Quentin Tarantino returns to the biggest screen possible – 70mm Ultra-Panavision, a long-dormant format that promises moviegoers the crispest, finest widescreen images, a delight for cinephiles and non-cinephiles alike – with The Hateful Eight, a locked-room mystery-western, shot, choreographed, and performed in Tarantino’s inimitable talk-first, talk-second (and third), and shoot later style, a filmmaking style Tarantino introduced to moviegoers and critics alike more than twenty years ago in Reservoir Dogs. A master manipulator when it comes to audience expectations, not to mention (but we’ll mention it anyway), a filmmaker with a singularly perverse sense of black humor, Tarantino opens The Hateful Eight on a remote snow-covered road in Wyoming sometime after the end of the Civil War only to willfully retreat from three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson’s (Django Unchained, Hugo, Shutter Island, Inglourious Basterds, The Aviator) stunning, striking imagery for a stagebound, single-set location, a lonely, desolate road stop, Minnie’s Haberdashery, on the way to the small town of Red Rock.
Over the course of its three-hour running time – including a roadshow-inspired 3 and ½ minute overture courtesy of master composer Ennio Morricone, no stranger to the Western (Sergio Leone’s The Man With No Name Trilogy, Once Upon a Time in the West) and a 12-minute intermission (the latter far less success a gimmick than the overture) – Tarantino’s hyper-verbose characters use language to obfuscate, prevaricate, and bludgeon each other into near submission. Never one to follow Screenplay 101 rules, Tarantino tells far more than he shows (though there again, he segues into a post-intermission show and tell flashback that feels superfluous and unnecessary, in large part because it is), letting his characters and their hidden agendas (everyone has one) slowly (emphasis on slowly) reveal themselves, including their backstories (some more real than others), and motivations (usually at the end of a gun). As always with Tarantino, The Hateful Eight isn’t for everyone. Then again, the box-office success of both Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained suggests general moviegoers have little problem with Tarantino’s penchant for verbal sparring punctuated by bursts of violence.
Tarantino’s premise isn’t particularly novel (few premises are), drawing inspiration from classic Hollywood Westerns, Spaghetti Westerns, and revisionist Westerns too. The characters we meet in The Hateful Eight slide into broad, broadly written and performed types, including two known bounty hunters, John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), Ruth’s prisoner, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Red Rock’s new sheriff, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), Red Rock’s effete hangman, Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), a onetime Southern general, Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a comic-book cowboy, Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), Bob the Mexican (Demian Bichir), and a stagecoach driver, O.B Jackson (James Parks). Of course, one or more of the characters isn’t who or what he or she seems. One of Daisy’s confederates may or may not be hiding in plain sight or somewhere nearby. Finding out their true identities and relationships over The Hateful Eight’s prodigious run time is half the fun (maybe even more).
Given the snowbound setting and Kurt Russell’s prominent presence in The Hateful Eight, not to mention (but we’ll mention it again), Morricone’s involvement, Tarantino’s film often feels like an implicit homage not just to the Western genre, but to John Carpenter’s standout science-fiction/horror film, The Thing, too, minus the shapeshifting alien from another world or the explicit body horror. Practically every frame in The Hateful Eight reverberates with the overwhelming sense of claustrophobia, dread, and the threat of violence that made The Thing a stone-cold classic three decades ago. Tarantino, however, isn’t content with just citing and referencing his favorite films, tweaking or subverting them for black comedy; he also sees himself as a political filmmaker, eager to explore racism, institutional and personal, in a post-Civil War era where virulent racism was the norm, employed by politicians as a tool to maintain cultural, social, and economic power.
Tarantino doesn’t quite succeed, however, in large part because, as always, he’s both one of most talented filmmakers and also one of our most self-indulgent and over-indulgent, a function of Harvey Weinstein, Tarantino’s longtime financial backer, inability to rein in Tarantino’s worst excesses. The three-hour run time isn’t a problem, not as long as there’s enough story to support that runtime (there is, minus the aforementioned unnecessary, redundant flashback), but Tarantino’s often unreflective, over-indulgent use of the N-word and the repeated, repetitive segues from political commentary, however implicit or explicit in the dialogue and character interactions, into the calculated, casual use of borderline-cartoon violence, stereotypes (Bob the Mexican being the most obvious and most obviously egregious example), and sexism/misogyny (as the only significant female character, Daisy takes a literal beating multiple times). To be fair, however, Tarantino’s obsession with masculinity and masculinity codes can easily slip past moviegoers minus the subtext and critique presumably underlying the depiction of masculinity (it’s almost always self- and other-destructive in Tarantino’s universe).