Funny story: my original plan for Wednesday night was to add one last movie to my 2015 list, with a showing of The Good Dinosaur. Unfortunately showtimes were scarce because it’s exiting local theaters earlier than I’d expected. Having barely crossed the $100 million mark after five weeks, it’s about to go down in the books as the lowest grossing Pixar film of all time, with or without adjusting for inflation. I’m not ready to quit Pixar yet, so I did some digging and found exactly one screen that offered me the right time and place. Then my morning started off with a mysterious technical malfunction that ruined my entire itinerary and kicked off a domino effect that later slammed my window of opportunity shut. Alas, poor cartoon with mediocre trailers, I have yet to know thee.
I searched the theater listings once more for our side of town in hopes that I could simply catch a later showing without driving forty miles out of my way…and then I noticed Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight just opened. I hadn’t attended a movie on opening night since The Matrix in 1999, so for that novelty alone I figured why not. The 70mm roadshow version is playing nowhere in Indiana at the moment, but I figured I could cope with the ostensibly inferior mainstream version. Call it the Director’s Compromise Cut, I guess.
You’ll have to pardon me in this moment of aesthetic whiplash if I seem a little grouchy with the results. The past few days have seen quite a few confounded expectations.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Tarantino reunites way more than eight actors from all his previous films for another off-kilter Western a la Django Unchained, but doubling down on every aspect I liked and hated about the latter. Tarantino’s muse Samuel L. Jackson returns to center stage as a postbellum bounty hunter on his way to get paid, only to be waylaid by a blizzard in picturesque Wyoming, stuck in an old-timey mercantile cabin with a band of random miscreants who may or may not be who they say they are, who may or may not know each other, who may or may not have dark secrets and ulterior motives, who may or may not let each other live through the night.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Kurt Russell is an older, angrier, paranoid bounty hunter who insists he’s in charge. (OR IS HE?) Relishing a patented Tarantino Big-Screen Career Comeback Role, Jennifer Jason Leigh is dragged along as Russell’s quarry, an unrepentant spitfire who takes the most damage in the film’s first half, mostly at her captor’s malicious hand, but seems content to ride it out. (OR IS SHE?) Reservoir Dogs teammates Tim Roth and Michael Madsen are two peculiar personalities who got to the cabin first and have jobs to do. (OR DO THEY?) Bruce Dern, last seen courting awards in Nebraska, is an aging Confederate officer seemingly welded to his plush chair. (OR IS HE?) Demian Bichir (The Bridge) sounds like the ultimate form of every Mexican bandito in all of Tarantino’s favorite Westerns. (OR IS HE? Wait, actually, yeah.)
Among the many Django veterans in the house is Walton Goggins from Justified and The Shield, vying with Leigh for the Best in Show award as an ex-Confederate on the way to his new job as the new town sheriff. With his classic-lawman diction and Southern man’s priorities, it may be up to Goggins to keep the peace between the various aggro factions in this three-hour bottle episode. (OR IS…yeah, you get the idea.)
Meanwhile in the background, look for a tiny part for Lee Horsley, a.k.a. TV’s Matt Houston, and a modest role for a hunky A-list star that I’ll let either the opening credits or IMDb spoil for you.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? The luxury of measured, layered, naturalistic storytelling is a trademark of Tarantino’s strongest works, and these characters are all about sharing their own tales. In the wake of the Civil War, everyone has their war stories, their grievances, their anecdotes and declarations shot in continuous takes, and the parts of their stories that they’d rather not share with any old stranger. Sometimes the stories are a parade of lies, sometimes not. The half-truths and omissions and actual truths form an interlocking puzzle that reveals itself one piece at a time as the cast is forced to spend time together until they’re close enough to begin seeing through the cracks in each other’s facades, leading up to more than one Sherlock-style dissection.
Both the players and the audience look at each other and wonder: can anyone in this film be trusted all the time? Good question.
Like Reservoir Dogs, Hateful has a severe shortage of saints. Since it’s the nineteenth century, racism shows up everywhere and get confronted at most turns. Sexism is the armored casing on the club that keeps Leigh in check. Whenever one character finds another’s prejudice, it’s just another weakness to exploit. In this sanguinary free-for-all, may the least-worst bigot win.
Nitpicking? If you’re a fan of trigger warnings, plan on skipping this flick forever. Leigh’s callous treatment at the hands of Wild West dudebros is obnoxiously anti-PC, and probably hilarious in some circles. And her path’s a saunter in the park compared to the fates of other characters that guarantee this’ll never be edited down to a TV-14 for basic-cable rerunning. Tarantino has a knack for turning immoral characters into perversely compelling protagonists, but it’s been slightly more defensible in cases where he could fall back on the historicity defense. (Whether said defense truly worked or not is a separate extended debate.) Hateful, to me, crossed the line between Darkest American History and edgy, bad-boy crudity and cruelty. We’re not seeing The Way Things Were; we’re seeing The Way Things Should’ve Been Because Then They’d Be Brutally Awesome.
Naturally the N-word appears in the script more often than some punctuation marks do. The shackled, calculating Leigh gets called by the B-word more often than by her own name. Curiously, though, Bichir’s equally minority Senor Bob is never referred to as anything harsher than “Mexican”, unless we count “Senor Bob” as harsh. Were all the worst Mexican epithets new inventions of the 20th century? Did Tarantino somehow forget to include any? Are they saving those for an extended-edition Blu-ray? Or is this a conscious double standard for a reason?
So what’s to like? If you loved all of Tarantino’s other films, even Jackie Brown, this is lots more of those, with all the gut-spilling excess you demand and more. Once again he’s given unlimited leeway to celebrate his beloved junk-food cinema that hasn’t aged well, obsessively recreating and building on it with much the same nostalgic fervor that drove George Lucas to spend a career paying tribute to his own favorite childhood zero-budget sci-fi serials. For an audience that shares his taste and sensibilities and experiences, his homages are the greatest thing ever, but anyone who differs on too many key points gets to go stand on the wrong side of the velvet rope while his fans who Get It pelt them with eggs and grenades.
I have no problem skipping other filmmakers whose predilections are at odds with my own, but I have a hard time quitting Tarantino because, proclivities notwithstanding, he’s among the best there is at what he does. He has such an amazing way with scene-setting, with developing tension-and-release, with engineering surprises you’ll never see coming, with bringing in top-tier talents regardless of their fame level, with character building and with guiding his actors to deliver once-in-a-lifetime performances that amuse or thrill or haunt your imagination for years. His movies are fascinating and infuriating to me at the same time.
Hateful Eight has dozens of memorable moments to savor, most of which are spoilers minor or major, many of which involve either Leigh or Goggins in full force. Jackson is clearly having a blast not playing second-banana to young white super-heroes for a change, Tim Roth delights in his small moments and a crisp accent, and even the bit players with woefully brief minutes of screen time are charmers who feel like they’ve been living in their roles for years. (Frankly, I think someone owes Zoe Bell an extra movie of her own after this.) Ensembles like this are a treasure to watch in action. Mostly.
My 20-year-self probably would’ve given this an A-plus, but I’m not that guy anymore. Once again I’m finding as I get old and stodgier that Tarantino has become an unparalleled master of making engrossing, technically proficient masterworks that I never want to see again.
How about those end credits? I can’t speak for the 70mm roadshow version, but there’s no scene after The Hateful Eight‘s digital-version end credits, though if it were up to me, I have a fun idea for an apropos epilogue that involves too many spoilers to share here. In the meantime, fans of Tarantino’s ear for obscure songs can kick back and relax to a track from the 1967 musical Western The Fastest Guitar Alive — Roy Orbison’s “There Won’t Be Many Coming Home“, which of course is a perfect fit.