DVD Review: The Hateful Eight (R18+) (USA, 2015)

The Hateful Eight is (fittingly) iconic auteur Quentin Tarantino‘s eighth film, which this week opened in Australian cinemas for a limited 70mm Ultra Panavision release – the first film to do so since 1966’s Khartoum and the first Western since The Hallelujah Trail (1965). For cinephiles around the world, the day couldn’t have come soon enough, but is the ambitious film – which almost never saw the light of day – worthy of the format in which it’s projected?

The Hateful Eight begins with the chance encounter of two bounty hunters on a snowy road in Wyoming – where Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson) enlists the assistance of John Ruth (Kurt Russell). The former is heading to Red Rock to deliver three bodies for a bounty, while John “The Hangman” Ruth is chained up to a battered and bruised Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to deliver her for a bounty in the same town, and see her hung for her crimes. And Warren needs a ride. With a blizzard on their tails, it’s not long before they have to pick up another on the journey, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) and the first four of our Hateful Eight are introduced. As the storm starts to worsen, they come to Minnie’s Haberdashery (our “cabin in the woods”) where we meet the rest of our Hateful Eight. And it’s here that the film remains until its intense conclusion.

The Hateful Eight had something of a troubled life before it made it onto the screen. After the script leaked online, Quentin swore he’d never make the film. But following a live reading of the script in Los Angeles back in 2014, he changed his mind, and work began to bring what had become a script well suited for the stage to the screen (Quentin has said he’d still like to transition the piece into a play). Over the months that followed, Quentin brought together a mix of some of his favourite actors, got the go ahead to film in Ultra Panavision 70, and set out to Colorado for the cold shoot.

The film contains just about everything you could want from a Tarantino film. It’s violent, non-PC, likely breaks his own record for the most amount of times the “n” word is uttered in film dialogue and is full of interesting characters, portrayed by brilliant actors and actresses. But the journey through the usual Tarantino mayhem is different to what fans will have experienced in the past. For context, we need to go back to the beginning: the script. This is a dialogue driven piece, that sits in two primary locations: Warren’s carriage, travelling through the snowy mountains of Wyoming, and Minnie’s Haberdashery. In this, we have a script perfect for the stage. By the time we get to the cabin, and meet all of our Hateful Eight, we enter something of a Tarantino-meets-Agatha Christie plotline, with Wattend uttering the ominous line: “someone here is not who he says he is”. The film sits closer to The Mousetrap than it does to one of the great Ultra Panavision Westerns, How The West Was One.

In fact, at the end of the first half of the film, before the intermission, there’s plenty of Tarantino’s signature diatribe, but no blood, and almost no killing. Just, for the most part, talking. And in this chronological sequence of events, Tarantino creates one of the tensest, most engaging and brilliant scenarios he’s ever put on screen. Because there’s no distractions, just these Hateful Eight and an increasingly bizarre situation. And you as the audience have no idea what’s coming next.

Once the answers do start flowing in the film’s second half, the momentum and tension does let down – especially when Tarantino comes on as narrator and we go back in time to set the scene. I’m not sure if the narration was a necessary device, but it wouldn’t be a Tarantino film without his vocal influence somewhere, would it? Thankfully he’s not trying an Australian accent this time. Still, the conclusion of the story is a thrilling one. Intensely violent and quite cruel – something the title perhaps foreshadows – but a thrilling one.

As for the cinematography and the ultra widescreen that their cameras permitted, every shot is a piece of art. The scenes outdoors, as the snow fell and the six horse carriage rode through the mountains – or a brief flashback sequence between Samuel L Jackson and one unlucky son-of-a-bitch – were absolutely stunning. The camera captured the light and the atmosphere better than anything else you’ll see on screen. With so much of the film crammed into the carriage or the Haberdashery, it did feel like some of the potential impact was wasted. Perhaps the format would have been more effective in Django, where more outdoor settings would have embraced the wider lens well. But what he lacked in the variety of settings he made up for in making use of the wide scope to capture every nook and cranny of the space. Tarantino was able to place the characters at more realistic distances, while giving us, as viewers, a more engaging and detailed landscape – cabin or no cabin.

The cast is brilliant from start to finish, and as “hateful” as their characters might be, they are hilarious. Tim Roth, the reasonably dim-witted Walton Goggins and the effortlessly bad-ass Samuel L Jackson deliver some of the best lines in the film, but all characters have their moments. Even a brief appearance from Channing Tatum. I particularly enjoyed the rhetoric around the front door, which needed to be nailed shut, and some moments revolving a certain Lincoln letter. Jennifer Jason Leigh is brilliant, deserving of all the praise and nominations she’s received, and listen out for her version of a 1907 Australian folk song (when has Quentin ever let time or context sit in the way of a good song or eye wear?).

The Hateful Eight is a stunning piece of filmmaking. While I felt the ending and some of the decisions in the final chapters didn’t quite sustain the brilliant set up in the first half of the film, it’s without hyperbole one of Tarantino’s most ambitious pieces to date. Ambitious not by size of the cast or a grand storyline, as has been in the case in many of his past films, but in it’s relative simplicity. We spend three hours with characters we’re expected to despise, with no clear antagonist nor any possible “happy ending” scenario. There’s over two hours of pure dialogue to set up the brutal climax and we spend most of the film in the one location. But with actors who are that good, delivering lines from a script that is that brilliant, with cinematography that is that beautiful, Tarantino has delivered another unforgettable film, one that will likely find more favour in the long term rather than the short.

And true in the nature of Tarantino, you couldn’t forget about it even if you wanted to. Once you’ve seen a Tarantino film, you can’t unsee a Tarantino film. And therein lies so much of what has made him one of the most celebrated auteurs of the last thirty years.

Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Special Features

Disappointingly, the special features included with The Hateful Eight‘s  DVD release are pretty barebones. There’s no commentary tracks or deleted scenes to speak of, just a featurette entitled “Beyond The Eight: A Behind The Scenes Look”. Though the production here is quite polished and it’s always interesting to hear Tarantino discuss his own work, there’s not a lot to this feature.  It’s good, but it’s not nearly long enough.

Special Features Score: TWO AND A HALF STARS

The Hateful Eight is available on DVD and Blu-ray now. Film Review by Larry Heath. Special Features reviewed by Fergus Halliday.