Love him or hate him, Quentin Tarantino is an exceedingly talented filmmaker. And even though I hold the unpopular opinion that Tarantino peaked with “Pulp Fiction,” and that “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained” were exercises in overindulgence, it’s impossible to deny that all his work has an inimitable postmodern flair. “The Hateful Eight” applies that flair to the Western genre, resulting in a final product that departs from Tarantino’s recent approaches and successfully evokes the director’s heyday.
(I was lucky enough to snag a showing of the 70mm “roadshow” version – featuring an old-school overture and intermission – and would highly recommend doing likewise.)
For a Tarantino film, “The Hateful Eight” has an uncharacteristically linear plot: bounty hunters Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and John Ruth (Kurt Russell) find themselves escorting captured desperado Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the nearest town to face justice. When a blizzard descends on their stagecoach, they must take shelter in a remote haberdashery along with a colorful cast of other wayfarers. It soon becomes clear, however, that some of the travelers may have violent intentions.
In its claustrophobic setting and ruthlessly linear plot, “The Hateful Eight” evokes none of Tarantino’s movies as strongly as “Reservoir Dogs.” Here, there’s the same combination of knife-edge tension (that inevitably erupts into grisly violence) and effortlessly dynamic clash between characters. Where “Django” and “Basterds” seemed to lose focus partway through, drifting through a series of larger-scale set pieces, the severely restricted setting of “Eight” works to the film’s great credit: every scene crackles with hair-raising intensity. Coupling this ambiance with a dash of narrative nonlinearity (a la “Pulp Fiction”) results in a fusion that feels both classic and fresh.
Tarantino is very, very good at two things – dialogue and carnage – and both of those are on full display here. Whereas “Basterds” and “Django” drew their narrative energy from adrenaline-charged genre tropes (revenge against Nazis and revenge against slavers, respectively), “Eight” is a much slower burn that relies on character interactions to propel its plot. One of Tarantino’s great strengths is his ability to instantly create memorable characters who transcend their settings, and “Eight” demonstrates that proficiency to great effect. (And yes, for those who view Tarantino films to see such things, there’s tons of bloodshed once the guns come out). As an aside: Ennio Morricone’s score (the first soundtrack the composer has done for a Western in several decades) is a major highlight, and probably the best score I’ve heard in months.
“Eight,” like most of Tarantino’s movies, is about half an hour too long. It’s never dull, but it’s exceedingly deliberate in its pacing (which some viewers will no doubt find off-putting) – I found myself often thinking how well it would translate into a stage play. There’s also one groaner of a plot choice (unfortunately present in many other “whodunit”-type stories) that detracts from the cleverly crafted narrative…though this is a small gripe. And it almost doesn’t warrant mention, given the director’s notoriety, but this is by no means a film for all ages (there’s lots of violence, profanity, gratuitous use of racist language by villainous characters, etc.).
“The Hateful Eight” will probably polarize Tarantino fans. Stylistically, it’s a throwback to an earlier mode of storytelling, and departs from the sprawling “epic” approach seen in the director’s more recent movies. As someone underwhelmed by Tarantino’s last two films, I found “Eight” a highly satisfying change-up…but not all will agree.
A lushly filmed, welcome return to form for Tarantino.
Normalized Score: 5.8