That’s one of two questions that were going round & round during my viewing of Tarantino’s latest bountiful offering. The other was ‘how does it compare with the rest of his work?’ And the answer to both still escapes me if I’m totally honest.
The opening scenes were interesting, dialogue driven (save for Jennifer Jason Leigh’s multiple unexpected beatings) and accompanied by Ennio Morricone’s lavish and haunting score. However once at Minnie’s Haberdashery my patience for slooooow set up began to get trying. As it did, I found myself also under whelmed by Tarantino’s script. Once again, everybody talks in bold, verbose sound bites, with nothing much happening elsewhere. Only this time (unlike say Landa’s interrogation of Monsieur LaPadite in Inglorious Basterds) it seemed to lack the rich flavour of his previous screenplays.
That said, this is a slow burner so once the fuse is lit, the story begins to fizz and twist its way towards the inevitable combustion. By the end of the first hour I was intrigued; by the end of the second I was hooked; and by the end of the third, nicely sated.
Performance wise, there’s little to complain about here and the cast begin to really chew into the meat of Tarantino’s script. Kurt Russell makes a bold impression as intransigent bounty hunter John Ruth, ostensibly the main protagonist, who introduces the audience to the rest of the cast, including Jennifer Jason Leigh (one of the standouts for me) as prisoner Daisy Domergue -the driving force behind the plot, and Walton Goggins (arguably a show-stealer) as the would be sheriff Chris Mannix who turns out to be arguably the most interesting of all the characters. As John Ruth predicts, folks ain’t quite what they appear to be. Ultimately though, there’s little doubt that the film belongs primarily to Samuel L Jackson who kills (no pun intended) as Bounty Hunter Major Marquis Warren. He’s playing to all his strengths, and more or less reprising his Jules Winfield from Pulp Fiction (but with even more relish and less humility). As well as dominating the cast, he gets one of the most memorable and cruel moments in the movie. Tim Roth is back too, getting his teeth into a particularly juicy role as English hangman Oswaldo Mowbray (his accent shifts a reprise of his Four Rooms double persona). Most disappointing though is Michael Madsen’s cowboy Joe Gage, who doesn’t ever really get to be the badass we suspect him of being. Other Tarantino family members also pop up including Zoë Bell and Bruce Dern, as well as a voice cameo from the QT himself. Of the new regulars only Christoph Waltz is conspicuous by his absence, although its been observed that he could perhaps have fitted Roth’s role almost as well.
The mystery thriller narrative, despite its western setting, (the close of Tarantino’s loose trilogy of historical movies) is nothing like its predecessor Django Unchained and has more in common with the paranoia-infused drama of Reservoir Dogs. It also has a similar tone to the wonderfully elaborate basement scene in Inglorious Basterds, only inflated into a three-hour epic. Outside his own catalogue, there are also some parallels to the snowed-in claustrophobia of John Carpenter's The Thing (which also makes appearances via the score).
The prodigious running time is split into six (why not eight?) chapters, and all but one follow a fairly linear path, with only the penultimate chapter being a flashback that both explains the preamble and sets up the finale. The last three chapters are where the film begins to shift gear, also providing the requisite levels of absurd horror-level violence and gore we’re come to expect (which certainly doesn’t disappoint).
Thematically there’s a heavy focus once again on racial tensions- this time moving the focus from Southern slavery to the Civil war atrocities that followed. It’s an obsession that almost comes close to outstaying its welcome, but it crops up in nearly all his movies and to be fair, is contextually relevant. Ultimately though, its hard to escape the conclusion that whatever he has to say on the subject, its gets lost in all the splattery mayhem.
So where does it stand in the canon? I think it’s a better film than Django Unchained, but not as punchy and dialogue rich as Basterds or Dogs, or as nuanced as Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown. Nor does it have the guilty pleasures of Kill Bill (although it certainly matches its bloodletting). But since seeing it, it’s hard to stop thinking about it and I look forward to revising Minnie’s bloodstained Haberdashery in the near future. In lieu of that all-important second viewing however (which wont be in the theatre), The Hateful Eight gets a Tentative Seven.