Quentin Tarantino returns to screens this winter with the ultra-violent Western, The Hateful Eight. The story brings together a despicable coterie of villains and pits them against one another in a remote snowed-in outpost. As with every Tarantino film, The Hateful Eight is violent, verbose, and visually sumptuous. This one is also a movie of reflection, a conscious callback to the single setting bravura of the filmmaker’s debut, Reservoir Dogs. The film reunites the director with Dogs co-stars Michael Madsen and Tim Roth, as well as a who’s-who of other acolytes including Kurt Russell, Zoe Bell, and the ubiquitous Samuel L. Jackson.
The film is reportedly also about Tarantino working through his feelings about John Carpenter’s horror film, The Thing, released in 1982. The Hateful Eight contains many conscious nods to the previous film, including its frigid setting, the casting of Carpenter favorite Kurt Russell, gruesome imagery, and best of all, the return of cinema’s greatest composer, Ennio Morricone, who in addition to creating new music for the film, incorporated unused elements from his Thing score. The current three-hour roadshow version begins with a traditional overture, with Morricone’s haunting melodies playing out uninterrupted as the theatre lights dim. This is one of life’s greatest pleasures.
These special elements provide some of the film’s greatest moments, and yet they also raise some of the biggest questions. While it is always commendable when an artist is able to release their work in the format they prefer, were the decisions surrounding The Hateful Eight‘s presentation in this particular film’s best interest? Is this the film that needed a lavish release with fancy programs, overtures, and intermissions? If any Tarantino film deserved such a prestigious rollout it was Kill Bill, whose half year split release still hangs over it, leaving an air of what could have been. Heck, Inglourious Basterds would have been a hoot as such grand cinematic spectacle.
Is The Hateful Eight the Tarantino movie that needed to be shot in widescreen 65mm? Sure, in the opening credit sequence there are some gorgeous images of the snowy landscape but for two full hours the film is confined to its one indoor location, and before that it spends ample time inside a stagecoach. Those images don’t demand the widest frame possible. Shooting in a smaller aspect ratio could have added to the claustrophobia. At its heart, The Hateful Eight is a minor key drawing room mystery. And let’s be clear, there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, after releasing such epic scale tales of revenge as Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained it is nice to see Tarantino working on a smaller narrative, albeit one with a curiously longer running time. Why he chose to clothe it in the trappings of Ben-Hur is a bit odd. It seems like he did this 70mm release because he could, not necessarily because he should. One drawback is there have been reports of screenings affected by the utter lack of trained projectionists left to handle the format.
Like Django Unchained before it, this is another Tarantino script that feels less polished than his previous, yes, masterpieces. Most of the characters’ backgrounds are spelled out far too much here. The first hour is practically a round robin of people explaining who other characters are, their occupations, reputations, and motivations. Meanwhile other characters are not defined nearly enough. It would have helped the audience if we knew more about narrative linchpin Daisy’s homicidal transgressions other than that she’s a murderer, a racist, and “a bitch”. Give us a patented Tarantino flashback supercut to her previous atrocities, allowing the subsequent brutal beatings meted out to Jennifer Jason Leigh to resonate more.
Speaking of patented Tarantino, some of the narrative choices don’t make much sense. Of all of his films, this one is the story least in need of chapter breaks. And yet, we get five chapters. Almost all set in the cabin. All taking place on the same day. The inclusion of a narrator in the film’s second half seems superfluous as well. The narrator informs the audience that Daisy witnessed one of the other Eight doing something nefarious while the others were distracted. Why not just show that with two cuts? The action and Daisy’s viewpoint?
The Hateful Eight is at turns, exhilarating, cumbersome, frustrating, hilarious, and provoking. Quentin Tarantino remains an auteur through and through. He is an artist wholly unable to craft anything faceless or mediocre. But as he has less and less to prove, his excesses may become his undoing. While there are tantalizing elements to The Hateful Eight that point to new directions for the director, it appears as though Tarantino will be unable to create the great Western worthy of his prodigious talent until he does the unthinkable and puts aside his misplaced animosity to embrace the humanity of John Ford.
(The Hateful Eight is now playing in 70mm at the Pacific Place.)