Quentin Tarantino has been round long enough that the tide of time and cinema has enveloped him. He started out (and continues) as an edgy, iconoclastic movie maker pushing the boundaries of film and daring others to follow in his wake. Unfortunately he now appears to be an anachronism fighting a rearguard action of holding onto the highest qualities of filmmaking and scriptwriting whilst most of mainstream Hollywood has sunk into a morass around him. Hopefully there are people and audiences enough around the world to ensure that his indulgences, in this case a western shot in the 70mm format, are recognised and appreciated for the rare treats they are.
“The H8ful Eight” is another great exhibition of his mastery of film and storytelling. It’s told in a series of vignettes, rather like the Christopher Walken cameo in the flashback scene from the earlier masterpiece “Pulp Fiction”; only in this outing it stretches the entire length of the movie. There are further parallels with “Pulp Fiction” in terms of the resurrection of an actor who has been absent from screens of late – in this case a bewhiskered Kurt Russell instead of a pockmarked John Travolta. For Tarantino tragics Samuel L. Jackson continues to provide a familiar sheet anchor role and as ever interprets the screenplay’s salty argot with relish. His strong screen presence and malevolent voice commands exactly the type of attention one would expect of a headstrong African American venturing into Wyoming territory circa 1870. Walt Goggins, who has a sizeable career CV but has never been front and centre in either TV or film finds he can more than hold his own in good company with the role of Sheriff Mannix.
In the female lead Jennifer Jason Leigh, also making something of a comeback, deserves kudos for enduring the most revolting treatment of an actor seen on screen in this or any era. She is introduced with a black eye for insubordination, courtesy of her bounty-hunting captor Russell. She then suffers ongoing waves of violence, dousing and projectile vomiting throughout the film, not to mention the breaking of several teeth. If being prepared to forego beauty is one of the surer paths to an Oscar then she has more than paid the price.
Whilst Tarantino’s video store background and encyclopaedic knowledge of film are well known what’s probably less appreciated is the artful way he deploys it in choices both big and small throughout the film. First off is the genre of the Western itself, in which he tips his hat to John Ford’s “Stagecoach” with the conjuring of a similar tense standoff situation and a host of passengers boasting both shadowy and interesting backgrounds. Then there is a nod to Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat” or “Rope”, with most of the action taking place within a single claustrophobic room or setting. With regards to the soundtrack there is a definite homage to the spaghetti westerns he was probably raised on instead of the alphabet. Of course if you are in the enviable position of having the reputation and budget to afford it then who else do you get to score a film than an aged but definitely not wearying Ennio Morricone? Finally, he has Jennifer Jason Leigh sing a few verses of the convict ditty Botany Bay, surely an oddity to the ears of most people in the post civil war American West. Perhaps not to Tarantino though, at least not if he is trying to pay tribute to Aussie westerns like “The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith” and “Mad Dog Morgan” or even more obscurely referencing the actor Alan Ladd, who starred in a production of “Botany Bay” the same year he made the iconic western “Shane”. One never can tell with this director because he is always throwing so many rich ingredients into the stew.
“The H8ful Eight” is recommended to be seen on the big screen, especially in a 70mm print if it is available in your area. The interplay of camera, dialogue and sound effects gives full rein to the many visceral moments Tarantino wants you to feel and as ever they pack a punch. While the ending contains some lingering mystery with a slight question mark over the fate of some of the main characters, what is never in doubt is the enjoyment to be had as a master filmmaker again peels an onion for you with twists and turns at every stage.