Quentin Tarantino stays true to form with The Hateful Eight ***, a frontier Western pastiche that’s part And Then There Were None, part Reservoir Dogs and all Tarantino.
Only he could stretch one gigantic Mexican stand-off into an epic that lasts over three hours, shot in lustrous 70mm and mainly constrained to interiors. Only he could find that playful perversity amusing, only he could get away with making it and only he could still make it so deliciously enjoyable.
Quentin’s getting like an old jazz man these days. This film is like an endless riff, a virtuosic spiral of words, phrases and exchanges. His dialogue unfolds in rhythmic builds, taking the picture – divided as it is into various chapters – along a path of tension and release. Typically, the release comes in gunfire and violence. It’s got to the point where the only way to get a Tarantino character to shut the fuck up is to blow their head off. Or make them vomit out their own tongue.
I like Tarantino’s films. Some I love (Django Unchained, Jackie Brown, Pulp Fiction), the others I just like spending time inside and The Hateful Eight falls into the latter category. You can’t like movies and not like Tarantino – this one’s got an Ennio Morricone score, an Overture playing over a blood-red screen and an Intermission, which is even kind of incorporated into the fabric of the narrative (watch out what you order in the foyer…). The very act of purchasing a ticket to a QT movie enters you into a contract with the director for an experience and on that level, his latest delivers and never stops delivering.
It flashes back and forth, it arcs and back-flips and contorts itself, crossing and double-crossing, all while relishing and savouring its own verbosity and loquacious élan.
Yet it can also be accused of a preening sense of self-importance. If you don’t like QT, this certainly won’t convert you, no matter how full on the preaching. If you don’t like QT, you’re in for a heck of a long night.
There are some mighty fine performances in The Hateful Eight. Samuel L Jackson can do Tarantino like no one else and he’s wonderful here, playing Marquis Warren, an army Major with a personal letter from Abraham Lincoln. En route to Red Rock in the middle of blizzard, he encounters Kurt Russell’s bounty hunter John Ruth, who’s escorting outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the gallows.
They offer a ride in their stagecoach to the self-proclaimed new sheriff of Red Rock, Chris Mannix, a part played by Walton Goggins with all the zealous glee of a long-time character actor seizing his big moment, a la Christoph Waltz. He’s quite something to watch.
Everyone ends up holed up in Minnie’s Haberdashery, a kind of ski chalet cum watering hole in the middle of nowhere where various other characters I didn’t give a shit about already lurk, including Tim Roth as a moustachioed British gent Oswaldo Mowbray, a chair-ridden Bruce Dern, and the pointless Michael Madsen.
You could try counting the eight of the title, but it’s never clear who forms the eponymous octet – the only real certainty is, as the opening credits impress upon us, that this is Quentin Tarantino’s Eighth Feature Film. And it’s hateful enough, all right.
The characters are like snakes in a bottle and you know they’ll eat themselves soon enough. But QT lets them hiss and coil for long enough before we bet on who’ll be last man standing.
What’s it about, I mean really about? I’m not sure. Other than indulging in the sheer ongoing pleasure of its own movie-ness (the 70mm, the score, the structure, the roadshow, the grind house, the homages and the barrage of references), The Hateful Eight doesn’t have a redemptive quality. Some will tell you, as we approach awards season, that it’s a (hardly) subtle allegory on racial tolerance, a study of personal greed, one-upmanship, survival leading to the fundamental inability to all get along. Well, that’s pretty obvious. The racial politics is doubtless to the fore in the ‘liberal’ use of the N-word and Tarantino himself has certainly taken on the US police in the run up to this film’s release, ever the provocateur stoking the racial fires, but not as smartly or amusingly as Django did.
But I did laugh, and I also cringed, recoiled in horror and chuckled and occasionally even cheered because I liked being at the picture house. I loved the running gag about the door that needs to be nailed shut every time someone comes in or out. I loved watching and hearing Samuel L Jackson. I liked the score and the waiting, the craft of the film making. But the philosophy and the politics? Not so much. Tarantino himself is a bloated individual these days, who sounds and looks far more interesting than he actually is. And I fear that’s what his films are becoming.
But as puffed up windbags go, he’s one of the absolute best and the post-modern movie landscape which he helped define would be a desolate place without him.