Quentin Tarantino’s films are unfailingly concerned with using impeccable craft – sharp widescreen blocking, showy camera moves, nesting doll narrative structure – to show off his video store savant chops. Each new effort is an excuse to raid the cabinets of his genre knowledge: gangster pictures, heist movies, blaxploitation films, kung fu cinema, spaghetti Westerns, World War II epics, car chase actioners, and Grindhouse exploitation flicks. He loves the idea of movies almost as much as actually having made a movie. His latest is The Hateful Eight, a blending of a Sergio Corbucci snow Western and an Agatha Christie locked-room mystery. It’s also easily identifiable as a Tarantino picture, not just in its predictable mixture of inspirations, but in concerning itself with secrets and revenge, violence and profanity, chatty killers and Rubik’s Cube plotting tied up in a bow made from faux-vintage 70’s tics. By now you should know exactly what to expect out of his films.
A Tarantino film always features long talkative sequences of deferred suspense slowly building to shocking outbursts of violence. It forms the backbone of his best pictures. (Inglorious Basterds, for example, is a cascading collection of perfectly structured chatty setpieces.) With The Hateful Eight he makes an entire picture out of one enclosed talkathon. Set in the years following the Civil War, at a remote roadhouse in the middle of nowhere Wyoming, a bounty hunter (Kurt Russell) and his captive (Jennifer Jason Leigh) are trapped in a blizzard. Stuck waiting out the storm with an eclectic group of strangers – a rival bounty hunter (Samuel L. Jackson), a stagecoach driver (James Parks), a hangman (Tim Roth), a cowboy (Michael Madsen), an elderly Confederate veteran (Bruce Dern), a Mexican proprietor (Demian Bichir), and an unpersuasive rookie sheriff (Walton Goggins) – he’s convinced one of them is secretly scheming to spring his prisoner. Each is an opposite of some sort to another, a tangle of conflicts and grievances ready to boil over.
The ensemble is Tarantino’s most derivative, from Jackson as essentially an older, chattier Django Unchained to Roth in a role that sounds written for Christoph Waltz. They, and the rest, are types and remain so, conduits for Tarantino’s words and pawns in his plot. At least the cast is made up of dependable character actors who are relishing the opportunity to speak elongated, dense, complicated paragraphs of chewy dialogue. The performances are crackling, but it’s Tarantino’s shaggiest, emptiest script, his thinnest idea stretched across three hours. Maybe that part won’t feel quite so acute years from now, removed from the elaborate White Elephantine presentation and promotion, conspicuously hyping connection to canonical old school epics like Ben-Hur through its 70mm format and reviving (sort of) the roadshow concept, from overture and intermission to the commemorative booklet. It’s less and more than all that, some of his sharpest direction married to his most hollow story.
Set almost entirely in a small indoor space with a raging blizzard outside, there’s a great sense of claustrophobic paranoia (echoes of The Things, emphasized with an ominous Morricone score) as the tough men size each other up, and the captured woman quietly looks for a way out of her chains. She knows who’s there to help her, but she doesn’t let on, both to keep his cover and to keep the audience’s guessing game going. It’s fun watching the other characters try to figure it out for themselves, a neat little mystery primed to explode. Cinematographer Robert Richardson (in his fifth collaboration with Tarantino) executes tight and elegant formal control, staging varied and interesting angles within the confined space, juxtaposing it with blindingly white vistas of howling winds and galloping horses. It breathes with lengthy takes and long looks, not exactly slow cinema, but of a relaxed pace that recalls, say, Blake Edwards’s unusual 1971 film Wild Rovers in its easygoing Western danger. Nothing like a Tarantino picture to make one want to scrape the back of the brain for obscure genre comparison points.
My attention did not drift once during the extended runtime. He’s too good a craftsman and has too good a cast trapped in a gripping hook for that to happen. But I did find myself questioning why I had to be watching it. All Tarantino films deal with “edgy” material, that is to say uncomfortable subject matter (the holocaust, slavery, and so on) used for genre ends and political points, loaded up with bloodshed and profanity in overtly movie-ish ways. But Hateful Eight is barely engaging in any serious ideas beyond “people can be awful,” and isn’t using any of the inherent subtextual tensions to meaningfully add to the suspense or the drama. It’s merely cheap offense muddying an otherwise engaging and entertaining experience.
Despite a black bounty hunter and Confederate veterans cooped up together, it has only fleeting serious thoughts about race, and despite the one woman in the bunch being a villain (we’re told she’s bad, but never why until late in the game) gender rarely overtly enters the question. It’s a movie that’s just out to tell its simple, nihilistic little story (everyone has their hateful moments) in a complicated, drawn-out way, exploiting hot-button ideas with no intention of using them for more than uncomfortable shocks. At least the plotting is reasonably compelling, and the mystery engaging enough. It’s sometimes fun, and other times nasty, but the two were mostly mutually exclusive here in my eyes. But being so long and so well constructed it had plenty of time after nearly every instant that lost me to win me back.
The film has a wicked mean streak, with slurs spat out for comic effect, a woman repeatedly battered for punctuation and punchlines, and an extended rape anecdote staged for queasy laughs. (That it probably didn’t really happen, and is instead a story told to make another character mad, doesn’t blunt the cackling glee with which the devastating act is visualized for our benefit.) The movie is willing to toss aside any possible avenues of empathy in order to go for a brutal moment. It’s an unserious lark with serious violations and sadism on its mind, feinting at heavy ideas to fill the bitter hollow pit in its core. The movie wraps up with Tarantino’s usual gnarly violence, cartoonish and self-satisfied gobs of gore spraying out from the cast members one by one. It’s a long-delayed payoff – half exciting, half disturbing – for so much talky, sick tension.
A release of a sort, predictable but vivid and full of his typical surprise kills, the climax also deflates suspense and danger, especially as many fatal shots are played for cruel jokes (even when it happens to characters we’re basically rooting for). It matches the amped up ugliness of the subtext, and the relentlessness with which most of the gooiest gore effects are inflicted upon women and people of color in the cast (most of them in a depressing mass murder flashback). The Hateful Eight is disturbingly easy, and often entertaining, to watch, but hard to indulge, playing with painful cruelty for light distraction. Unlike his last few films, where violence is modulated and contained within a moral and pointed context, here it is unmoored, grotesque, deadening. The movie is compelling but difficult, a pointed display of American bloodlust and prejudice that ends up grooving on such nastiness.