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With his playful, pulp debut Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino told a story that you could, if you wanted to, revisit indefinitely, just for the fun of it. It was a movie that revelled in its movieness, a pop-culture pastiche that did for the crime genre exactly what Carol director Todd Haynes has done for melodrama: find out what works, cut off the flab, hire some great actors and approach the scenario with a modern eye. Seven films later, Tarantino has returned to his first film’s template — colourful characters, a single room, blood and betrayal — but this time in a framework that is deliberately designed for repeat viewing.
Agatha Christie’s thriller novels have been mentioned as a comparison, but The Hateful Eight is not so much a murder mystery with a twist as yet another exploration of the director’s fascination with multiple timeframes. Broken up into six sections by his trademark chapter headings, it jumps backwards and forwards, repeatedly makes reference to previous, off-screen events and, most importantly, refuses to establish any kind of character truth. Some people may be who they say they are, some may not — Tarantino leaves a little bit of detective work to us.
The setting is Wyoming in blizzard season, not long after the civil war, but though Tarantino’s film has been trumpeted as an epic Western, Ennio Morricone’s ominous, orchestral, almost Hammer-horror score suggests something else — a sense of foreboding that’s only underscored by an opening close-up of an eerie, forlorn crucifix.
Appropriately for the wintry setting, events snowball pretty quickly; along comes a stagecoach carrying bluff bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his captive, the feral gangstress Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Heading to Red Rock, where Daisy is to be tried and hanged, they encounter first Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a former Union officer now also in the bounty-hunting business, then Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who claims he is the new sheriff. As the weather worsens, the four pull in at a remote trading post, Minnie’s Haberdashery, and the film’s very violent secrets start to explode.
Tarantino’s decision to shoot in the long-defunct widescreen format Ultra Panavision 70mm seems obvious from the magnificent opening vistas, but once the action moves indoors, the choice becomes less about expanse and more about detail; at first sight these performances seem broad but in time they will become exquisite. Indeed, inside Minnie’s Haberdashery are four very intriguing strangers — silent cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), British hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), Mexican Bob (Demián Bichir) and Confederate general Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern) — and a sense of unease is instantly palpable.
Significantly, though, it is not this whodunnit element that will ensure The Hateful Eight’s long life; the latest of the director’s recent forays into historical stories, begun with 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, has a provocative political subtext, dealing with issues of race and injustice that stem from long-festering social wounds. It reveals how far he has come since ’92; having shown us what he loves about American culture, it’s time for us to see what he doesn’t.