Back in 1992 I was a student at Hull University and a friend asked if I fancied going to see a new film called Reservoirs Dogs at the Film Theatre* in town. Apparently it was meant to be “Brilliant.” I have to confess I’d never heard of it and had no idea what it was about. In fact, to this day I’m still none the wiser as to what the title means. As a second year History student, though, one thing I had was plenty of spare time on my hands. Curiosity piqued, I went along.
I haven’t seen Reservoir Dogs for many years but even to this day I can genuinely remember how exhilarating it felt watching it. I was hooked right from the scene at the beginning where the gang members walk towards the camera in slo-mo to the sound of Little Green Bag by the George Baker Selection.
Intense and tightly plotted, what really set it apart, and made it seem so fresh and exciting, was the dialogue and interplay between the characters. I’d never heard anything like it. Much of it was hilarious, but there was always an underlying, unnerving feeling in the pit of your stomach that it could descend into extreme violence at any moment.
Reservoir Dogs was the feature length debut of writer-director Quentin Tarantino, a man who swiftly became the stuff of legend – a self-confessed geek from California who’d spent five years working in a video store learning his craft by watching just about every film that had ever been made (good, bad or indifferent).
Musicians always talk about the ‘difficult second album’. No such problem for QT. Two years later he followed up Reservoir Dogs with Pulp Fiction - which managed to transfer all of the elements that worked so well in his first film, but successfully utilise them within a far more ambitious and complex storyline. Pulp Fiction is widely regarded by many critics (and myself, for that matter) as a modern classic.
What inevitably followed over the years was a slew of films heavily influenced by Tarantino’s style of film-making. It’s hard to imagine, for example, something like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels having been made had RD and PF not existed (and that’s one of the more successful examples). Indeed, Lock Stock itself inspired a host of inferior quality British imitators.
Another legacy of Tarantino’s first two films, even now over twenty years later, is that every time he brings out a new movie there’s an air of excitement. Could this be his next masterpiece? For many, Tarantino has banked a lifetime of goodwill so that even after his perceived failures, such as the much-maligned Death Proof (2007), it merely encourages debate as to what he needs to do to get back on track. Not many dispute he’s a film genius or that he has it in him to produce greatness.
It would appear Tarantino is well aware of this fact too. At the start of his latest film, The Hateful Eight (another western, following 2012’s Django Unchained), the screen is emblazoned with the words ‘The 8th film by Quentin Tarantino’.
The opening titles also proudly exclaim ‘Filmed in Ultra Panavision 70’. This super-wide format is instantly impressive - the snowbound landscapes looks beautifully panoramic. The opening scene cleverly plays tricks with your sense of perspective and immediately brings to mind the famous mirage scene in Lawrence of Arabia, when Omar Sharif arrives from the distant horizon on the back of a camel. It’s almost certainly no coincidence that that film was also filmed in the 70mm Super Panavision format.
In this instance, the distant object eventually appearing into full view is a stagecoach transporting bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Ruth is transporting Domergue to the town of Red Rock, where she’ll hang for her crime and he’ll collect a sizeable reward for his troubles.
The pair are joined en route by another bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson), who himself is travelling to Red Rock to claim his reward for three dead bounties he’s carrying. To escape the blizzardous conditions they take refuge at stagecoach stopover Minnie’s Haberdashery where, instead of the proprietor, they find four lodgers already taking cover there.
The opening scenes also sound fantastic, backed by an original Ennio Morricone score that provides the visuals with an even greater sense of grandeur and atmosphere.
Once the action switches to the interior of Minnies’ Haberdashery, however, the look and feel of the film changes completely. The basic set-up for the remainder of the film is a group of dangerous and untrustworthy individuals confined together within a small enclosed space. Violence could erupt at any time, and you know it almost certainly will.
The problem with setting the bulk of the film within one internal location is that you immediately miss the glorious cinematography you’d just been treated to. An even bigger flaw is that each and every character is so damn unlikeable you don’t really care whether they live or die.
When you don’t care, you don’t feel real tension. Compare this, for example, to the scene in Pulp Fiction when John Travolta’s Vincent Vega thinks Uma Thurman’s Mia Wallace may be about to die from a heroin overdose. You genuinely fear for what will happen to him when her husband, Vincent’s boss Marsellus Wallace, finds out. You feel nervous on his behalf. You never feel that emotional connection with a character when you’re watching The Hateful Eight.
It’s not that the acting is bad. Far from it, none of it is. Jennifer Jason Leigh is wonderfully loathsome and Samuel L Jackson turns in a typically charismatic performance. Kurt Russell is also a standout, and perhaps the only character to hint at a more human side beneath the gruff exterior.
Clocking in at just over three hours, The Hateful Eight is also too long. It’s slow going during much of the middle section and, for a Tarantino film, surprisingly linear and conventional. The last couple of acts are more like vintage Tarantino – the pace accelerates and the use of timechanging flashback scenes also echo his earlier work.
Despite its weaknesses, by pretty much any other standards The Hateful Eight is still an impressive film. Because it’s written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, you are left wanting and expecting more. It’s entertaining, but it isn’t a classic. Moreover, it doesn’t offer anything radically new – we’re now familiar with his oeuvre.
Any new Tarantino film will always be worth watching, he’s a director who loves his craft. There’s also that nagging feeling that one day he’ll come up with another masterpiece. If he could write more sympathetic characters he’d be halfway there already.
*As an aside, while researching that I’d remembered the name of Hull Film Theatre correctly (I had) I was saddened to discover that it closed in 2008. Another one bites the dust. I also learnt that the Hull Independent Cinema campaign is working to build a new venue for independent, world and art cinema in the city of Hull. Good luck to them.