It might not be his best, but Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight feels like his darkest release so far.
At the Auckland premiere of Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight, it was abundantly clear that this kind of thing doesn’t happen very often. For one thing, who bothers to hold premieres here? For another, the director himself, accompanied by his Kiwi stuntwoman muse Zoe Bell, was to appear. For a third, the venue was woefully ill thought. With the spacious foyer reserved for a small red carpet, alongside which fans brimmed waiting for their hero to arrive, the New Zealand celebrity contingent must have felt somewhat set aside.
The invitation asked for ‘smart casual’ dress and promised free drinks and a bit of a mingle on arrival. This was not false. However with the main space of the theatre taken up with Tarantino fanfare, Mediaworks stars and lucky plebs (hi) alike were left to fraternise in the corridor outside the cinema. Arthur and Matilda giggled next to me at the bar. Caito Potato milled past, not a borrowed cat to be seen. Stacey Daniels arrived in a yellow Kill Bill jumpsuit. Theatre staff pled with the crowd to take their seats. David Grr was there. It was all very strange.
If purportedly glitzy premieres are a rarity here, even more so is the presence of an actual celebrity. With multiple cinemas booked out for the occasion, Tarantino came to each to deliver a brief-yet-charming introduction. It must be strange to travel so far, and to arrive to such excitement, only to be repeatedly asked “Why are you here,” but he remained graciously evasive, joking that Bell “made me”. The mystery continues.
And then we watched the movie.
The eighth release in what Tarantino insists will be a 10 feature filmography, The Hateful Eight almost didn’t come to pass due to a fraught pre-production script leak. Yet, with the love and energy that have clearly gone into it, you would never know. As with any Tarantino feature, fastidious production underlies every shot, and The Hateful Eight is as accomplished as ever in terms of cinematic vision. With masterful cinematography, mise-en-scene and an overall aesthetic that is original yet brimming with homage, Tarantino’s enthusiasm is palpable.
Also palpable though is his will to shock, and much of the contents will be to the liking of those wonderful people who worry that PC has gone mad. The violence is extensive and gleeful. The sole main female character is called a bitch and beaten repeatedly, the blows and crunching of cartilage theatrically exaggerated. Rape is depicted. The N-word is used by white actors excessively (Andrew Johnstone will be thrilled).
Debate as to whether Tarantino has earned the privilege to this content rightfully rages. Though race and gender clearly preoccupy him, it is often hard to decide what make to of his contribution to these subjects, and The Hateful Eight will no doubt be the subject of many a think piece.
But if word of its offensive content has not yet come your way, that of its length may have. Distributed across chapters and chronologically divided in two halves, The Hateful Eight luxuriates in its three-hour run time, and even though the version played for the Auckland audience was the slightly shorter ‘multiplex version’ (omitting the overture and intermission included in the ‘roadshow version’), the length was unarguably a significant part of the experience.
Heavy on back-and-forth dialogue and monologues, and taking place in mostly one room, were it not for Tarantino's irrepressible cinephilia the film might feel a little like a stage play. Ostensibly a Western, it plays almost like an Agatha Christie mystery: in post-civil war era rural USA, a group of nefarious neer-do-wells, one escorting a dangerous criminal, must hole up together in a remote log cabin to escape a treacherous blizzard. Samuel L. Jackson as notorious bounty hunter and war criminal Major Warren must serve then as a kind of Miss Marple - no one may be who or what they seem, and murder is afoot.
Of course, at the heart of this are grievances and grudges and in this post war setting, being trapped in a room of strangers does not save this group from the temptation to enact revenge. This is where The Hateful Eight’s densest and most interesting content can be found, as the atrocities each has committed towards their companions come spilling out. And with a burgeoning mystery on their hands, everyone's a suspect.
At the centre of this mystery is Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Daisy Domergue, being dragged to Red Rock by another Bounty Hunter, Kurt Russell’s John Ruth, to be hanged. As the axis of the film, Leigh is superb: Domergue is at once snarlingly feral and enigmatically feminine, qualities that prove seemingly irreconcilable for Ruth as he demonstrates both peculiar tenderness and shocking brutality toward her in turn. As horrible as any one of the men in the film, if not more so, it is no easier to watch Leigh become the punching bag for the otherwise entirely male cast.
But perhaps this is the point: “Till they invent a trigger a woman can't pull, if you're a hang man, you're going to hang woman,” suggests one character, and as such perhaps Tarantino is hoping to invite women in on the fun. The question of whether audiences can or should feel comfortable with repeated images of assault on a woman is perhaps as contentious as the one of whether we should support a white writer and director putting the N-word in the mouths of his white cast.
Of course, one might argue as both an auteur and provocateur, this is all part of Tarantino’s oeuvre. But does being canonical excuse or give value to the content? The Hateful Eight suggests that Tarantino thinks so, and here he is as self-consciously self-referential as ever.
As one of the few other women appearing in the film, Bell’s brief cameo and Auckland shout out (“What’s an Auckland?”) is bizarre but, certainly in our cinema, crowd pleasing. Perhaps this explains why Tarantino graced us with his presence? Her appearance around the film’s midpoint is strangely jarring - maybe because the sound of our own accent is always embarrassingly exciting - but as a bouncy New Zealander infiltrating Civil War-era rural America, she is an alien out of time and place, for no obvious reason. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t work, it’s just weird.
Tarantino seems to be preparing for his career to wind down, and presumably the scale and excess of his latest releases suggests he would like to go out with a bang. The Hateful Eight is definitely fun. The cluedo-esque murder mystery tableau is incredibly likable. The cast are uniformly superb, and everyone, from anti-hero Jackson to the fabulously flamboyant Tim Roth, imbues the extensive dialogue with dynamic energy and gleeful malevolence. The extreme violence is often too silly to be upsetting. Yet, like 2012’s Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight is overlong - not in the sense that it drags un-enjoyably - but the scenes are not efficient, the narrative is unevenly distributed, and it is lacks overall the kind of tight, economy of time that characterises Tarantino's masterpieces. Sadly, this may be due to the death of his longtime editor Sally Menkes in 2010, and perhaps Fred Raskin, who took over here and for Django, is just not capable of her restraint.
Tarantino continues along the precarious path of engaging with content that really does need careful treatment. As usual, whether he is successful in this will be open to interpretation, and for some The Hateful Eight may even feel like his darkest release so far. However, as his filmography is completed, films like The Hateful Eight are considered not only individually but as part of an overall retrospective.
So what does it mean to make such an opaque entry at this late stage? The answer will depend on who you are. The Hateful Eight may not be Tarantino's best, but it is entertaining and captivating and - if he is to be believed - as one of 10, it is certainly not a wasted entry.