If you see The Hateful Eight in glorious 70-millimeter format, as it’s being presented in limited engagements around the country, it begins with a soaring overture and has an intermission halfway through its three-hour-plus running time. It’s the perfect moment to get up, stretch your legs, and perhaps chat with a nearby friend, as I did. Because the first half of The Hateful Eight begs a question that the second half doesn’t really answer, namely: What’s the point of all of this?
Quentin Tarantino has long revered the epic trappings of the cinema-going experience more than most directors, and for all of its flaws, the experience of seeing The Hateful Eight in 70mm is a genuinely thrilling throwback to an era when a night at the pictures was intended as a real event. But for this wide-screen event he’s chosen an uncompromisingly nasty, brutish story even by his standards: a bloody tale of America reckoning with itself that takes place almost entirely in a large room in post-Civil War Wyoming while a blizzard rages outside. At moments, it feels like Tarantino is really trying to say something about the bizarre, angry jigsaw of people who help make this country the polarized mess it remains today, but once the film shifts into an expected cacophony of violence, whatever that might be slips through his gore-stained fingers.
The Hateful Eight is part Western, part drawing-room mystery, part exploitation film, but shot with the most gorgeous lenses imaginable and scored with an epic sweep by Ennio Morricone. The main characters, such as they are, are the bounty hunter Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a legendary Union soldier who expertly wields two pistols; John Ruth (Kurt Russell), another bounty hunter looking to claim the price on the head of the brutish criminal Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh); and the Southern renegade Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), an avowed racist who claims he’s the new sheriff of the town Warren and Ruth are headed toward. A blizzard drives them to take shelter in a nearby haberdashery, where they meet an assortment of odd characters already hunkering down, and from there, the action very slowly unfolds.
Tarantino has long been a self-indulgent filmmaker, but in a way that plays to his unique strengths, spinning gold from long tangential exchanges of dialogue or curious flashbacks that eventually snap into his films’ main plotlines with a satisfying click. The Hateful Eight never quite finds the delightful rhythm that makes Tarantino’s shaggy masterpieces Jackie Brown and Inglourious Basterds so lovable, despite their many digressions. Most of the film’s eight major characters get a ploddy introduction, with 15 minutes of windy expositional dialogue devoted to their convoluted backstories so that audiences know exactly where everyone stands (or, at least, purports to stand) when the climax arrives. Warren escaped a Confederate prison under mysterious circumstances; Mannix rode with a scary-sounding band of Southern renegades committing atrocities; many more such yarns are exhaustively recounted, and the only real tension comes from trying to guess at what’s true and what isn’t.
His actors mostly dig into their roles with real relish. Goggins is, right now, the screen’s greatest slack-jawed Southerner, whether he’s playing a buffoon (as in Spielberg’s Lincoln) or a wily mastermind (TV’s Justified). Here, he’s a fascinating mix of both, never quite tipping his hand either way. Jackson, too, finally gets a showcase role again from Tarantino—his first since he was the slimy, villainous lead of Jackie Brown—and shows just what an electrifying actor he can be given a weighty role. Warren is handed the film’s worst moment, an absurdly long monologue about the violation and murder of an offscreen character, and just about manages to sell it even though it indulges all of Tarantino’s worst impulses to shock his audience with embarrassingly gross content.
Leigh clearly relishes her character’s villainy, almost as much as the film takes pleasure in raking her over the coals, subjecting her to constant verbal abuse, beatings, and much worse (I’ll steer clear of specifics to avoid spoiling the film’s incredibly demented conclusion). But for all the exposition and flashback, The Hateful Eight struggles to explain exactly what makes Domergue so evil, and why she’s the focal point the film’s plot eventually begins to revolve around as characters like the hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), the grunting Mexican caretaker Bob (Demian Bechir), and the soft-spoken cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) sniff around on the sidelines. After a lot of setup, Tarantino does set the gears of his overarching story in motion, and the film’s conclusion is undeniably arresting, and maybe the most shockingly violent work of his career. But the point remains elusive.
As Warren, Ruth, Mannix, and Domergue arrive at Minnie’s Haberdashery, one of the men they meet is a retired Confederate General, played with grumpy relish by Bruce Dern. Of all the film’s characters, he immediately poses the least threat, but his bloody legacy in the Civil War is much discussed, unsurprisingly reviled by Warren and revered by Mannix. That toxic atmosphere pervades the film, and as seeming enemies are forced to strike uneasy alliances later in the film, it feels like Tarantino is trying to talk about the bizarre patchwork that makes up modern American society, and the dark history underpinning its modern conflict. It doesn’t work. The Hateful Eight is too extreme, too ghoulishly violent, too besieged by its ensemble’s overriding villainy, to feel like anything but a dark chamber piece. Its ultimate pitch is this: If you lock a bunch of angry, wounded, and evil creatures in a room, they’ll tear each other apart. The only mystery is to how it’s going to happen, and that’s not enough to justify this three-hour symphony of flowery dialogue and explosive gore.