If Sergio Leone and Agatha Christie collaborated on a feature film, each adamant not to surrender their authorial style to the other, you can imagine the result would look something like Quentin Tarantino’s characteristically homage-rimmed and violence-splattered mystery-western The Hateful Eight. The film nerd auteur’s eighth feature has a structure more befitting of a play than any of his previous work; special 70mm screenings at select cinemas will even come with a program and a 12-minute intermission (the total running time is north of three hours).
In a largely single setting story — though that “largely” accommodates a protracted carriage ride to the central location — conflict orbits the imprisonment of a dangerous criminal and the actions of a bounty hunter who has her chained to his arm. The former is Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and the latter John Ruth (Kurt Russell), a gruff and canny fellow determined not just to collect the $10k on her head but to watch her swing from the gallows. Thus his nickname “The Hangman.”
Like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, in lieu of a protagonist there are a handful of tetchy principal characters including dominant monologue-wielding ones such as wily silver tongue Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson). Others include a former Union cavalry officer who claims to be the incoming sheriff of the town they are heading to (Walton Goggins), a smooth talking British hangman (Tim Roth), a retired General (Bruce Dern) and a quiet mysterious introvert (Michael Madsen).
Based a handful of years after the Civil War and set in wintry Wyoming, the titular eight are shacked up for most of the running time inside Minnie’s Haberdashery — a roadside stop-off in the middle of nowhere –where they must spend a few days waiting out a ferocious blizzard. Ruth is convinced one of them, or possibly more than one, are in cohorts with Domergue: biding their time for an opportunity to strike so they can free her.
While Tarantino is an expert at subverting expectations — we have been conditioned, as they have, to expect the unexpected – this much is accepted as genuine information. The Hateful Eight’s premise broadly resembles Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None: strangers confined to one place, motivations and backstories concealed, trapped while the body count rises. There is a Poirot or Marple-esque character who unleashes a ferocious spray of logic-deduction: Sherlock Holmes with a bullet, or crossed with Jules Winnfield.
Over the years Tarantino characters have talked themselves out of plenty of confrontations, about as often as they have talked themselves into them. The Hateful Eight’s wordplay orbits its everything-is-not-as-it-seems core, rendering dialogue-spoken character information unreliable. If one of the men says they are the sheriff, for example, do we believe them? And what motivation might they have to not tell the truth?
Characters often accuse each other of talking bullshit, and not of the “Royale with cheese” kind: when they lie they lie for a reason. This gives the Tarantino-brand verbosity extra bite in the context of words as weapons; in The Hateful Eight the smartest and most aggressive moves are violent in intellectual rather than physical ways (though that doesn’t stop QT from administering gory kisses of death).
This is terrifically encapsulated in a scene where one character clearly desires to kill another, but knows he will be arrested and hanged if the act is unprovoked. The challenge he sets himself is to use words to entice the man to attempt to shoot him so he can retaliate in self-defence; cue one of the most memorably perverse monologues in some time — possibly since Leonardo DiCaprio went on his racist dinner table phrenology rant in Django Unchained.
The actor who delivers it, Samuel L. Jackson, is one of two who fit the blood-stained Cinderella shoe of Tarantino dialogue with stars-have-aligned chutzpah, giving his words explosive energy (the other is Christoph Waltz). The writer/director’s penchant for unconventional structure and apparent delight in making choices the audience might not concur with makes, as always, a refreshingly unpredictable trajectory.
It also means characters we are fondest of, or even timelines we appreciate most, can disappear at the roll of the dice. The Hateful Eight is not designed with the chaffing brick-by-brick architecture of Pulp Fiction; the thrill is not how the pieces come together but the makeup of the pieces themselves.
Perhaps you could say it is hit and miss, though that sounds like a film pogoing between being good and bad — more like big hits or pleasures versus the small ones. There are plenty of both and the dialogue is scrumptiously good, if a little undercut by comic book style grotesquery. But that is par for the course in a Tarantino joint, the pairing of expertly crafted parley with exploitation style bloodshed a perversely appealing one.