Just as Quentin Tarantino’s characters always seem to talking themselves into trouble with his crudely verbose dialogue, the man himself was found in a similarly precarious position recently after statements made about police brutality and his old bosses at Disney’s questionable (in his eyes) handling of the Star Wars franchise. It’s a shame because these controversies have nearly overshadowed the release of the writer/director’s new film The Hateful Eight, an intelligent modern western throwback and vital piece of art that deserves the attention on all filmgoers, despite one’s personal opinion of the outspoken creator’s public persona.
By his own admission a cross between his Reservoir Dogs and John Carpenter’s The Thing, Tarantino’s eighth film is his own personal homage to “bottle episodes” of 60’s TV westerns that took place in one location and saw tensions between lawmen and outlaws slowly rise to boiling throughout their run time. And tension is one thing this film has no shortage of, even though 90% of its nearly three hour length is set in the same small cabin with nothing but bad men (and one woman) and their bad tales, it’s constantly compelling and suspenseful, Tarantino showing growth from past missteps with the somewhat maligned dialogue heavy sequences in limited settings of Kill Bill Vol 2 and Death Proof.
At the outset we meet John “The Hangman” Ruth, (Kurt Russell, further cementing the Thing connection), travelling by stagecoach to the fictional town of Red Rock in a dangerous blizzard to cash in the bounty on notorious murderess Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh, stealing the whole show). They’re stopped on the road by Samuel L. Jackson’s Major Marquis Warren, looking for safe passage through the snow to collect his own bounty on three dead men. Ruth grants Warren a ride due to their previous acquaintance and his need for assistance with the increasingly unhinged Domergue, because even though her handbill says “dead or alive”, when John Ruth the Hangman catches you, you hang.
On their way they also come into contact with former confederate and current Red Rock sheriff (or so he claims) Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins, all wild eyed, deranged hillbilly menace as usual), and the treacherous weather conditions see them reaching their pit stop at Minnie’s Haberdashery just as the storm begins to rage completely out of control, sharing close and uncomfortable quarters with a colorful rogues gallery consisting of Tarantino ringers Tim Roth and Michael Madsen, The Bridge’s Demian Bichir, and Bruce Dern as a wizened rebel General that has serious unfinished business with Jackson’s Major Marquis.
Still the baddest motherfucker.
Tarantino is smart to begin the proceedings with a fairly laid back and affable tone, all friendly rivalry and shop talk amongst the bounty hunters, before he slowly ratchets up the suspense to the point where you’re on the edge of your seat before the grand guignol display of bullets Dead Alive-esque exploding gore that Tarantino paints across his enormous 70MM canvas. You’ll pray for the end just to release the tension and not because the endless dialogue is boring you to death. Yes it’s that good. QT’s reputation as a legendary wordsmith precedes him but he’s be nothing without this group of actors absolutely nailing their performances to the blood spattered wall.
Jackson gets top billing here and fully embraces it as the film’s war torn heart and soul, but Russell also deserves credit, calling back to his bad ass 80’s heyday as John Carpenter’s muse, you could see his character as an aged frontier version of RJ MacReady, Jack Burton or, of course, Snake Plissken. The biggest surprise here though was Jennifer Jason Leigh. The spitfire Domergue holds the plot together with vengeful determination and righteous anger against the questionable morality of her captors, with gleeful malice at their inevitable bad fortune, fully believable as a woman who would not only survive but thrive on the wrong side of the law in a harsh, post-Civil War America. Definitely the one to watch come Oscar season.
The final piece of the epic puzzle is legendary composer Ennio Morricone. This is the first Tarintino film to utilize an original score and not just be pieced together from catalog music. Morricone vowed never to work with Quentin again after he was displeased with the use of his existing pieces in Django Unchained but ultimately had a change of heart. His score conveys both the harshness and beauty of a young America, the perfect accompaniment to the film’s many gorgeous 70MM super widescreen outdoor landscapes. Morricone’s score is new for the most part but also re-uses classic selections of his from The Exorcist II and, you guessed it, The Thing. Tarantino also includes appropriate interludes from Roy Orbison, The White Stripes, Loretta Lynn and, as a cool easter egg for us exploitation film vets, David Hess’ “Now You’re All Alone” from The Last House on the Left.
Ever since his ascension to household name status with 1994’s Pulp Fiction, I can’t ever remember Quentin Tarantino not being a highly polarizing figure, whether for his preponderance towards violence and profanity, accusations of being a “rip-off” or pastiche artist, or his affinity for characters who use the “N” word. Tarantino has always been a lightning rod for controversy, but this has been the first time he was criticized for his personal politics and not his work. As fans shouldn’t we be intelligent enough to divorce a creator from their work, as long as that work doesn’t specifically promote a particular political agenda? A filmmaker with an artistic track record as sterling as Tarantino’s certainly deserves such consideration, and his fans owe it to themselves to overlook whatever statements of his they may not agree with to seek out this amazing film. Isn’t that what we want from our artists? A unique viewpoint? If Tarantino wasn’t so extroverted and outspoken then his work probably wouldn’t be so vital, relevant, challenging, and just plain good.
Nobody said being an artist was supposed to be easy, but it shouldn’t be this hard either.