I’m not a total Tarantino fanboy, because I’m not generally a fan of any filmmaker who keeps making different variations of the same movie. (I have this problem with Wes Anderson, too.) Some people just love a particular filmmaker’s obsessive patterns, and love returning to that same formula again and again. I don’t. After a few such films, I begin to crave something new.
That said, Quentin Tarantino’s films tend to rank reasonably highly for me. They are vibrant and unusual, even if certain aspects of them grow predictable over time. They defy typical Hollywood studio conventions, except that now they all adhere to the same Tarantino conventions — and is that really any different or better, when you can still see what’s coming from a mile away? The dialogue crackles, while there is almost always a conceptual problem in the storytelling — such as, why are the Inglourious Basterds so expendable from the story of Inglorious Basterds? Tarantino’s stories set out to do one thing, and then get distracted with another character or storyline, and that becomes the movie. Usually, it’s still a fun diversion. But isn’t it time Tarantino tried something different?
Some would argue that The Hateful Eight is that something different, but it is not. It has bits and pieces of every other Tarantino film. It is a Frankenstein’s monster of a movie. Tarantino’s style has always been about piecing together scrap parts from cinema history into something new, but now it’s starting to feel like he’s just combing over the junkyard of his own movies. (The Hateful Eight was born out of a subplot excised from Django Unchained.) This, his eight film, might be the one that least recalls films by previous filmmakers (despite a memorable score by the iconic Ennio Morricone). I’m sure there’s plenty of pastiche if you look closely, but it’s blatant than usual. You could watch the film and not think much about any particular genre or any particular period of filmmaking. Instead, Tarantino’s riffing on his own movies, which makes The Hateful Eight feel overly familiar — which for some will be a pleasure, and for others a chore.
Much of the cast is returning from other Tarantino joints — Samuel L. Jackson from Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown and Django Unchained, Kurt Russell and Zoe Bell from Death Proof, Michael Madsen from Kill Bill, Walton Goggins from Django Unchained, Tim Roth from Reservoir Dogs (who could easily be mistaken for Christoph Waltz from Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained). That’s fine — there are also some new faces in Tarantinoland, like Bruce Dern, Channing Tatum, Demian Bichir, and most notably, Jennifer Jason Leigh. The look and setting, meanwhile, are most recognizable from Tarantino’s last film, Django Unchained. This one takes place a handful of years after the Civil War and is still very much dealing with white men versus black men. This territory is old hat for Tarantino, not only because of Django, but also because he always likes calling attention to race, whether it’s relevant or not. The dreaded “N” word runs rampant here, but feels organic to the characters who spout it. It didn’t particularly bother me in the context of Reconstruction-era Hateful Eight, but I wouldn’t blame anyone who is growing tired of it.
Tarantino has done a number of variations on the Western already, which is why Hateful Eight feels most like a hodgepodge of Kill Bill and Django Unchained, with the modest scale of Reservoir Dogs thrown in for good measure. A majority of the film takes place in a very contained interior location (a “haberdashery”), and the rest largely takes place within the confines of a stagecoach. It would be admirable that Tarantino was going for such a small-scale story — if he’d had the balls to stick to it.
But midway through The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino does what Quentin Tarantino has always done. He gives in to the storytelling crutches that essentially redefined cinema back in 1994 with the release of Pulp Fiction, that have have been growing slowly but steadily staler ever since. He throws in a long chapter that knocks the movie out of chronological order, he inserts himself into the movie, and he gets cute — and, in doing so, wholly ruins the suspense he’s so painstakingly built up in the first act of this decidedly two-act movie.
Tarantino’s excesses are the reason that many people love Tarantino movies. It doesn’t make much fiscal sense to do a “bottle episode” movie set in one location, and then shoot and distribute it in extravagantly costly 70mm. But whatever! It’s Tarantino! I can get over this level of cinematic absurdity, and could maybe even love it in a movie that had better follow-through.
About midway through The Hateful Eight, I was impressed. I knew there was gruesome violence coming, but there hadn’t been any gruesome violence yet. The first half of the film is drawn out and talky, even by Tarantino standards, but in a way that felt true to its characters, with less showboating than you often get from a Tarantino script. There was even some subtlety! (Not a lot, but a little.) For a moment there, I wondered if maybe we were going to get through an entire Tarantino movie without a major rewind sequence.
Alas, nope! It’s here, and so is everything else. It certainly feels like Tarantino originally intended to do something different with The Hateful Eight (perhaps as a “fuck you” to the detractors who think the maestro is a slave to his excesses):
A “locked room” mystery (in this case, technically, a “nailed shut because there’s a blizzard outside” mystery). A contained number of cast members (eight, perhaps?). A film that insinuates more than it shows. A story that leaves room for ambiguity, that lets the audience use imagination to fill in the gaps. A movie that unfolds in straightforward fashion, all linear-like, in what feels a lot like real time. I, for one, would be very interested in seeing a Quentin Tarantino that showed that kind of restraint.Somewhere in the sprawling three-hour extravaganza that is The Hateful Eight is a nice, tight two-hour movie that could have been sublime. It would still be very Tarantino, because there’s blood everywhere in that last hour. Multiple heads explode. And up until then, there’s plenty of clever chatter. Of course, nobody these days goes to a Tarantino movie expecting “nice,” “tight,” or “two hours,” so who am I kidding? The problem is that it seems like that’s the movie Tarantino set out to make here, or else why bother with the single location? The Hateful Eight has been compared to a stage play, which it almost is, except stage plays don’t have flashbacks that suddenly introduce a whole cast of disposable new characters. (As opposed to disposable old characters. In Tarantino movies, all characters are ultimately disposable.) How great would it be if The Hateful Eight actually stuck to having just an economical eight characters? That flashback sequence ruins everything this movie is going for in one fell swoop.
Tarantino doesn’t trust his audience to put the pieces together. He loves his own imagination so much that he won’t allow anything to be left up to ours. If we hear tell that there’s been a brutal bloodbath earlier, you can sure bet we’re going to see every single bullet wound incurred during that shootout in the grandest, bloodiest fashion, even if it adds nothing to the forward momentum of the story.
The second act of The Hateful Eight begins with an Agatha Christie-style “whodunit,” the answer to which is painfully obvious. The entire movie doesn’t hinge on that, but Tarantino stages the big reveal like it is a big reveal, and it is certainly not. He also makes the bizarre choice to interrupt the movie with his own voiceover narration, setting up a gruesome surprise that should have been left as a gruesome surprise. It’s the equivalent of Steven Spielberg’s booming voice cutting into a scene in Jaws in order to say: “Hey, guys, there’s a shark coming. Big, scary shark coming… right… about… now.” And then there’s a shark.
Jaws famously works as well as it does because the mechanical shark malfunctioned, forcing Spielberg to suggest much of the suspense. What’s left to the imagination is nearly always more powerful than what we see on screen, but Tarantino disagrees. In The Hateful Eight, we see absolutely everything.And we’ve seen it. Every character in The Hateful Eight will remind you of a character from a previous Tarantino movie. Every moment recalls a scene he’s staged before. Many moviegoers will be perfectly content to do it all over again — eight times around, it’s still as fun as the first. And I wouldn’t mind so much if this film weren’t set up as something more novel, something different. If this story wasn’t just begging to be as intimate and contained as its setup would suggest. I can’t stop seeing the great movie hidden within the fatty folds of The Hateful Eight, and it makes me mad at this one.
Would a Tarantino movie stripped of the director’s most irksome excesses still be a Tarantino movie? I think it would. Did Tarantino not trust himself to make that movie, or not trust his fans to like it? Did he try and write a simpler, more straightforward film, and then panic? Can he really not help but throw in a whole unnecessary flashback sequence that bloats his film far past a sensible running time? It’s the inverse of Chekhov’s gun — in a Tarantino movie, if you hear that there was a gun in an earlier scene, he can’t help but insert a 20-minute flashback to show it, just to make sure you know the gun was really there all along.
I was never bored during The Hateful Eight. There are characters and themes I really enjoyed, and a lot of moments to savor — particularly in the superior first half. (I may be in the minority, preferring the staid opening act to the explosive finale.) There’s plenty of juicy discussion to dive into involving race and gender, and a few specific plot points that are worth dissecting, both bad and good. But all of this potential is swallowed by a couple of severe miscalculations on Tarantino’s part — in my eyes, some of the most egregious errors made by any filmmaker this year.
I don’t mind a three hour film at all, except that this film would be infinitely better if it were shorter. If Tarantino wants to go crazy with chronology and too many characters, godspeed to him! He’s done it before, and will undoubtedly do it again. (And again… and again…) But if he wants to make a contained Ten Little Indians murder mystery that feels like theater, I wish he’d just do it — as economically as such a thing should be done. The Hateful Eight is like a great little chamber piece that’s been put on the rack and tortured by Tarantino until it barely resembles what it used to be. It is my least favorite film by Quentin Tarantino.