This review contains some spoilers for The Hateful Eight.
Quentin Tarantino has secured his place in popular culture by reaching into neglected corners of cinema for genres that are ready for reinvention and rediscovery.
This approach saw the motormouth filmmaker bring postmodern panache to the gangster film with Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), mythologise martial arts movies in Kill Bill (2003), and imagine a Hollywood ending for World War II in Inglourious Basterds (2009).
This fruitful trail now brings us to the remote mountainside lodge of Minnie’s Haberdashery – the setting for Tarantino’s eighth film, appropriately titled The Hateful Eight (2015). Across his films Tarantino has built up a loyal company of actors willing to brave these uncertain cinematic detours.
With The Hateful Eight bustling into theatres, I sat down with two of Tarantino’s favourite stars, Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell, to discuss the filmmaker, the movie’s political parallels, and why the Western may never again be a Hollywood mainstay.
A high-octane cast comes together
In post-Civil War Wyoming, an unlikely group of bounty hunters, bandits, and lawmen take shelter from a merciless blizzard in the isolated stagecoach lodge of Minnie’s Haberdashery. The strangers each harbour dark secrets and deadly intentions.
Among the lodge’s reluctant occupants is Samuel L. Jackson’s Union solider-turned-bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren.
Jackson said the Tarantino set was unusually close and collaborative:
I think it’s unique to this particular film, mainly because we rehearsed it for so long and we spent so much time together… Once we got to [primary location] Telluride [Colorado], Quentin still found unique ways of bringing us all together, cast and crew […] you form a bond that’s very unique and different on his sets.
Kurt Russell plays John “The Hangman” Ruth, a bounty hunter determined to bring prisoner Daisy Domergue to the town of Red Rock. Impenetrable snow forces them to stay at the lodge, with Ruth increasingly suspicious of the other travellers already there.
Russell, a Hollywood veteran who previously worked with Tarantino on Death Proof (2007), said of the on-set atmosphere,
There was a real high level of appreciation of each other’s talent on this, so it was fun to be there and watch somebody else do what they were doing […] the crew and cast were very close.
Jackson, who has contributed to six of Tarantino’s films, describes the filmmaker as a “masterful storyteller [who] creates characters that are complete and honest and entertaining, and memorable”.
The film’s eponymous gunslingers are impeccably cast, with Jackson relishing a further opportunity to spit out Tarantino’s dialogue and Russell bringing old school bluster to the bear-like John Ruth.
Russell spends much of the film tethered to his bounty, viper-like Daisy Domergue, played by a revelatory Jennifer Jason Leigh. Rounding out the octet are Demián Bichir’s unlikely lodge proprietor Bob The Mexican, Reservoir Dogs alumni Tim Roth and Michael Madsen, while Bruce Dern and Walton Goggins play Confederate lost causers.
Like the writer/director’s 2012 movie Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight is a Western, a genre which has enjoyed only limited success since its heyday in the 1950s.
Russell, whose first starring role came at the age of twelve in the 1963 Western TV series The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, attributes this decline to genre fatigue:
There was a lot of Westerns on TV [in the 1960s]. In those days you did 26 shows as a series. So you had 26 new shows being written for nine different Westerns. At some point you’ve worn out your welcome.
Jackson disagreed with this take, countering, “I don’t think that about courtroom shows or hospital shows. There’s a whole bunch of PC crap going on too”. Jackson suggests that even if contemporary social attitudes do not allow for the black and white morality of classical Westerns,
They do it in another way now, it’s cop shows and all the other stuff – the alphabet soup of spy shows. People are still shooting themselves all over TV.
Placing The Hateful Eight in the director’s larger filmography, Jackson believes the new film, “fits right in there like the rest of them” with the only difference being that Tarantino “tells bigger stories now, and the scope of them seems to be larger”.
While the film’s first act does feature some impressive snowbound vistas, The Hateful Eight is mainly set in a single location. It invites inevitable comparisons with Tarantino’s first film, the warehouse-set crime drama Reservoir Dogs.
The Hateful Eight engages in some of the same non-linear storytelling synonymous with Tarantino’s catalogue, but it is also one of his most measured film since his breakout success. Commenting on Tarantino’s command of the form, Russell reflects,
He was in his prime here; that is one of the things that I take away from this experience and that I feel very fortunate about. Sometimes you get to work with great directors but unfortunately they weren’t in their prime [Jackson lets out a knowing chuckle].
We can honestly say that it was one thing to work with them perhaps before or after, but when you get to work with Orson Welles absolutely in his prime or you get to work with Quentin Tarantino absolutely in his prime, that’s one to hold on to.
Going old-school: camera, sound and action
Evoking Reservoir Dogs is not the director’s only nostalgic impulse. The notoriously digital-shy filmmaker has avoided industry standard techniques to shoot and process the Western on actual 70mm film.
To showcase this old school format the film is being distributed in a 1950s-style roadshow release with a longer cut (complete with an intermission and musical overture) shown in select theatres first, before the “shorter” 167-minute version is exhibited widely.
In doing so, Tarantino is hoping to combat the loss of cinema audiences to television and streaming services by “eventising” the release. This strategy may work for cinephiles but it’s unlikely to tempt home viewers increasingly accustomed to binge watching Netflix in their pyjamas.
Another incentive for film buffs is The Hateful Eight’s score. Tarantino’s soundtracks are almost as popular as the films they serve. In his first seven releases, the director eschewed a traditional score in favour of cherry-picking obscure film music and retro pop rock.
Here the director breaks with this practice by enlisting Ennio Morricone, whose iconic music gave Sergio Leone’s Westerns their operatic grandeur, to provide the film’s score. While the haunting themes cannot match Morricone’s work on classics like Once Upon A Time In The West (1968) they maintain and reinforce the film’s sense of ever-present danger.
Morricone’s score is essential to bring texture to a film that runs the risk of becoming wearisome across its three-hour running time. Tarantino “the writer” has given Tarantino “the director” an incredibly difficult task by setting the lion’s share of The Hateful Eight in a single location.
Rather than resist the theatricality of this set up, Tarantino has wisely leaned into it. Snowflakes drop from spotlight-like shafts of light that peak through the lodge’s rafters and the 70mm aspect ratio provides a wider stage for the actors to perform, while the director himself reads off-camera stage directions at a crucial juncture. This is assured filmmaking from a director with the conviction to allow the camera to rest on a blood-stained tableaux.
Jackson said that this larger canvas did not affect his performance, but notes that for the audience the characters have,
lives outside of the main focus of what was going on… if you watch the movie a second or third time and follow somebody other than the person who was the major focus of the shot you’ll see all kinds of stuff happening in it.
The lens of the past examines the future
After Tarantino’s more detached earlier work the director’s confidence is also evident by the film’s greater political engagement. Before the release of The Hateful Eight, Tarantino made a number of comments about the divisiveness that pervades modern America.
The film includes many moments that evoke contemporary discussion around US liberal media bias, the removal of the confederate flag from the South Carolina capitol, and more recently the Oregon militia’s occupation of a wildlife refuge.
Russell believes that as it is an election year, the film’s post-Civil War setting might find particular relevance:
That’s when [divisiveness] is talked about most… And they are not afraid to say something about it… Because maybe there’s a group out there that they want to appeal to, or a group out there that wants someone to appeal to them. And then it dies down for a while – you vote and that’s it.
These days, few Westerns can be found roaming the multiplexes. Russell summarises the genre’s decline by observing,
I think the Western will be something that you get in piecemeal now. You get it in little fits and spurts, but I don’t think it’ll ever be a mainstay again. It’s really hard to come up with a new take.
While The Hateful Eight may not offer a wholly new spin on the Western genre, Tarantino is successful at creating a slow burn chamber piece that ratchets up the tension with the introduction of each gun-toting character.
By providing eight protagonists with uncertain pasts and nebulous morality, Tarantino also affords the spectator a measure of autonomy absent in many modern films. This effect is reinforced by the carefully staged and layered 70mm tableaux that allow the viewer to decide where to look, and ultimately where to rest their allegiance once the bullets start flying and the film races towards a blood-soaked third act.
The Hateful Eight is showing in 70mm in select cinemas around Australia until Thursday January 21, when it will be released Australia-wide. Details here.