Throughout the filmography of Quentin Tarantino heroes, zeroes and everyone in between brandish weapons with a knowing flourish before delivering the killer blow. Of course, the greatest weapon they’re given is the ever-arch QT brand of dialogue. Tarantino’s characters talk for any number of reasons; to advance the plot, to pass the time, to establish their credentials. Once upon a time, the chat came stylishly, yet with a certain naturality. But there came a point when QT’s dramatis personae became even more articulate and more removed from the immediacy of their predicament. There was little call for kung-fu assassin leader Bill to suddenly wax lyrical on Superman, yet off he went. From Kill Bill on, Tarantino’s dialogue became more and more about the need for control. He who talks, rules. Now, along comes The Hateful Eight, and everyone is determined to have their say.
For Tarantino more than most, opening credits are a statement of intent. The credits of The Hateful Eight remind us (like we could forget) that this is his eighth feature. As a genre, Westerns are defined by their efforts to perpetuate their own myths, so it’s apt that the never-understated Tarantino has stayed in that genre following the similarly bloody and prolonged Django Unchained. For his next trick, he’s reaching for the horizon and capturing it all in the resurrected glory of 70mm film. It’s unlikely to lead a resurgence in 70mm screenings, but the beauty of Robert Richardson’s muscular cinematography is undeniable. The opening credits are backgrounded by a wooden crucifix against a stunning cyan-and-white vista that engulfs the screen. As dazzling as it is, it is also self-cognisant in the extreme. Nothing new to Tarantino of course, but the over-eagerness of The Hateful Eight’s design feels less like a throwback (except to QT’s own films, in particular Reservoir Dogs) and more like an exercise in self-aggrandisement, a phenomenon that has only increased with each new Tarantino film.
Slowly from behind the crucifix a stagecoach emerges, and our bloody adventure begins proper. As bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his captive, murderess Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), head across wintry 1850s Wyoming to the town of Red Rock, Tarantino treats the first couple of ‘chapters’ of this tale as a knockabout comedy of the blackest kind. On their way, they pick up Major Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and Sheriff Mannix (Walton Goggins), and the menfolk exchange tales while Daisy insolently interjects on occasion and gets an elbow in the face for her trouble. Before this ends all characters, the nominal octet and beyond, will have endured their fair share of misery and indignities. We might have cared if Tarantino wasn’t playing it for laughs. The casual misogyny and racism (A certain racial epithet may be exercised more here than in Django Unchained, where it might have been more contextually justified) feed into a mood of increasing hysteria, sitting alongside cartoonishly copious bloodshed in a film whose formal pretense belies its lack of subtlety at every possible turn.
Forced into a halfway house by an incoming blizzard, the rest of the film turns into a distinctly claret-shaded mystery. The stagecoach troop encounter another similarly singular band of misfits at the hut known as Minnie’s Haberdashery. With the likes of Tim Roth (polishing off his Terry-Thomas impersonation), Bruce Dern and Demián Bichir now on board, tensions bubble up to erupt in fits and burst that puncture the tall tales being told by all and sundry. The wintry surrounds, the testosterone-heavy atmosphere and the original score by Ennio Morricone (a dazzling near-throwback of a score, with enough new elements to make it stand out) all recall Carpenter’s The Thing. It’s an unlikely comparison, but then it shows the height of Tarantino’s indulgence. He’s not making a Western; he’s making his version of one, in which the bloodiest squibs imaginable are used for the shootouts, and Jennifer Jason Leigh can earn comparison to a hideous alien shapeshifter. For all the artistic effort put into this endeavour, it’s all in the name of a script with too much going on. Devices come and go with reckless abandon. The third act introduces narration for no other reason other than for QT to actually take part in the film (Didn’t he learn not to do that after his Django cameo?), while a letter Warren carries from Abraham Lincoln gets trotted out a few times for a hint of pathos. It’s a stew brewed from equal parts Carpenter, Leone and Agatha Christie, which affords QT more opportunities for showstopping vistas and showboating dialogue. Every actor gets their chance to shine with a monologue, as everyone fights for their moment of talkative control. But when 8+ marauders are looking for their share of the pie, who’s there to rein it all in? Quentin?… I say, Quentin, where’d you go?
It behoves Tarantino to move to his own beat, but this might be a step too far, particularly at a relaxed three hours. One can’t help but feel his former editor, the late Sally Menke, may well have brought this down to size. Fans might argue that it’d deprive us of time spent in the company of some fine performances. In truth, Leigh and Goggins earn their spurs, though the rest land somewhere between enjoyably hammy and oddly immemorable (That’d be Madsen in the latter category, FYI). Ultimately, this world is of Tarantino’s making, That means the jarring choices he makes, be they over-reliance on racist and sexist tropes or odd choices on the soundtrack (The White Stripes and David Hess belong nowhere near Civil War-era Wyoming, yet here they are), can only be pinned on him. Sturdily enjoyable ingredients become a bloated, bloody mess when QT blends them to his recipe.