We hold these truths to be self-evident; that Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained, Inglourious Basterds, Death Proof, Kill Bill Vol. I-II, Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs) is a singularly talented filmmaker; that his films represent, sometimes paradoxically, the best and the worst in post-modern remix culture; that Tarantino is simultaneously the most rigorous and precise of filmmakers, using dialogue, performance, and cinematography to create, shape, and control uniquely subversive, intellectual, and emotional effects; that to Tarantino, genres long considered disreputable by cinephiles and critics alike aren’t to be shunned, but to be embraced unapologetically and even unironically; and, finally, that he’s among the most frustratingly self-indulgent and over-indulgent of contemporary filmmakers. Every film genre mixmaster Tarantino has made, in a sense, serves as a microcosm for his intertwining obsessions with art (and genre as art), violence (in all of its exploitative forms), and politics (sometimes contradictory, sometimes, admittedly incoherent). But the cinema would be a much poorer, less risky virtual place without him.
His latest, The Hateful Eight, siphons and filters the Western through decades of obsessive cinephilia, pop culture and genre permutations (e.g., classic Westerns, Spaghetti Westerns, and Revisionist Westerns). It also plays the self-referential game, periodically citing Tarantino’s oeuvre, including, but no limited to Reservoir Dogs: Tim Roth and Michael Madsen in key roles, a slowly bleeding out character, and a dead body on the floor that remains unmoved through a significant portion of The Hateful Eight’s 187-minute running time (padded out by an Ennio Morricone-provided Overture and a 12-minute intermission for the Ultra Panavision 70mm “roadshow” edition). The Hateful Eight partially unfolds as homage to John Carpenter’s science-fiction/horror classic, The Thing, e.g., an isolated, claustrophobic, snowbound location, unchecked paranoia, and semi-cathartic bouts of bloody, gore-streaked violence (not to mention Kurt Russell’s presence in the cast). But where homage stops, Tarantino’s personal preoccupations and obsessions begin: overt and institutional racism, hyper-destructive masculine codes, and misogyny.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. In pre-release interviews, Tarantino touted the use of 70mm Ultra-Panavision, a long-dormant widescreen format that’s been out of use (and circulation) for several decades. At least initially, however, the decision to use 70mm Ultra-Panavision by Tarantino and multiple Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson (Django Unchained, Hugo, Shutter Island, Inglourious Basterds, The Aviator) seems almost unassailable. The wide, snowy, texture-rich vistas (Wyoming) will fill even the most jaded and cynical of moviegoers with the requisite amount of wonder and awe, but Tarantino being Tarantino, expectations are quickly overturned, if not outright dashed, when The Hateful Eight semi-permanently retreats to its snowbound interior, a forlorn way station, Minnie’s Haberdashery, halfway between somewhere and nowhere (or vice versa), minus curiously enough, both the proprietor and her husband.
A not quite trustworthy man in a floor-length fur coat, Bob the Mexican (Demian Bichir), claims he’s just minding the literal store while Minnie and her husband are away visiting family, a story that fails to convince Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a onetime Union officer turned bounty hunter. With his horse dead and three bodies to bring back to the nearest town, Red Rock, Warren has, however temporarily, aligned himself with his personal savior, John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell, in deliberate John Wayne mode), a bounty hunter transporting his prize catch, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a bad, bad woman (whose egregious crimes against humanity remain unspecified throughout the film), for a handsome reward, making her extremely valuable indeed. Another man Ruth finds shivering, alone and horseless, by the side of the road, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a former Southern fighter and raider, claims he’s on the way to take on the role of sheriff in the now sheriff-free Red Rock.
Mannix may or may not be what he seems, but he’s not alone. When Ruth enters Minnie’s Haberdashery with Daisy, Mannix, and Warren in tow, he encounters several other men with possibly hidden agenda, Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), who also claims he’s on the way to Red Rock (as the official hangman, no less), Joe Gage (Michael Madsen, the weakest link in Tarantino’s ensemble), a cowboy angling to wait out the impending blizzard at the haberdashery before visiting his family for Christmas, and Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a retired Southern general who, like Warren and his Union coat, still wears the colors of the Confederacy. Setting aside the question of whether one or several of the men are there to rescue Daisy, the color of Warren’s skin, not to mention his Civil War record, becomes a flashpoint for conflict between Warren and Mannix and Warren and Smithers. Meanwhile, the other men sit and wait, biding their time until the blizzard passes over the haberdashery.
For all of its excessive, bloated running time, exacerbated by an unnecessary flashback (two, including one character-driven that may or may not be pure fantasy) and an equally unnecessary meta-joke (Tarantino interrupts the post-intermission scene with a redundant voiceover, a reminder both of his godlike power over his characters, as cruel, arbitrary, and capricious as always, and The Hateful Eight’s status as fiction and artifice), The Hateful Eight also exemplifies Tarantino’s myriad strengths as a filmmaker. The dialogue is still super-sharp and blackly comic, the performances are properly attuned to a modulated stylization (broad, but not caricature broad), and the cinematography, less about a roaming, mobile camera than visually dense layers inherent in a series of carefully composed images (the background is often almost as important as the foreground and the mid-ground), social, cultural, and political commentary remains, as always, just as provocative (if lacking a certain depth), and the violence is still borderline cartoonish and sadomasochistic.
As the only female character among the hateful eight, Daisy bears the brunt of masculine violence. Violence among and between the male characters isn’t in short supply, of course. The hint or threat of violence lies behind very line of dialogue, every gesture made or unmade. With the snowbound setting and hidden agendas, it’s not a matter of if, but when those hints or threats of violence turn into actual violence, cathartic or otherwise. It’s Tarantino, after all. High (art) and low (commercial) aspirations have always run through his work and criticism, no matter justified (as it might be here), will dissuade him from double- or tripling down the next time he makes a film. Then again, he can either point to the other “strong” (read: shallow) female characters who’ve headlined his films (e.g., Jackie Brown, Kill Bill Vol. I-II, Death Proof) as all the evidence anyone would need to counter any claims of misogyny in The Hateful Eight. On its own, however, it’s hard, if not impossible, to completely shake that claim, lowering what otherwise would have been another near-masterpiece in the Tarantino canon.