Writer/director Quentin Tarantino – since his debut, Reservoir Dogs, one of the United States’ noted auteurs – released his eighth feature, The Hateful Eight (or “The H8ful Eight,” as it is also known) for a “70mm Roadshow” on December 25, 2015. It opens in Baltimore in wide (non-70mm) release on Friday, January 8, 2016. I saw it two days after the roadshow started, and have been puzzling it over ever since, since a lot of good people lent their talents to the enterprise, and I’m not quite sure what to make of it, myself. On the acting side, we have Tarantino regular Samuel L. Jackson (Django Unchained); Tarantino “occasionals” like Kurt Russell (Death Proof), Tim Roth (Pulp Fiction) and Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs); as well as Tarantino newbies Jennifer Jason Leigh (Margot at the Wedding) and Bruce Dern (here, as in Nebraska, in full curmudgeon mode), among others. On the production side, we have the great Robert Richardson on camera. He’s a regular, too, having previously shot Kill Bill, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, for Tarantino, along with many films for the likes of Oliver Stone (including JFK, for which he won an Oscar, and Natural Born Killers) and Martin Scorsese (including The Aviator and Hugo, for both of which he won Oscars). On art direction, we have Japanese production designer Yohei Taneda (Kill Bill, Vol. 1), art director Richard L. Johnson (The Truman Show) and set decorator Rosemary Brandenburg (Public Enemies). Fred Raskin is back as editor, having done Guardians of the Galaxy since his last (and first) for Tarantino, Django Unchained. And then there is the revered composer of Western scores, Ennio Morricone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), along for the ride (here’s the opening overture), though this being a Tarantino film, there’s plenty of other (anachronistic) music on the soundtrack, as well. What’s the point of this lengthy list? Well, it’s about as frenetically busy as the movie, itself, with about the same amount of overall meaning. In other words, the whole is less than the sum of its parts, however interesting some of those individual parts may be. It’s important to note that until the half-time break, I felt very differently.
In the roadshow version, the film is divided into two halves separated by a 12-minute intermission (with that short overture to start). It is my understanding that though the structure will be the same in the non-70mm version, there will be some shortened scenes and no intermission. I’m not sure how this will affect the experience. What I do know is that, in the roadshow version, I felt as if a spell had been broken when I returned from the break. I mostly loved the first half, which seemed headed to a similar takedown of America’s history of violence and racial exploitation that the director had explored so effectively in Django Unchained. Well scripted, acted and shot, and with that excellent musical theme from Morricone, The Hateful Eight, pre-intermission, succeeded in wrapping me in its seductive mix of vulgar pastiche (Tarantino’s specialty) and clever mystery. But then it all went to bloody hell.
Written as six chapters – not all of which make clear divisional sense, as if Tarantino is just toying with our expectations that they do so – The Hateful Eight starts on a snowy ridge, where Major Marquis Warren (a.k.a. “The Bounty Hunter,” and played by Jackson) stops a stagecoach for a ride. His horse has died, and he has a cargo of human corpses to transport to town. The passenger on that stagecoach is one John Ruth (a.k.a. “The Hangman,” and played by Russell), who has a (live) cargo of his own, Daisy Domergue (a.k.a. “The Prisoner,” and played by Leigh). I should stop to point out that the main characters all have cute little monikers – not all mentioned in the film – that serve as their identities in the “H8ful Eight” pantheon (whatever that ultimately means). Anyway, Ruth is in no mood to slow down his progress, but when he realizes that he and Warren have met before, and that they’re (mostly) in the same business, he reluctantly allows the man (and his cargo) on board. Soon, they meet another wayward traveler, and the suspicious stakes are raised. All the while, a blizzard chases them, and so they take refuge in Minnie’s Haberdashery – a lonely outpost far from town – where a strange group awaits them (the rest of the “H8ful Eight,” we assume). Are they there randomly, or does everyone have some design on Ruth’s prisoner, as he fears?
So far, so good. The mood is simultaneously chilling and funny. Tarantino is a master of the mixed tone, and he deftly alternates between wit and menace with great skill. Jackson’s presence as the sole African-American quickly makes him a target, and before long it seems as if this might just be the de facto sequel to Django Unchained, with that movie’s bounty hunter now an older man, a lifetime of killing white people behind him. Unfortunately, Tarantino has other plans, most of which mystify me, since I am no longer 12 years old.
When we come back from the break for the final three chapters, we’re suddenly in a different movie. Tarantino brings himself in as a jokey narrator (absent from the first half), and the tone shifts away from gravitas towards juvenilia. Along with that comes a sudden explosion of blood – hardly surprising, given Tarantino’s previous work – and a diminishing of the racial politics of the beginning. Dramatically, the film morphs into something both dumber and more conventional, though it keeps the same visual palette. It’s as if Sergio Leone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) directed Part 1, and Eli Roth (Hostel) directed Part 2, otherwise keeping the same cast and crew. Who knows? Since Roth played the “Bear Jew” (Tarantino and his nicknames …) in Inglourious Basterds, perhaps they had a deal. Whatever the intent, the result is a splatterfest without resonance, where good actors and craftspeople spend a lot of time externalizing viscera, rather than internalizing actual visceral emotions. By the time the movie ended, I had long forgotten the brilliance of Part 1, lost in the sophomoric wasteland of Part 2. If you go, I recommend you take off after chapter 3, in which case you’ll walk away dazzled by a great movie.