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Quentin Tarantino is a fine director, of that there can be no doubt. He is one, however, who I haven't quite learned to love. His early body of work - namely Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown - are distinctive and masterful pieces of work. Since that initial flurry of genius, however, I feel that Tarantino's powers have waned and that his films have become bloated affairs that, though entertaining, have little of note to say. So The Hateful Eight, with a running time close to three hours, was unsurprisingly an engagement I entered with trepidation.
How refreshing, then, to be able to say that this is a delightful return to form for Tarantino and one of the finest films I've seen in recent years. Helmed by an eclectic cast of both classic and first time Tarantino collaborators and featuring a stunning original score from cinematic legend Ennio Morricone, the film focuses on a bounty hunter who, along with his fugitive prisoner, encounters a contemporary and a man claiming to be a sheriff, both of whom asks to ride with him to the town of Red Rock in Wyoming. A blizzard, however, forces them to stop at a stagecoach stopover inhabited by four other travellers, all of whom have colourful and varied backgrounds. Before long, a murderous game of cat and mouse ensues that is reminiscent of Tarantino's iconic debut feature, Reservoir Dogs, and is mightily enjoyable to observe. Without doubt, The Hateful Eight is the best screenplay Tarantino has written for some time and, as has been the case with all of his best work, a compelling watch throughout.
One of the film's principle qualities is its sheer visual splendour. Photographed in Ultra Panavision 70 and released in 70mm format, the film really brings its surroundings to life and is at times a joy to behold (the film's opening scene - a long pan shot of a wooden Jesus that slowly reveals an oncoming stagecoach - has remained on my mind). Such craftsmanship is befitting of the western genre and cinematographer Robert Richardson is deserving of credit for the way that he helps enliven the film's interior and exterior setting. In particular, the way that the stopover is presented and subsequently used as a convincing hotspot for murder and treachery is mightily impressive. Like the aforementioned Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino sustains our interest in a story that is confined within four walls through aesthetically pleasing direction and the deliverance of intelligent and humorous dialogue.
Nobody enjoys himself more when delivering such dialogue than Samuel L. Jackson, who thrives in the lead role of Major Marquis Warren, a bounty hunter who was also a decorated participant in the Civil War. Imbued with the qualities of other great Tarantino characters Jackson has played, Warren is one of the standout features of the film and is handed the majority of its best lines ('you're starting to see pictures ain't ya?' and the monologue that precedes it being chief amongst them). Also in fine fettle is Kurt Russell as John 'The Hangman' Ruth, whose bounty hunter is tasked with escorting Daisy Domergue - played by the equally excellent Jennifer Jason Leigh - to her final resting place. Over the course of his career, Tarantino has demonstrated an admirable knack for reanimating actor's careers and, though not shy of work by any stretch of the imagination, Russell has undoubtedly become a beneficiary of this whilst Jason Leigh, whose career had stalled prior to her involvement here, looks totally reinvigorated as the unbecoming Domergue.
Chief to The Hateful Eight's appeal, however, is its script. Though its political tone is at times gratingly obvious (Tarantino has an annoying knack of reminding everyone how liberal he is), the primary set piece is enough to hook the audience and there are enough twists and turns to sustain their interest throughout an otherwise exhausting running time. One has to admire the confidence that Tarantino has in his own abilities and it is impossible to deny that he remains a unique voice amongst contemporary filmmakers. Whilst I was frustrated with Django Unchained and Inglorious Basterds and their juvenile rewriting of history, I was enthralled by The Hateful Eight from start to finish and would have no hesitation in hailing it as the director's best work since Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown (who continue to share first place on my list of favourite Tarantino films). This is storytelling of the highest order and a timely reminder of its maker's talents.