THE HATEFUL EIGHT
The close-up was always Hollywood’s answer to the portrait, but the spaghetti western turned it into a landscape. When Sergio Leone first zeroed in on Clint Eastwood’s narrowed eyes and gritted teeth in A Fistful of Dollars, he wasn’t just showing off his leading man’s face – he was revealing the craggy topography of his soul.
For the trick to work, you need time, the right cast, and some very wide-angle lenses to drink the details in – and the stately, imperious, pyrotechnically thrilling new film from Quentin Tarantino has all three in ludicrous supply.
When Tarantino announced that he would be shooting his forthcoming western, The Hateful Eight , in Ultra Panavision 70 – an arcane camera process last used in the Fifties and Sixties on horizon-stretching extravaganzas like Ben-Hur and The Fall of the Roman Empire – the last thing anyone imagined was that most of the movie would take place inside a shed.
Or that a format ignored for decades would spark such a bitter business dispute. A row over access to The Hateful Eight’s 70mm film print, Tarantino’s preferred way of screening the movie, has meant three UK cinema chains, Picturehouse, Curzon and Cineworld, will not be showing the film.
Ultra Panavision 70 was built for lassoing mountain ranges – and The Hateful Eight does lots of that in its glorious opening act (all praise to his cinematographer Robert Richardson: the landscapes have a sculptural grandeur, and there is a sunset here that captures what I’m fairly certain is a previously undiscovered shade of pink).
But after around 45 minutes the film arrives at the cramped confines of Minnie’s Haberdashery, a general store on the road to the frontier town of Red Rock, and there it remains for most of the remainder of its leisurely three-hour running time.
This shady way station is the stage for a confrontation between eight of the orneriest varmints Tarantino has yet dreamt up – a rogue’s gallery without anyone to root for. The first four we meet out on the road, thigh-deep in glinting snowdrifts.
Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson) and John Ruth (Kurt Russell) are two bounty hunters sharing a stagecoach to Red Rock, along with Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Ruth’s murderous captive, and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a gee-shucks ex-Confederate and the town’s new sheriff, who’ll see that justice will be done on arrival.
When the worsening storm forces them to break their journey at Minnie’s, four more faces loom into view. They’re Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), an old Confederate general, Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a taciturn cattle-hand, Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), a flamboyant hangman, and Bob (Demián Bichir), the shop’s temporary Mexican caretaker. Minnie herself is nowhere to be seen.
Of course the film’s title suggests a sinister retread of John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven. But what follows has more in common a classic Agatha Christie drawing-room mystery – albeit one that descends into the kind of grotesque blood-letting that would probably cause Hercule Poirot’s moustache to unfurl, with a swanee whistle sound effect, before the elegant Belgian detective fainted face-first into a spittoon in the corner.
And this is where Tarantino’s absurdly wide shots become unexpectedly vital. As the characters gruffly suss one another out, realising that all is not what it seems, you find yourself scrutinising their faces, or raking through the background for clues, watching loaded, spotting alliances being forged and broken.
The first act of the film slowly ratchets up the pressure – imagine the deliciously meandering, threat-laden dialogue of Inglorious Basterds’s opening scene, teased out to two hours – and at the intermission, I still had next-to-no idea what the film would do next. (The tension is heightened even further by a superb
Ennio Morricone score , full of furtive contrabassoon and mounting music-box dread.)
To avoid spoiling the fun, let me just say that the rapid series of developments at the beginning of act two caused a broad and beatific smile spread across my face which has yet to fade.
The fact that the film is set at an undetermined point shortly after the end of the American Civil War is obviously no accident. Minnie’s Haberdashery becomes America writ small, fraught with all the hideous, baked-in racial tension that lingers in the United States to this day. (At one point, the room is even divided into rival North and South areas.)
And while its eight inhabitants might be individually despicable, they’re also a product of their shared history, and their fates are all but predetermined as soon as they walk through the Haberdashery’s door. William Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The past has these people between its teeth.
Of the cast, only Madsen fails to make an impression. Russell is a magnificent, walrussy anti-hero, while Jackson luxuriates in perhaps his greatest, and certainly most complex, Tarantino role to date. Roth delivers an uproarious
Christoph Waltz pastiche that later becomes something else entirely. And Leigh is just demonically good, spitting and swiping her way through the film with an almost lizard-like conspiratorial smile. There is a close-up of her in the stagecoach with a teardrop of black blood rolling down one cheek that’s unforgettable.
Twenty-three years after Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino has delivered his most intimate film since that auspicious debut. The Hateful Eight is a parlour-room epic, an entire nation in a single room, a film steeped in its own filminess but at the same time vital, riveting and real. Only Tarantino can do this, and he’s done it again.