(This is a review of the roadshow version of The Hateful Eight, which will be screening in true 70mm in about 50 theaters across the country during the first two weeks after the movie’s release on Christmas Day. The same roadshow version will also screen in other venues digitally rather than on film. Before the roadshow engagement ends, a slightly shortened version, sans overture and intermission, will go into general release on December 31, so if you’re interested in seeing the roadshow version—and if you can, you should see it—read your newspaper or Internet theater listings carefully.)
Once upon a time, not so very long ago, a friend and I had a friendly discussion online about what it was that made a story a “western.” It seemed to him that, beyond the usual interchangeable trappings of the genre-- six-shooters, ruthless bad guys, conflicted lawmen, a showdown on Main Street and lots and lots of cattle, et al-- the very placement of the story itself in America a couple of decades either side of the middle of the 19th century during which the settlers began moving West itself made the story a western. He then challenged me to come up with a movie or a TV show that disproved his premise, which caused me a bit of a struggle before I came up with Little House on the Prairie, a series of books from whence came the popular TV show about family life in frontier America— one would hardly call Little House a western, though it may have occasionally featured a cow or a horse or a visit from the local lawman.
I thought of this conversation frequently in sorting through my response to writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s latest, The Hateful Eight, which despite a post-Civil War setting and being knee-deep in stagecoaches, morally questionable bounty hunters, big handguns, an assortment of scurrilous, law-breaking varmints and big, nasty, percolating pots of pitch-black coffee, is no more a western than the Ingalls family saga was. Turns out that Tarantino has employed the Ultra Panavision 70 format, a wide-screen process which hasn’t been used in decades (at an extra-wide aspect ratio of 2.76:1, it is in truth a Cinerama presentation, and that company’s logo appears before this movie’s opening credits), to tell what is essentially, once the setup of the first half hour is complete and the action moves away from the snowy outdoors, a chamber drama seasoned with more than just a dash of the old ultra-violence, a racially charged whodunit which owes as much to Agatha Christie as to Sergio Leone and the countless other references Tarantino throws into the stew.
After an overture highlighting Ennio Morricone’s lush score (assembled, apparently, from themes written for but eventually discarded from Morricone’s score for The Thing, with cherry-picked segments from Morricone’s familiar music for The Thing and Exorcist II: The Heretic thrown in for good measure), the story commences. One of those morally questionable bounty hunters, John Ruth (Kurt Russell), is on his way across a snowy mountain pass in possession of a prisoner, the mean-spirited Daisy Domergue. (The movie can’t seem to decide whether the name is pronounced DOM-er-goo or Do-MING-gway, but it does seem to know that she’s played by Jennifer Jason Leigh.) Domergue’s crimes are initially unclear, but her obviously psychotic personality and apparent indifference to being punched in the face by her captor seem to endear her to the hangman’s noose for which she is bound. Their stagecoach stops to pick up two unexpected passengers—another bounty hunter, this one an ex-Union officer by the name of Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), and Chris Mannix, an ex-Confederate raider (Walton Goggins) who claims to be the newly elected sheriff of the town in which the prisoner-in-transit is scheduled to be executed.
Once the new passengers are on board (and that process takes a while, as does most everything in The Hateful Eight, Tarantino being the self-delighted dawdler he is), the whole party is forced by an impending storm to stop at a trading post, Minnie’s Haberdashery, where four other unlucky travelers—a mysterious cowpoke named Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), Oswald Mowbray, a garrulous hangman (Tim Roth), cranky Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern) and Bob, the shady caretaker of the outpost (Damian Bechir)—have already taken refuge. Including the stage’s nondescript driver (James Parks), that’s a hateful nine, though the late arrival of yet another lawless reprobate tips the movie’s grand total forward toward 10 and confirms our suspicions (hell, at three hours and seven minutes, our hopes) that all is not as it seems to be in this snowbound hotbed microcosm of moral and racial tension.
And of course all is not as it seems to be. The problem for me (at least one of them) is that by the time our presumptions start getting upended and Tarantino starts pulling his usual tricks of time refraction in order to expand the story backward as well as forward, a potentially taut thriller centered around a thin, familiar story has been lost in a bloat of narrative digressions and self-conscious dialogue. Tarantino is so in love with his own shadow in The Hateful Eight that narrative developments which could have been telescoped, trimmed or outright discarded and shaped into a sharp, focused first hour here take fully two before the movie wheezes into intermission, with an hour left to endure.
Another issue is how simultaneously underwritten, in terms of character and the story, and overwritten, in terms of the movie’s showy dialogue, the script is revealed to be. This movie may be logy and self-satisfied—a simple dinner scene with everyone seated at the table seems to spin on forever with precious little wit on display—but its unrelenting verbosity also veers dangerously close to self-parody. With the exception of the one played by Samuel Jackson, every character sounds virtually indistinct from the other, as if the screenplay had been hijacked by one of the countless QT imitators that have emerged from and crawled back into the cellar since Pulp Fiction exploded. Believe me, there was no pleasure to be had in realizing that the eighth movie by Quentin Tarantino (which the opening credits, in typically grandiose fashion, helpfully remind us that this is) is the first of his that could accurately be described as boring.
Amidst the pre-intermission directorial hemming and hawing which dutifully sets the table for what Tarantino is really interested in (hint: it involves a lot of viscera), there are a couple of touchstones at play besides the obvious nods to Agatha Christie and Sergio Leone. The first that came to mind is Andre De Toth’s seething, eloquently tense western Day of the Outlaw (1958), in which citizens of a tiny mountain outpost town have to put aside their differences when they’re held hostage by a band of criminals. De Toth uses the interiors of the town saloon, where everyone is holed up, to create an oppressive claustrophobia, but he knew what that treacherous exterior terrain was for too. The orchestrated balance between the threat within and the threat awaiting in the mountains in Day of the Outlaw made for great drama, a great western. But in The Hateful Eight Tarantino never finds a way to make the great outdoors a real character—all those gorgeously framed wide-screen, snow-covered mountains are reduced to a wintry backdrop, glimpsed largely through windows and doors, as the increasingly gruesome goings-on escalate on the inside.
The other touchstone is, of course, Tarantino himself. In form and in its absurd elongation, The Hateful Eight resembles nothing so much as a feature-and-a-half-length version of the masterful basement bar sequence in Inglorious Basterds, a sequence its detractors have already claimed went on far too long. (I was not one of those detractors.) In that magnificently deranged 2009 movie, there was hardly a more assured half-hour than the one which took place in that basement, where elements of identity, culture and impersonation (crystalized in the guessing game around which the sequence is constructed) melded together to create an impending sense of helpless doom, one in which we began to fear, for the American and German resistance fighters as well as the German soldiers and the proprietors of the establishment, that no one could possibly get out of the situation alive. There’s the same sense in The Hateful Eight, but the crucial element of empathy is missing, so the standoff that engulfs the second half of the movie feel less organic, more perfunctory. We’re set up here not to squirm and project ourselves as viewers into the situation, but instead to giggle at the presumably clever, nihilistic inevitability of the director’s dramatic scheme.
And speaking of schemes, as confused as I initially was when I heard of his now well-publicized plans, I actually admire the perversity of Tarantino’s decision to use such an outrageously gorgeous format to create claustrophobic interiors. This is called a director challenging himself-- absolutely nothing wrong with that—and it links Tarantino’s purpose here to the sort of temporal juggling and rug-pulling strategies that have often characterized his best work. But it also hints that this self-imposed challenge might be a way of staving off boredom. As visually arresting as much of The Hateful Eight manages to be, the more the camera begins to swirl restlessly, especially in the second half, the more the director seems to be trying to conjure stuff to do with that super-wide format, and the desperation to justify his indulgence begins bubbling to the surface.
It’s no stretch to connect the lunatic beauty of the opening train station sequence of Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, with its gargoyle close-ups of Jack Elam and the station platform that looked as wide as the American plains themselves, to what Tarantino attempts here. But of course Leone also knew that such extremity of focus needed to be balanced by vastness in order to be understood and commented upon. After a while The Hateful Eight begins to take on the oppressiveness of being locked in a closet at the mercy of a nasty playmate who doesn’t particularly care whether or not you feel like keeping his violent games going any longer.
Tarantino has been working overtime in the press in the months preceding this week’s release of The Hateful Eight, dictating the response to the movie in his own terms like an expert catcher framing balls and strikes tossed by a wobbly pitcher, hoping the movie might be received in a manner meeting his approval. (The strategy, if earliest reviews are any indication, seems to be jelling nicely.) There’s a lot of talk in Tarantino’s recent interview with Village Voice critic Amy Nicholson about the movie being about “race, cruelty and justice,” as well as the director’s own statements about being connected to the zeitgeist in his script’s apparent reflection of hostilities that have recently exploded in Ferguson, Baltimore, Chicago, New York and cities all over the country.
Unfortunately, the movie itself makes race a subject in the most puerile and superficial ways, pushing buttons one might reasonably expect Tarantino would be growing tired of pushing in the relentless manner of that nasty closet playmate, but without any residual illumination of furthered understanding. The use of the word “nigger” in The Hateful Eight hurts more than it usually does in a Tarantino movie, which is a good thing, and that’s entirely due to the post-Civil War context in which it’s being used. But that doesn’t mean you can’t feel the writer-director’s taunting delight in making audiences squirm over hearing it-- he’s becoming the Gaspar Noe of racial epithets. It’s a measure of the movie’s basest consideration of race that one of its biggest laughs, and gasps, comes at the expense of Dern’s Smithers as he’s told the story of his son’s sexual humiliation and death at the hands of a very well-endowed black Union soldier. The story is most likely bullshit orchestrated to enrage the old man, and Tarantino only cares about the shock value, but his audience experiences it as storytelling truth, and the unleashed power and racial anger with which the general is confronted is dissipated by the familiar sound of a gunshot.
(Despite inferences in that interview to the contrary, the best movie in the country now playing—barely—about race and cruelty and justice, and, oh, yeah, also about sex, a subject that has never much interested QT, is not The Hateful Eight—not by a long shot—but rather Spike Lee’s brilliant musical satire Chi-raq, in which Jackson also appears.)
Even more unfortunately, the movie takes the same tittering, taunting attitude toward its presumptions about its audience’s feelings about violence directed at women. Tarantino’s insistence in interviews is that Leigh’s murderous Daisy Domergue is treated just like one of the guys, meaning, of course, that she is fairly or unfairly subjected to the same sort of pitiless behavior as anyone else. But it wouldn’t take a latter-day Andrea Dworkin to notice the delight, shared by many of the Tarantino faithful who jammed the screening I was in, at every Dolby-enhanced bash in the teeth Domergue endures. We have only the word of bounty hunter Ruth to assure us that she deserves every tooth-crushing, skull-threatening blow. Meanwhile, however perforated or violated their bodies may be at any given moment in The Hateful Eight, the rest of the male cast is at least not subjected to protracted humiliations to be piled on top of the circumstances of their grisly deaths. The hysterical fever pitch of Domergue’s eventual fate suggests a scale better reserved for a genocidal dictator rather than the murderous leader of a gang of cutthroats who wouldn’t, Tarantino’s delicious details aside, be out of place in any run-of-the-mill western.
Daisy spends the entire movie in chains, and we only hear secondhand about her crimes—with the exception of one sneaky-deadly move, we never see her do anything but respond to the rest of the cast in a racially, misanthropically vile manner. Maybe she’s the most hateful of these eight, but her protracted humiliation still seems bizarrely out of balance. By that point the movie has succumbed to hysteria anyway, and even the most interesting of the director’s characters, Major Marcus Warren, has been reduced to pummeled meat in Tarantino’s outpost abattoir.
But however mangled he might end up, Jackson is the only performer who emerges from the confines of The Hateful Eight’s hellish haberdashery with his dignity intact, with Russell coming in a close second. Both men display their customary commitment and vitality in animating Tarantino’s world, and they represent its ruptured, malignant center with the most resonance. But to a man, and a woman, the rest of the cast, abandoned within the fetishistic conviction of their director’s design, turn in close to career-worst performances. Dern merely sits and glowers; Bechir growls unconvincingly under a scraggly beard; Madsen’s droopy-eyed gunslinger projects less intimidation than narcolepsy; and Tim Roth, in the absence of Christoph Waltz, has apparently been asked to witlessly channel the two-time Oscar winner with a dash of Terry-Thomas seasoning to insure full-scale annoyance. Walton Goggins cartoonishly overplays almost every aspect of his ex-Confederate soldier’s white entitlement and outrage, so much so that the power of the character’s eventual move toward racial cooperation, at least as far as he can take it, is undermined. And speaking of overplaying, Jennifer Jason Leigh rewrites the book as Daisy Domergue, a performance seemingly calculated to make Jeanette MacDonald’s Dirty Sally look like subtle character work. Leigh serves here only to illuminate a writerly conceit-- she stays far away from the sort of brushes with humanity that might encourage the audience to respond to her confinement with something other than the cackling glee the director inspires.
As might be obvious from that tall tale spun for the benefit of General Smithers, The Hateful Eight is a movie rife with untrustworthy narrators. Is Mannix really the new sheriff? Are those folks already warming their boots by the fire when Ruth and company arrive with Domergue who they say they are? Does Bob know where Minnie and the rest of the outpost regulars might really be? And does anyone know who made that delicious coffee? As the movie resumes after a 12-minute break, Tarantino’s voice is heard on the soundtrack catching us up on what happened before the intermission, and also what happened while we were out for popcorn or making that much-needed bathroom break. It’s another conceit worth a chuckle, but it made me wish every single thing in The Hateful Eight didn’t have quotation marks around it. It’s a shame that the most untrustworthy narrator of them all turns out to be Tarantino himself, who abandons his cast in a set that looks as vast as one of Leone’s dusty main streets in favor of playing with technological toys he’s not entirely sure what to do with, as least as far as the amplification of story is concerned.
In several ways this movie is a circus of technical control, an accomplished, veracious illusion of a specific time and of American social tensions within a genre framework. But it also feels, in comparison to the genuinely audacious Inglorious Basterds or Jackie Brown’s consummate directorial assurance and expression of character, like an especially ugly Ultra Panavision circle jerk, a scenario constructed primarily for the amusement of its creator and his fan base, with the rest of us encouraged just to play and cheer along. I prefer The Hateful Eight over Django Unchained, which allowed genuine pain and horror to degenerate into wish-fulfillment silliness (a quality Basterds’ wish fulfillment avoided), but this new movie now has the dubious honor of being the second Tarantino picture I have no wish to revisit. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from seeing it, of course, especially if you can manage to see it in in 70mm. But despite it being, to paraphrase the wisdom of Blazing Saddles’ Olsen Johnson, not precisely a western but certainly the biggest, widest, most authentic frontier gibberish in town, The Hateful Eight is the first Tarantino movie that feels something like punishment. That ought to be no one’s idea of fun.