Quentin Tarantino’s eighth feature film is his sixth best. I know this is cool by him because when I interviewed him (link below) he asked me whether I had a favorite film of his, when I told him I had a list he asked to hear it, and when I read it out he proclaimed it a pretty good list. Considering the interview was to promote The Hateful Eight, and considering he stated in the interview that he thinks it’s, at least, his best script, there was no inherent disagreement.
Tarantino is my favorite living filmmaker and those films I consider seven and eight on his list of eight – Jackie Brown and Deathproof – are still very much four-star films. He has yet to make a bad film and I’m not sure he could, unless he drunk some sort of Kool Aid involving both his own publicity and a serious addiction to a seriously damaging chemical. I think he’s aware enough of his own place in cinema history, and in love enough with his art, for neither to be serious risks. He knows he’s bloody good, and he’s determined to continue being nothing other than bloody good.
The Hateful Eight, then, is an excellent film, but it’s down the list due to its lack of rigor compared to those five films that sit atop it. Pulp Fiction, Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained, Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill are all tight as drums, even as some of them have pretty long running times. The Hateful Eight is a little loose. It is even, I hate to say, a little “self-indulgent”. It’s clear that Tarantino is having an enormous amount of fun working on his favorite of his own scripts with a clearly beloved ensemble, most of whom have worked with him before (being Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Walton Goggins, Bruce Dern and James Parks) and the rest of whom – Jennifer Jason Leigh, Demian Bichir, and a few others whom I won’t name in order not to spoil the fun – clearly and excitedly get the scene and chew right into it.
Leaving Cool Hit Men well behind, Tarantino has moved into a more serious phase, in which he’s tackling big questions about how race and, to a lesser degree, gender has shaped the history of the USA. Following directly on from Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight tackles America’s past (and, by implication, present) bigotry head-on. Set a few years after the end of the American Civil War, Tarantino’s characters here are on either side of that conflict, winners and losers, trapped together in a blizzard-bound wooden cabin in the Colorado woods… and one of them is black. And some of the war’s losers don’t like black people at all.
Samuel L. Jackson, of course, plays that black man, and his performance here is towering and insane, perverse and menacing, a monumental portrait of all that is contradictory in the Tarantino-verse. Jackson has always been brilliant – and brilliantly funny – in his films with Tarantino, and when his obituary is written that will be the collaboration of note. Jackson is Klaus Kinski to Tarantino’s Herzog. He does Tarantino better than anyone and Tarantino writes his best material for him. They are more than the sum of their parts; when working together they are one of the great cinematic director / actor collaborations of history.
Like many (but not all) a Tarantino film, though, there is no definite protagonist here, and while Jackson’s role is the best (and the biggest), the others each shine in specific ways. Madsen, who may not be a fully functioning adult in the real world, doesn’t so much act as lumberingly embody his shifty memoir-writing cowboy; it’s one of the smallest parts in terms of lines but Madsen takes up a lot of space in all the right ways. Kurt Russell goes to town as a bounty hunter whose latest catch initiates the plot’s shenanigans; the clever trick of the writing for him, and his portrayal, is that he seems very charming and fun while actually being disgusting and vile. Leigh is quite brilliant as Russell’s catch; she’s nominated for an Oscar and I have a feeling she’s going to win. And Goggins – well, Walton Goggins basically seems to have been put on this earth to be in this film. He may not be the technically brilliant actor that Jackson and Russell are, but boy, he belongs in the room.
Dern and Roth are less confident, but certainly effective enough. Bichir – not known for comedy as far as I know – is funny as hell, and Parks, often hidden under mountains of clothing (as they all are) is just right, as he always is. It’s all a bit Reservoir Dogs meets Agatha Christie (I doubt I’m the first to write that) and also has echoes of the farmhouse scene and the cellar scene from Inglorious Basterds. But, as usual for Tarantino, it’s its own thing: a highly original piece of work. This time, if he’s aping anyone, it’s himself.
I saw the “Roadshow” version of The Hateful Eight, which is actually screened on actual 70mm film. It includes an orchestral overture and an intermission, which comes in handy since the film is a touch over three hours long; there is also about five or so minutes of (non-essential) additional footage. I have to say that I had reservations about the Roadshow release – it felt like true self-indulgence to me – but I was completely won over: it had charm. There was a souvenir program which I have perused way more than I thought I would; the intermission featured dialogue and music that I’d already heard and was pleased to hear again (as I perused that classy program); the timing of the intermission had its own punctuational effect on the story; and, there is no doubt, the look and feel of the 70mm was something special. If you can catch the Roadshow release, do. Regardless, see the film. It’s quite bonkers, it’s funny, it’s violent, it tackles race and America and race in America, it’s long and spectacularly acted and unique. It’s Tarantino. There’s no doubt, for one second, it’s Tarantino. With a score by Ennio Morricone – the first score he’s done for a Western in forty years. How can you say no to that?
You can listen to my interview with Quentin Tarantino here: