There’s a moment about halfway through The Hateful Eight, a sprawling, three-hour epic, when the lights come up and the screen proclaims that there will now be an interval. You have little time to overcome your dizziness caused by the shocking climax of the first half before the film recommences. Only a director at the very top of his game has the ability to make an already-long film last even longer, and yet retain its forcible grip on the audience. That director is, of course, Quentin Tarantino.
Tarantino’s second western after Django Unchained swaps the humid plantations of the Deep South for the sparse, freezing frontier of Wyoming. It unfolds soon after the American Civil War, as several morally bedraggled survivors from both sides take shelter from a snowstorm in a log cabin. Among them are a hangman with a cut-glass English accent, an old Confederate general, two bounty hunters and a female prisoner. As night falls, personal and political animosities rise to the surface, as it seems that everyone is concealing something from the others.
One of the most audacious decisions of the script lies in its elongated dialogue sequences. The act of talking absorbs the characters in a way which other writers would be frightened by. But, mannered as this can sometimes seem, it is vital to building suspense. The time simply rattles by as we try and figure out who is lying, and the very formality of the speech makes the liberal dose of blood splatter later in the film all the more palpable.
Audacious too is his decision to set the majority of the film in one large room. We open with beautifully photographed, snowy American vistas, the perfect subject for the 70mm cameras used to shoot the feature. We then move inside to a somewhat less epic interior. But this never feels in any way restrictive. Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson manage an astonishing array of camera shots, allowing the actors plenty of space. Particularly impressive is Samuel L. Jackson, contending with racial tension with a heavy stare and a garish yellow cape, though the cast are uniformly fantastic.
As usual, Tarantino’s influences are brazenly displayed, yet pleasingly unconventional. He evokes John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) throughout in its inescapable, claustrophobic setting. Elsewhere, there is an unexpectedly hilarious homage to the bloody imagery of Brian de Palma’s Carrie (1976). This raiding from the horror genre is one of the film’s most impressive and cine-literate elements. Yet Tarantino also makes an important innovation which is absent from his previous films; though he can’t resist putting a few country songs in, most of the soundtrack is orchestral. Ennio Morricone’s music is strikingly effective at establishing an unsettling atmosphere before a single character appears onscreen.
Such is the unbearable tension and propulsive power of The Hateful Eight that at several moments I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or gasp. Tarantino treads the line brilliantly, cackling along the way. All I can say is that I can’t wait for the next western.