There are times during ‘The Hateful Eight’, Quentin Tarantino’s new western, when I wondered if the trademark excessive cartoon violence was really necessary. Isn’t it the most base form of entertainment? Doesn’t it undermine Tarantino's claim on the title of directing great? Perhaps he is overrated after all, I thought. Then I imagined a world without Tarantino and shuddered.
Because when most movies overwhelmingly adopt safe play-by-numbers plotlines (see the latest Star Wars), with Tarantino, events suddenly become wonderfully unpredictable. He has done the impossible – making big box office hits with his own unique rulebook. And if Tarantino had never existed, it’s hard to believe someone else would have filled the gap.
In ‘The Hateful Eight’ Kurt Russell plays bounty hunter John Ruth (aka “the Hangman”) who is taking criminal Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to be tried and hanged. On the road he encounters Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson) with a pile of bodies and would-be sheriff Chris Mannix played by Walton Goggins. As they take shelter from a blizzard at Minnie's Haberdashery, a stagecoach lodge, they encounter another mysterious bunch of characters (Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Demian Bichir, and Bruce Dern) where a strained peace is soon, inevitably and spectacularly, broken.
Tarantino said he was inspired by 1960s western series like ‘The Virginian’ in which tense hostage situations gradually reveal more about the backgrounds of the characters. And when you understand this, it’s easier to settle into it and enjoy working out who is not what they seem, as the tension and stakes are gradually increased.
Many of Tarantino’s favourite plotting techniques are here: the extended monologues, dividing the film into chapters, and revisiting the same events from different points of view. Other devices that few directors would dare attempt are the uncomfortably long camera close-ups and the focus on the small mundane details – such as the trials of having to nail the door shut each time a character enters. He even decides to introduce the second half of the film with a short piece of narration.
The cast throw themselves into it with gusto, especially the hellraising Jackson. Interestingly, Channing Tatum (Jody Domergue) has just enough screentime to exude a brooding presence and then get his head blown off – which you suspect was Tarantino’s mischievous intention for casting him in the first place.
Jennifer Jason Leigh’s mixture of visceral menace and comical flirtatiousness has been tipped for an Oscar. Whether or not she deserves one, she is truly magnetic and Tarantino knows it, giving her plenty of headroom – frequently allowing the camera to linger on her when most directors would cut to the next shot.
A special mention should go to Walton Goggins (Django Unchained, Justified). The 44-year-old is one of those actors whom you recognise but are not sure what from. He revelled in his opportunity to take a lead role as the redneck militia-man Mannix with skilful and convincing bravado. I look forward to seeing him in more.
Yes ‘The Hateful Eight’ is full of absurd violence but maybe I did Tarantino a disservice. This film is all about race and the aftermath of the civil war: its horrors, massacres, heroism, hatred, prejudice, honour and courage. Perhaps the only way art can approach such extremities is through being extreme itself. What is clear is that we are witnessing a director who is so confident in his ability to entertain that he will employ the most unsubtle techniques: and it’s a privilege to watch.