There are fans of Quentin Tarantino who will love everything he does and have an issue with any criticism. There are critics as well, who find his approach to film making to be infantile and sensationalist without much discipline. Lovers and haters, welcome to the latest film from the man who re-invented independent cinema and has copied himself repeatedly ever since. “The Hateful Eight” is exactly titled. There are no characters that are redeeming in the main cast, and the secondary characters may have sufficient drawbacks for you to dislike them as well. This three hour plus version of the movie is as indulgent as anything in the “Kill Bill” films but without the same level of bravado as those movies. The camera does not make itself an extra character, the violence is standard for a film from Tarantino, and there are long passages of dialogue that lack the wink and smile that made earlier films such a treasure. There are still plenty of things that make it worth seeing, but it may be the first film of his since “Death Proof” that cinema fans may not see as essential.
Let’s start with those things that are confusing, wasteful, annoying or just plain dumb about the film. We saw the road show version of the movie and I have great fondness for some of the trappings that go along with such a presentation. An overture and an intermission provide a special feeling to the experience you are undergoing. The Ennio Morricone music during the overture was great, but it took two hours to get to the intermission, and it the first real action beat of the movie. Everything else has been set up of character, story points and setting. It was the right moment to break for the intermission, but it was an odd tone that lead up to it. There is some pretty awful plot development that leads to the moment of action. It is implausible, distasteful and designed to inflame racial animus not only between characters in the movie but for those watching as well. The story is supposed to be provocative, but the language and tone are anachronistic, and the visualization that goes along with it was gratuitous. We are lead to believe that no one in this group will be deserving of any respect, and Samuel L. Jackson makes sure that whatever empathy we might have had for his plight as a black man in a white man’s world is dissipated by his lack of any decency or humanity. I saw a couple of younger kids in the theater, and while the violence that comes later is disturbing, the cruelty exhibited in this flashback moment of incendiary personal history was hard to bear. Not so much for an indignity being imposed on a white man by a black man, but for the galling brutality that one human being might be willing to impose on another. It’s bad enough to imagine Eli Wallach as Tuco, forcing Clint Eastwood’s “Blondie” to cross a desert without water in a Spaghetti Western from fifty years ago, it’s another thing to layer on excessive humiliation on top of the torture. Layer that with spiteful and vivid imagery and yes, as Jackson’s character says, we start to get a picture in our head. Tarantino makes sure we see that picture, not that we simply imagine it.
The story spools out as if it is going to be a version of Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians” (and when you know the original title, you will see why Tarantino must have wanted to use t as the basis of a story). It plays out as the long form version of his favorite trope “the Mexican Standoff”. From Reservoir Dogs to Django Unchained, Tarantino has filled his stories with faceoffs of antagonists and built tension and suspense with them. The basement sequence in “Inglorious Basterds” is probably the pinnacle of his story telling skills using this tool. That scene played out over a twenty minute time span, not a hundred and eighty seven. He is going to this well too often and too long in this film. While there are some great moments in the process, it feels exaggerated and overdone. The eloquence with which Oswaldo Mobray explains civilized justice is worth listening too but it lacks the same flair that it might have had if the character were played by a Teutonic Christoph Waltz rather than an effete Tim Roth. Kurt Russel inexplicably disappears through the whole set up of the first gunplay in the film and Michael Madsen makes laconic look like an active status. The characters don’t get to do anything for the first two hours, they just listen, and many of them, we never see any reaction from. When there finally is some confrontation between characters, it is resolved with some pretty disgusting screen moments. It will provoke a laugh and a gag reflex at the same time.
If there is one perfect vehicle for the dialogue that Tarantino writes, it is Samuel L. Jackson. He conveys the irony and viciousness of the words with great effect. He is given a good run for his money by Walton Goggins. His inflection is almost enough to raise the language to the heights we have come to expect from a QT film. The script though robs him of the poetry that his character in “Justified” might have used. Had the colloquial terminology of Charles Portis been more of a presence, this would have been eloquent and memorable. None of the lines are really quotable, and the impact they have is mostly dependent on the reading provided by the actors. The conversations just do not snap they way they did in any of the previous seven films from Tarantino. They are still better words than you will get in ninety percent of the scripts you will see on the screen, but it feels like a step down.
The last confusing or disappointing element I want to mention is the decision to shoot in 70 mm. I heard Goggins speak about the lenses and cameras used to make the film being the same ones used in widescreen epics like “Khartoum”. This would lead you to believe the story will be a spectacular visual treat with David Lean like shots. Instead, it is a stage bound single set piece, which makes the Panavision 70 mm seem like a strange affectation rather than a bold attempt to capture the grandeur of a big scale story.
OK, now for the stuff that works. Goggins, Russell, Jackson are the jewels in the crown. Jennifer Jason Leigh has to wait until the last hour to sparkle, but when her character gets the chance to become part of the story, it is finally clear why they need to have an actress of her type, tough and intelligent. The shoot outs and special effects eviscera are enough to satisfy even the most demanding gore hounds. There are also some nice twists that are revealed in the non-sequential formatting of the story, another Tarantino trademark, and they work great. The music is also worth wading through the movie to get to hear. There are very few snippets of the music cues that Tarantino is used to relying on, this is a much more traditional score and it is beautiful. There is a sense of closure that seems appropriate to the characters, but you will still want to take a long shower after spending so much time with these types. In the end, I liked it, but it may be one of the least successful of stories in his filmography. Like “Death Proof”, you have to meander through a lot of narrative that goes nowhere to get to the stuff you have been waiting for. Take it or leave it, I doubt it will have the repeatability of any of the other seven films from Quentin Tarantino.