Quentin Tarantino’s period Western The Hateful Eight is set in a cinematic universe that is both hermetically sealed from the real world as well as open to at least some of its raging debates. Frames, scenes, characters, gestures, costumes, pieces of dialogue and the names of people, places and stagecoaches have all been borrowed from older films in the all-too-familiar pastiche technique that Tarantino has come to own ever since his brilliant first movie, Reservoir Dogs (1992).
Even as he has been drawing from his bottomless mental library for cinematic references, Tarantino has of late caught up with ongoing conversations about institutionalised racism and the representation of African-Americans in American popular culture. His 2012 vendetta thriller Django Unchained was an attempt to explore slavery from the perspective of the victims. The homage artist isn’t done yet: several sequences in The Hateful Eight appear to be leftovers from Django Unchained and indicate that as far as racial discrimination is concerned, the enfant terrible still has many thoughts on the subject.
However, one US debate that Tarantino doesn't seem to have woken up to is the raging controversy about gun control. The Hateful Eight is a mostly chamber room drama that snaps out of its ponderousness only when the guns start talking. Give a man a weapon and the movie comes alive. It follows that people die.
The preferred mode of death isn’t just a good old pistol to the temple, but a burst of gunfire that converts brains into Cadbury Eclair bombs. The 167-minute movie gleefully subverts its Civil War-era setting by presenting events from the perspective of an African-American Union soldier, Marquis (Samuel L Jackson) and underlining the racist tendencies of many of the characters, but offers no opportunity to mistake it for a political tract. Is the repeated use of the word “nigger” acceptable, even in a movie that is set in a period during which such words would have been commonplace? Or, for that matter, it is alright to frequently call the one woman who is a part of the “eight” of the title “bitch”, whatever her crimes? There is also a disturbing sequence of fellatio, which has been cut out of the Indian version. (Much of the profanity has also been bleeped out.)
For the first 90 minutes or so, The Hateful Eight unfolds like a play. Characters are called upon to introduce themselves at luxurious length, and conversations (some of them predictably hilarious) thicken the air at Minnie’s Haberdashery, where they have convened to protect themselves from a blizzard. Tarantino is an ace at using a repetitive question-and-answer format to build up menace and tension, but both qualities are in short supply in The Hateful Eight. Mistrust is spelled out loud and clear rather than felt, and when the bullets start to fly, the movie becomes a familiar bloodbath that is played for both shocks and laughs.
The outdoors sequences in the early moments, which have been beautifully shot by Robert Richardson and scored by the great Ennio Morricone, set up the theme of brutal coldness. A stagecoach bearing bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) that is on its way to the Red Rock town is flagged down first by Jackson’s Marquis and then by Mannix (Walter Goggins), who claims to be Red Rock’s sheriff. Domergue is set to hang, but John Ruth worries that they will be ambushed by a rescue team. Forced to take shelter at Minnie’s Haberdashery, his fears seem to be coming true. The other occupants, including Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), Confederate general Sanford (Bruce Dern) and Bob (Demian Bichir), are all dubious and hyper-articulate fellows.
“Patience is the name of the game here,” is the helpful advice given by one of the characters, and it is patience that helps navigate through the verbal jousting at the haberdashery until the revelations come tumbling out. Apart from paying tribute to Hollywood and spaghetti Westerns, the grisly climax harks back to Reservoir Dogs, the first of Tarantino’s death-through-chatter movies. The acting is uneven, as Tarantino’s ensemble films tend to be. Jackson, who has the best comeback lines and moments, towers over the cast. Leigh survives repeated ignominy, including being verbally abused, punched, and having her face covered with the blood and innards of various victims for much of her screen time, to deliver a memorable performance of animal intelligence and unvarnished nastiness, making her one of the most hateful of the unfortunate eight.