“Black Man, White Hell.”
70 Millimeter. Super Panavision. Cinerama. Overture. Intermission. Quentin Tarantino has always made clear his love of old-school cinema viewing, but never has he stepped forward as far as he does for his new film, The Hateful Eight. Unfortunately, this time around, QT’s manifestations of the classic cinema experience come across as overt gimmicks meant to distract from the dull pacing and poor characterization of this weak entry into the Tarantinoverse.
After Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained managed to tell sweeping, epic stories with Tarantino’s gloriously gratuitous flavor of blood, guts, and revenge, he tries to rein himself in for The Hateful Eight, which attempts to be a more intimate and claustrophobic tale. In this instance, Tarantino seems unable to reconcile making a smaller film in the vein of Reservoir Dogs with the massive stories he is determined to tell with each of the titular eight characters. As a result, the movie feels bloated, slow, and jam-packed with a whole lot of filler. The scene in Inglorious Bastards at the bar (“Say auf wiedersehen to your nazi balls!”) is a great vignette within the larger scale of the movie, but The Hateful Eight feels like just that scene, stretched out to three hours or so.
The titular Eight are Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Damian Bachir, Walton Goggins, and Bruce Dern, all stuck in a peddler’s shop during a raging blizzard. There’s also the stagecoach driver, but nobody cares about him. While each of the characters get plenty of screentime, their characters are mostly one-note. Tim Roth’s main character trait is that he has a funny accent, Michael Madsen has gorgeous hair, and so on. However, one character in particular manages to break out in an unexpected and satisfying way to save the ending, but it’s a cold comfort, so to speak.
Then again, despite the uncharacteristically weak writing, there’s no denying the cast, who act the hell out of the material. Samuel L. Jackson leads the ensemble with an energy that only Tarantino can truly draw from him, and Bruce Dern is equally pitiable and intimidating as a Confederate general who won’t let go of his hateful ideals. It’s actually a pretty thin role, but Dern makes up for it with warm compassion for what he loves and icy conviction in his evil beliefs. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Kurt Russell are a delight to watch together, an equally comical and uncomfortable look at a rarely seen male/female dynamic; that of an antiheroic captor and his prisoner. Without context, I’m sure there will be a great many detractors of how often Russell punches Leigh right in the face or is otherwise abusive to her; she’s a violent criminal with a bounty on her head worth thousands of dollars, and Russell is an amoral 19th century tough guy, so perhaps it would be sexist if he didn’t “keep her in line” in this fashion. I suppose it’s a debate, and not one I’m going to have with myself right now, lest I lapse into a schizophrenic trance.
“Don’t you know darkies don’t like being called niggers no more? They find it offensive.”
QT’s made a real effort to make his movies gorgeous; both Basterds and Django showcased their settings in spectacular fashion, and The Hateful Eight follows suit. The claustrophobic nature of the story means there’s much less opportunity to show off distinct environments (it’s all snowfields here), but that doesn’t make the admittedly limited palette any less beautiful. I found that the widely-promoted 70mm Ultra Panavision display didn’t really do much to enhance the already stunning imagery, but the long takes and deliberate framing will look good on every screen down to a living-room television set.
The overture is a nice touch, but the movie isn’t really long enough to warrant an intermission. Minus the two interludes, I’m told the movie actually clocks in at one minute less than Django Unchained. Maybe that film could have benefitted from an intermission, but it’s unnecessary here, besides adding an extra punctuation to the movie’s climactic half-way point. Besides, with hard cuts to black and title cards separating the chapters (á la Kill Bill), the intermission proves to be a redundant indulgence in a movie already on the wrong side of overdoing it.
The Tarantino bubble certainly has not burst; there’s plenty of great acting, music, and violent antics to sate any movie-goer. Rather than the spaghetti-western tone of Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight lies somewhere around a twisted version of classic half-hour western television series like The Rifleman… Except with not nearly enough story to sustain its exaggerated running time. The ending is packed with Tarantino’s magic, but too much of the build-up is unnecessary, or even boring, burying the important themes about justice and racism the movie does contain. It’s very watchable, but spread too thin, with precious little to bring home after it ends.
NOTE: The film is also releasing in a non-roadshow version without an intermission and with several minutes of altered or re-edited scenes. Should that version prove to be substantially different, expect this review to be updated in due time to include my opinion on the “other” version.