One of the most common complaints about Quentin Tarantino's 2009 alternate-Nazi fantasy Inglourious Basterds is that the entire movie isn't more like the opening scene. The film opens with a terrific tension, as an acidly polite SS officer (played by Christoph Waltz in a star-making role) turns his interrogation of a terrified French peasant into a leisurely monologue. The scene is beautifully shot and compellingly acted, but it's also an uncharacteristically adult piece of writing for Tarantino, all insinuation and veiled menace. It's elegant cinema with a touch of classical formalism and restraint, instead of the gibbering glee over obscenity and grotesquerie that looms in and out of so much of the filmmaker's work. Inevitably, the sequence ends with bloodshed, then gives way to a lurid black comedy that never hits the same graceful highs. It turns out Tarantino was saving them all for his latest film, The Hateful Eight, which at its best feels like the movie-length Inglourious Basterds opening that fans vocally hoped for.
Note: Mild spoilers for The Hateful Eight after the break.
Hateful Eight brings eight people together in a snowed-in waypoint in the Wyoming wilderness, where they face a few days' worth of enforced togetherness. The Civil War isn't far in the rear-view mirror, and disagreements over North vs. South, black vs. white, and Lincoln vs. Davis are still raw. As with that opening Basterds scene, violence seems inevitable, since it hangs over every terse exchange and coy pretense of courtesy. But Tarantino takes his time in getting to the fallout. First, he wants to work through his respect for classic westerns, his joy over obscure formats, and his longtime love affair with verbal fencing.
Tarantino wrote The Hateful Eight as such a conscious throwback to the epic westerns of the 1950s that it opens with an actual overture: a title card dominates the screen while Ennio Morricone's score unfolds. It's pretentious, but strangely relaxing, inviting the audience to surrender to a languid experience that's as much about ambience as it is about plot. The power of Morricone's composition certainly helps — his music is insinuating at first, then driving and urgent. The soundtrack was partially recycled from bits of his score for John Carpenter's The Thing and 1977's Exorcist II: The Heretic, but it still works perfectly against Tarantino's Old West backdrop. If western-movie cred can be bought, hiring the composer behind Sergio Leone's greatest classics is the way to do it.
Tarantino isn't in any hurry to get where he's going
But while Morricone's music, the ultra wide-screen mountain vistas (shot in Ultra Panavision, in the format's first outing since 1966), and deliberate pacing evoke historical westerns, Tarantino's modern impulses catch up with him fast. Classic westerns tended to be verbally terse, but Hateful Eight is all about the speeches and verbal jockeying for power. The obscenities and race-baiting pile up fast when white bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell, cranking his familiar John Wayne drawl up to full-on impersonation territory) meets black bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) on the road to a Wyoming town called Red Rock. Warren has a pile of valuable corpses to cash in; Ruth has a living captive, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to turn over to the hangman. They're all trying to outrun a lethal blizzard bearing down through the mountains. Before long, they encounter another stranded wanderer (Walton Goggins), and they all wind up at a small stagecoach stopover, where a former Confederate general (Bruce Dern), a quiet cowboy (Michael Madsen), a flamboyant Englishman (Tim Roth), and a heavily mustached Mexican (Demián Bichir) precede them. Ugly stresses have already developed among the stagecoach group, and the four new men complicate the dynamic further. Squabbles break out, backstories emerge, and nefarious plots are engaged. But again, Tarantino isn't in any hurry to get where he's going. Once The Hateful Eight moves indoors, it becomes a setbound theatrical experience, practically a locked-room mystery-drama, and the writer-director wants everyone to get their turn at center stage.
There's a willful perversity in Tarantino's insistence on shooting his film in an uncommonly wide panoramic format, then containing most of the story inside a single increasingly claustrophobic room. The languid sense of sprawl isn't reflected in the film's setting, but it does reach the pacing, which banks on Tarantino's supreme confidence that audiences will want to watch his colorful characters bluster, bait, and bully each other for well over three hours. (Counting a mid-film intermission, another nod to old-school-epics.) Fortunately, he puts enough colorful swagger into his dialogue to keep the energy level high and the characters differentiated. As different characters step up, switching partners for each new confrontation, there's plenty of ground for the unexpected and the unlikely to emerge.
The big exception comes in Tarantino's dreary, repetitive use of the word "nigger." It's still his favorite go-to for shock effect, though he's long since reached the point where he's worn it down to an embarrassing personal tic. He's insisted to the press that The Hateful Eight is about the impact of institutionalized racism, and that the film connects in a real and vital way to modern racial conflicts. But that doesn't hold water, given how shallowly and smugly he addresses the issue. Jackson gets one telling, touching speech, but for the most part, the exploration of racial tension in Hateful Eight consists of the entire cast repeatedly putting Warren in his place while he stews over the abuse. Tarantino has long been obsessed with revenge dramas — for a wronged woman in Kill Bill, for women more collectively in Death Proof, for black Americans in Django Unchained — and Warren does manage to get back some of his own. But it's a tedious, one-note journey waiting for him to get there.
A similarly ugly dynamic surrounds Domergue, the film's only significant female character for most of its runtime, and the film's biggest problem. She's a spiteful, foul-mouthed, manipulative criminal, but Ruth takes entirely too much smug pleasure in brutalizing her whenever she speaks up. There's that glee at grotesquerie again — there's a sense that by showing Ruth break Domergue's nose or split her scalp Tarantino thinks he's being daring and subversive. But even in a film notably marked by fetishistically observed violence for all involved, Daisy Domergue's story feels exceptionally ugly. What adds insult to injury is that so much of the power in this film comes from talking, and the one woman in the crew is repeatedly silenced whenever she tries to participate. At one point, Domergue stares glumly out the stagecoach window as The White Stripes' pleading "Apple Blossom" plays. But the song has considerably more sympathy for her than the film does.
There isn't much subtlety in the way Hateful Eight deals with sexism or racism, but subtlety has never been Tarantino's stock in trade. His biggest strength is in building nervous, delirious tension by spinning words around a problem until it becomes dizzying, then letting it all go in a big cathartic whoop. There's plenty of small humor in Hateful Eight, but it's more about grand gestures than subtle moments. And more than either, it's about the power of words to provoke or soothe, to incite violence or prevent it, to promote empathy and understanding or block it. There's plenty of gunplay in the film, but careful speeches and careless insults are the characters' real weapons against each other.
And the cast tears into those speeches with broad theatrical gusto. If not for the reductive and redundant elements, The Hateful Eight would be a masterpiece, combining the adrenaline of modern movies with the verbal sophistication of the older films Tarantino loves. Some of the character exchanges rank among the filmmaker's best, and they're frequently being projected to the back seats. For all the effort Tarantino put into broad vistas and sharp cinematography, this story is so dependent on the actors that it'd fit just as naturally in a black-box theater.
But the oversized setting and the equally oversized performances at least declare The Hateful Eight's intentions up front. Like Basterds before it — and like so much of Tarantino's work in general — The Hateful Eight is a feature-length battle between thoughtful sophistication and the filmmaker's sloppiest and most self-indulgent instincts. As much as it wallows in the worst mankind has to offer (and has little of importance to say about those impulses), it still showcases Tarantino's skills with memorable characters and high-impact dialogue. We've been dealing with Tarantino's gleeful gorehound side for more than 20 years. If he really does decided to retire in the near future, here's hoping he's able to put it to rest sometime before then. It may be the only way for him to recapture those 60-year-old panoramic classics he loves so much.
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