A bounty hunter and his prisoner walk into a haberdashery, waylaid by bad weather. That’s the set-up for The Hateful Eight, a slow-burn, talky Western in which Quentin Tarantino cashes in on the clout he earned with two unlikely hits (Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained) and makes his most indulgent, longest movie to date.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, depending on your personal taste. Yes, the movie is an epic-length (more than three hours) remix of Tarantino’s greatest hits; he reworks his own storytelling tics and flourishes the way he reworked the bank-heist genre in Reservoir Dogs. Once again, he’s recycling other people’s works — everything from Stagecoach to Agatha Christie, Bonanza to John Carpenter’s The Thing — but he melds them into something singular and bracing, with an extra-large dollop of his signature ultra-violence.
Set almost entirely inside a large cabin in Wyoming soon after the Civil War in which eight strangers (possibly more) have holed up to ride out a winter storm, The Hateful Eight was shot by cinematographer Robert Richardson in Ultra Panavision, which allows for a wider, more detailed image. The 70mm roadshow version of the movie is an old-school presentation projected on film, complete with overture and intermission. A shorter cut of the movie playing at most theaters runs 167 minutes with no intermission and fewer panoramic shots.
The Hateful Eight is deliberately paced — it stars off at a crawl, with an opening 20 minutes that could have taken up five — and once the action moves indoors, Tarantino frames the actors carefully, often giving them nothing to do but stand around and listen while others deliver monologues. The whole thing is so stagey, it feels like it was intended to be a chamber play, although so much blood is spilled that the theater’s floorboards would warp (Tarantino goes overboard a couple of times, engaging in splatter and gore for pure sensation; sometimes, less is more).
Tarantino has always been merciless toward his characters, willing to kill off likable and despicable protagonists with the same relish. But The Hateful Eight seems particularly brutal, even by his standards. Some critics have argued the film goes too far trying to mine laughs out of seeing a female outlaw (Jennifer Jason Leigh) get punched and elbowed in the face repeatedly by men, or a flashback scene in which a former Union major (Samuel L. Jackson) recounts the outlandish revenge he exacted on a racist killer. But I don’t think Tarantino intends these elements to be funny in the traditional sense. This is a movie about odious people — the “hateful” in the title describes how they feel about each other as much as how we feel about most of them — and he observes their behavior as coolly as they use the n-word, which is dropped here as often as Tony Montana dropped f-bombs in Scarface. The movie’s intentionally humorous moments are plentiful and obvious (and sometimes ghastly); in other moments, your mileage may vary, depending on what you consider to be funny.
Tarantino has been offending queasy audiences ever since Michael Madsen sliced off the cop’s ear in Reservoir Dogs. So why does The Hateful Eight — which is essentially the story of a group of people stranded in a cabin playing tricks on each other — feel different, dirtier, meaner? The movie doesn’t deliver the giddy, down-the-rabbit-hole kick of Pulp Fiction or the savage satisfaction of revenge of Inglourious Basterds. This is a grimmer, more brutal movie than even Django Unchained was. Although the dialogue is grandstanding and overripe, the themes in the film — the postbellum stench of racism and slavery lingers in the cabin like the noxious smoke from a pile of burning tires — are intended to connect with the present-day. When Jackson tells Bruce Dern’s ex-Confederate general “You’ve got no idea what it’s like being a black man staring down America,” the line resonates in today’s polarized culture more than Tarantino might have imagined.
There are some terrific performances in The Hateful Eight, including Kurt Russell as a cagey bounty hunter who isn’t quite as smart as he thinks he is; Tim Roth as an affected executioner with an accent worthy of Christoph Waltz; Demian Bichir as the caretaker of the haberdashery who is so prone to squinting, he delivers some lines with his eyes shut; and Walton Goggins as a newly-minted sheriff-to-be who may or may not be crooked. Out of the bunch, the standouts are Jackson, once again making poetry out of Tarantino’s ornate dialogue; Goggins, an actor who knows how to deliver verbal curlicues with relish; and Leigh, who spends so much of the movie lurking in the background that you wonder why she even took the part, until you stop wondering.
That’s when Tarantino reveals the truth behind all the strange intimations and hints of chicanery throughout the story, and the picture transforms into something completely different. Even the score by Ennio Morricone mutates into something lusher and more operatic. The Hateful Eight is a movie about the worst aspects of human nature, which is why the film can’t be quite described as “fun,” at least in the traditional sense (The Force Awakens, this is not). But Tarantino isn’t glorifying the ugliness; he’s condemning it. He just wants to put on a grand show at the same time. “Are you not entertained?” he seems to be asking. Yes. Yes, we are.
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demian Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, James Parks, Zoe Bell, Channing Tatum.
Writer-director: Quentin Tarantino.
A Weinstein Co. release. Running time: 187 minutes. Vulgar language, extreme violence, heavy gore, nudity, sexual situations, strong adult themes. Playing at: area theaters.