Even at the best of times it’s impossible to entirely untangle the work of Quentin Tarantino from the whirlwind of soundbites and personality that inevitably trail around with them. Things are hardly any different for his eighth film The Hateful Eight as it arrives in glorious 70mm Ultra Panavision in London’s West End with limited cinema chains screening it across the rest of the country, and commentators raising concerns dubious racial and misogynistic elements. All that aside, hype is generally high for the cult director’s return to the big screen, and this is most certainly another film dominated by Quentin Tarantino. It’s glorious to behold, with a stunning Ennio Morricone score and some standout scenes, but it’s also wildly indulgent and lacks the director’s trademark spark.
Where 2012’s Django Unchained was an attempt to channel the blood-soaked panache of the more niche end of the Spaghetti Western subgenre, The Hateful Eight initially appears to be a story told on a more sweeping, epic canvas. From the opening moment, the tone is set by snow piling onto a crucifix as a stagecoach approaches in the background and Morricone’s music does its work. Further images of stagecoaches wending their way through the blizzard litter much of the opening hour or so, and are beautifully photographed by Robert Richardson channelling his more majestic work. They ground the film in the more grand tradition of the genre whilst Tarantino himself sways between genuine drama and exploitation. If a film can be singled out as a major influence, it would surely be John Carpenter’s The Thing and while this is bold move, its one that never quite works.
Much like Carpenter’s film, the plot involves Kurt Russell – here playing the brilliantly-moustachioed bounty hunter John ‘The Hangman’ Ruth – confined to a single building to several other people amidst a snowstorm. If there is anything analogous to the alien of the original film, it’s the suspicion that one of his cohabitants in Minnie’s Haberdashery is in cahoots with the captive he is transporting to the nearby Red Rock, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). She’s a nefarious type – a cackling witch with blackened eye and missing teeth – whose treatment at the hands of Ruth and the other men is the cause of much outrage. The violence towards her is rather unpalatable but somehow fits her position in the narrative; the relish with which she is referred to as “bitch” is less understandable.
She is, of course, also the MacGuffin at the centre of the narrative and John Ruth narrowly eyes a host of grisled varmints who may have designs on her. There’s a former Yankee officer turned fellow bounty hunter (Samuel L. Jackson), former Confederate general (Bruce Dern) – both fresh from the war and the only two fleshed out characters besides Ruth. They’re bristling animosity provides the most impressively rendered of the various knotted strands, also giving the film its standout scene. The problem is that it’s entirely extraneous to the central plot, which is sadly far less compelling. Tim Roth hams it up as an English hangman; Walton Goggins is a Southern boy who may, or may not, be the new Sheriff of Red Rock; Michael Madsen struggles as a bland six-shooting cowboy; Demián Bichir provides comic support as the untrustworthy Mexican, Bob.
There are plenty of laughs to be had, but it’s in the tension between these denizens – in what is effectively a locked-room style mystery – that is sorely missing, and cameos from Channing Tatum and Zoë Bell only serve to exacerbate the problem. The Hateful Eight is easily Tarantino’s most fantastic film in terms of its visuals, its period detail and its award-worthy score, but it suffers from the director’s common pitfalls while lacking the verve that so often carries him through. Long before the inevitable blood-soaked denouement, the episodic presentation and Tarantino’s own insertion as an unnecessary narrator serve mostly to remind that sometimes his films might be better off with a little less of him in them.