Wyoming, circa 1875. A group of strangers find themselves stranded in a log cabin during a blizzard. But lousy coffee and awkward small talk are just the start of their problems — there are clues that one or more in their midst may be plotting something heinous. And so begins a long, hard night, in which nobody on the cast-list is safe.
According to Quentin Tarantino, you need to make three Westerns to be considered a Westerns director. His second, The Hateful Eight, might follow chronologically from Django Unchained, being set after the US Civil War, but it’s a very different beast. It starts huge. A brooding Ennio Morricone overture. A Cinerama logo. Stunning snowy landscapes (though if The Hateful Eight had a cold-off with The Revenant, Iñárritu’s film would edge it). But, like Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo or the TV Westerns he grew up on, Tarantino ultimately narrows his focus to the intimate: eight glourious basterds in one cabin for nearly three hours. And that clash of characters is tons of fun.
By the time you come back after the interval to a cheeky Tarantino-narrated recap, The Hateful Eight has its claws in you.
As ever with Tarantino, the storytelling works by stealth. The first half is unhurried, even patience-testing. Bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) journeys to deliver badass Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock for hanging, picking up Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and Sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) like a horse-drawn Uber. Their trip is full of chat about Chattanooga steaks, a letter from Abraham Lincoln and Civil War reminiscences, but there’s little in the way of compelling incident. And even when we reach stagecoach stopover Minnie’s Haberdashery and meet the second half of the ’orrible octet — Bob ‘The Mexican’ (Demian Bichir), hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), cowpoke Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) and Confederate General Smithers (Bruce Dern) — the slow-burning chat continues.
But, like John Carpenter’s The Thing, an atmosphere of unease, dread and distrust builds almost imperceptibly, ending in a barnstorming Samuel L. Jackson speech that finishes act one with a bullet. By the time you come back after the interval to a cheeky Tarantino-narrated recap, it has its claws in you. As the pieces slot quickly into place, the investment you made in these people and their predicaments begins to pay off, big time.
If the first half is driven by Russell on stoic, bearlike form, the second belongs to Jackson. Marquis Warren is the best role he has had in ages, owning the floor as a Civil War Columbo trying to prove that some rat in the wooden house is in “cahoots” with Domergue. Goggins is great comic relief (but also more), Leigh is put through the mill (she is punched, rifle-whacked and scalded with hot stew just in the first half) and Roth has fun as the kind of eloquent European dandy recently monopolised by Christoph Waltz.
Nerds will have a field day checking off Tarantino tropes: chapter headings, Red Apple tobacco, timeline jiggery-pokery and a last act full of glorious Grand Guignol. But there is freshness too. Morricone’s score, Tarantino’s first with a composer, is used sparingly but effectively. Even more than Django, Eight is a politically charged film — especially its first half — as much about race and division in America today as a homage to The High Chaparral. And, along with DP Robert Richardson, Tarantino has a blast orchestrating interior mayhem utilising the widths of Ultra Panavision 70, perhaps the only widescreen format capable of encompassing Kurt Russell’s magnificent ’tache.
On a par with Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight starts low-key but ultimately delivers big, bold, blood-soaked rewards. Roll on, QT Western number three.