If you’re waiting for Quentin Tarantino to grow up, you may as well give up.
Ain’t gonna happen. The bad boy of American independent cinema (who is 52, by the way) has given us a succession of unique films, some brilliant, some not. But watching “The Hateful Eight” — pretentiously presented as “the eighth film by Quentin Tarantino” — it’s easy to think that the Tarantino express has gone off the rails.
That’s the charitable way to put it. Strip away the niceties and discount points earned with his earlier movies, and you come to a harsh assessment: He. Has. Lost. His. Mind.
But maybe that’s always been true. Any director capable of breathtaking originality and mind-boggling self-indulgence simultaneously would have to be a little off his rocker. Critics and fans have never been able to predict his next move.
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His first two films, “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction,” showed us that Tarantino was comfortable in the gritty urban landscape of big-city crime and pop culture. They also turned out to be his best movies.
But “The Hateful Eight” is his second consecutive Western, a neglected genre that could use a shot of creativity from contemporary filmmakers.
As we know from “Django Unchained,” his previous film, and his bizarre but compelling World War II epic “Inglourious Basterds,” Tarantino has almost no interest in historical authenticity. “Django’ was an attempt to re-create the aesthetic of spaghetti Westerns with an overlay of racism and the director’s self-involved effort to manufacture a black folk hero (as if there weren’t any.)
But Tarantino’s movies aren’t really about World War II commandos or the American West or the slave-holding South. They’re always about movies. That’s why movie freaks love him. He cherry-picks his way through the history of good films and bad ones to create mash-ups of his favorite genres.
“The Hateful Eight,” which I judge to be a misfire, still offers plenty of Tarantino’s incongruous humor, violent excesses and outrageous defiance of political correctness. But it’s curiously static and fails to deliver the visual dynamism we expect from Tarantino at his best. This is a housebound “action” film.
“The Hateful Eight,” which clocks in at three hours with an intermission, is a Western in the sense that people travel by stagecoach and use six-guns, but it’s really its own thing. And it has little in common with “Django” — except for the ubiquitous use of the N-word. Most rational people would agree that it is past time for Tarantino to find a new juvenile preoccupation, because he exhausted his superficial view of racial politics a few movies ago.
That said, it’s a matter of record that some of Samuel L. Jackson’s finest performances have been in Tarantino films. From the philosophical hit man of “Pulp Fiction” to a malevolent version of Uncle Tom in “Django,” Jackson has repeatedly shown an ability to take whatever Tarantino throws at him and make it his own.
In “The Hateful Eight,” set in the snow-blanketed mountains of Wyoming, he plays Major Marquis Warren, a horseless bounty hunter with frozen corpses to cash in at the next town. He hitches a ride on a stagecoach whose only passengers are fellow bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell), who is handcuffed to his prisoner, gang leader Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Later they pick up Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who claims to be the new sheriff.
A blizzard forces the passengers to take shelter in a log-cabin stagecoach station, a combination bar and restaurant in the middle of nowhere. There they meet a motley crew: Oswaldo Mowbray (Tim Roth), a dapper Englishman who hangs people for a living; Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a quiet cowboy working on his memoirs; General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a Confederate veteran still wearing his uniform; and Bob (Demian Bichir), a mysterious Mexican who seems to be managing the stage station. In the second half, Channing Tatum pops up in a key supporting role.
Never a fan of conventional storytelling, Tarantino introduces voice-over narration midway through the film, at which point the story takes on elements of an Agatha Christie whodunit. Needless to say, little time passes between acts of grotesque violence.
Jackson is the anchor, playing a 19th-century version of his urban killer in “Pulp Fiction,” delivering an expansively entertaining performance that requires him to enunciate some of Tarantino’s most tasteless dialogue. Roth, deadly though his character may be, is almost whimsical in a light-comedy role. Russell muscles his way through the movie with John Wayne’s vocal cadences.
Leigh, by contrast, is given less interesting dialogue and yields a one-note performance. Her character is subject to repeated physical abuse to the point that her real function seems to be a gratuitous punching bag. Goggins’ character is a paper-thin cartoon in the early going, but the performance gets more interesting as the movie lumbers along. And it’s nice to see Dern, a veteran of many a Western in his day, bringing a little genre credibility to the screen.
Tarantino has made much of his decision to shoot this movie in Ultra Panavision 70 and to exhibit it using 70 mm prints at selected theaters. (Local critics were shown a digital version of the “roadshow” cut with an overture and an intermission.)
The question is: Why? Cinematographer Robert Richardson’s outdoor images are striking, and some scenes appear to have been shot in actual snowfall. But most of the movie is a claustrophobic potboiler set within the walls of the isolated log-cabin shelter. It could have been shot with an HD video camera.
It’s as if Tarantino took his cue from old TV Westerns whose producers would sometimes shoot episodes on a single set to save money. But this film isn’t about saving money. It’s about Tarantino amusing himself — and, theoretically, us.
And one of his prime motivators is nostalgia for the way films were once made. He’s looking back at the roadshow epics of the 1950s and ’60s. Here he cuts in the old Cinerama logo in the opening credits, the sort of gesture you expect from a movie junkie with millions of dollars at his disposal. He wants to channel director David Lean, whose finest achievement was “Lawrence of Arabia,” shot in real desert landscapes of the Middle East.
The old roadshows justified their length and formal presentation with stories of purported historical significance or religious uplift — framed with spectacular visuals and showcasing awe-inspiring action sequences, such as the chariot race in “Ben-Hur.” But “The Hateful Eight” is no “How the West Was Won.” It is exactly what the title promises — a roomful of cold-blooded killers with nothing to tell us about the human condition — except, perhaps, our enthusiasm for violent entertainment.
(At Town Center. A slightly shorter digital version opens at more theaters Jan. 1.)
‘The Hateful Eight’
Rated R. Time: 3:07