things to criticize about his new movie only exists because Tarantino is so consistently great, delivering one vibrant work after another. The Hateful Eight is still a great film, an experience to behold from one of today’s most rightfully beloved masters.