When Quentin Tarantino’s new three-hour film The Hateful Eight begins with a titled “Overture,” one can’t help but worry about self-indulgence. The opening credit, over a snow-covered crucified Jesus, reads “The Eighth Film by Quentin Tarantino” and we learn the film is to be delivered via titled chapters (“Chapter 1: Last Stage to Red Rock”).
Settle in. The plot, set in post Civil-War Wyoming, is relatively simple — two bounty hunters (Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell), the prisoner (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and a Confederate hold-out (Walton Goggins) — hole up during a blizzard at the isolated one-room Minnie’s Haberdashery. Already there are four other men, of assorted occupations (Bruce Dern, Demian Bichir, Michael Madsen and Tim Roth). Everybody’s armed and shifty, and the night will be a roundelay of revelations, betrayals and gruesome deaths. Aside from a flashback or two, the action plays out mostly in real time.
The Hateful Eight is a dark comedy that riffs on Westerns (and Tarantino snagged Ennio Morricone for its score), but also has antecedents in the popular stage and screen gimmick of stranding a group of strangers in a room for dramatic purposes. (Also included, winks to the cozy murder mystery, in which the detective outlines his solution to the room of suspects: “One of you is the killer!”)
It’s a set-up that works well for Tarantino’s men-in-a-room-delivering-snappy-dialogue, and less so for his old-school use of 70 mm. The widescreen format gives the cabin depth and fosters side-by-side actors, but man, does it feel good to get outside to those big snowy vistas!
Hateful Eight is a Tall Tale, rather than a dramatic study, and fans of Tarantino (warts and all) will find it entertaining: It’s fun watching actors like Jackson, Roth and Goggins preen and prance, while archly delivering nutty dialogue. (Leigh’s also good, if all eyes and face and few words.) It’s not without its baroque set pieces, but the concerns of Tarantino’s detractors are real: The bloody violence is played for laughs; it’s laden with racist and sexist material (arguably historically accurate, but this is a wholly manufactured fictional universe); and it’s too long and oddly paced.
By my reckoning, The Hateful Eight was a mixed bag: There’s amusement to be had seeing the basic plot tangling and untangling itself, less in some of the overworked gags (a busted door, Russell’s self-conscious John Wayne impressions). After a slow start, the middle third works best as characters crash and bang into each other. But by the final third, it’s something of a tongue-in-cheek death march, where the baser impulses of Tarantino take over: Set ’em up, knock ’em down, giggle, repeat.