The release of a new Quentin Tarantino movie is usually accompanied by press that invariably addresses whatever the provocative premise or subject matter of the film is, whether it's the writer-director's casual use of racial epithets (Jackie Brown) or his flippant treatment of World War II (Inglourious Basterds) and slavery (Django Unchained). But with the release of The Hateful Eight—like Django, a political western—most of the hubbub isn't about the film, it's about Tarantino.
At issue are two statements Tarantino made. The first came during an engrossing interview on The Howard Stern Show. Tarantino angrily claimed that Disney told the proprietors of the LA-based Cinerama Dome, which is owned by up-and-coming chain ArcLight Cinemas, that if it showed The Hateful Eight instead of Star Wars: The Force Awakens during the holiday season then Disney would pull The Force Awakens from all ArcLight theaters (nearly a dozen) across the country. The second statement has to do with Tarantino's recent activism against police brutality. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, he spoke about the Laquan McDonald shooting: "I completely and utterly reject the bad apples argument. . . . They're all bad apples," he said. "It's about institutional racism. It's about institutional cover-ups that are about protecting the force as opposed to the citizens." Tarantino's comments about mafia tactics on both the corporate and law-enforcement levels are separate issues—but they reveal quite a bit about him, and they corroborate some of my feelings about The Hateful Eight.
Tarantino's insistence on screening The Hateful Eight at the Cinerama (the theater's iconic logo appears during the opening credits) is just one aspect of this film that illustrates his at times monomaniacal and fetishistic devotion to bygone moviegoing experiences. (Cinerama is also the name of a widescreen film process that became a fad in the 1950s.) At the press screening for The Hateful Eight, a spokesperson made sure to explain every technical detail of what we were about to see, particularly with regard to Ultra Panavision 70, the extrawide and rarely used format with which Tarantino shot the movie. There's more: the "Special Roadshow Engagement" of The Hateful Eight also featured a promotional booklet, a 12-minute intermission, and an overture—composed, as with the rest of the score, by none other than Ennio Morricone. Yet none of these novelties ever really enhance the story.
The film opens presumably at the tail end of Reconstruction during a blizzard in rural Wyoming. A horse-drawn carriage driven by O.B. (James Parks) transports John Ruth (Kurt Russell)—a bounty hunter known as the Hangman who is famous for always bringing in wanted fugitives alive—and Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a murdering bandit with a $10,000 reward on her head, to Red Rock so that Domergue will hang. Obstructing their path is Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a legendary Union soldier-turned-bounty hunter whose horse has died and who is stranded with the corpses of three fugitives. Ruth reluctantly lets Warren hitch a ride and later on does the same for Chris Mannix, a Confederate yokel with yet another felled horse who claims to be the incoming sheriff of Red Rock. They eventually seek shelter at Minnie's Haberdashery, a rest stop populated by a mysterious group of characters, including the purported hangman of Red Rock (Tim Roth), a Mexican caretaker (Demián Bechir), a shadowy cowboy (Michael Madsen), and a Confederate general (Bruce Dern). Ruth is convinced that at least one of these people is in cahoots with Domergue and has designs on freeing her. The rest of The Hateful Eight plays out as a parlor mystery, with Tarantino gradually disclosing (sometimes via his own voice-over narration) who's part of the conspiracy.
When I say "gradually," what I really mean is "extremely slowly." The Hateful Eight is more than three hours long with the overture, and the real action doesn't start until just before intermission. Most of the dialogue in the first half of the film doesn't feel like it establishes character or advances the plot—it's more like a screenwriting professor showing off for his students. And once the action does rev up, mostly during the second half, the film becomes grotesquely violent—even for Tarantino's standards.
Yet the violence in this film points to a noticeable difference between The Hateful Eight and Tarantino's other works: a relative absence of humor. At the press screening there were a couple moments of isolated laughter, but for the most part the audience didn't make much noise. Unsure if Tarantino intended for The Hateful Eight to be more serious than his other movies, I also watched the movie shortly after its public opening. The audience was virtually silent.
I hated Django Unchained, but not because of its politics or its premise—I was merely tired of Tarantino's revisionist-history revenge fantasies, something he's been doing since Kill Bill, his last good movie, a humorous genre medley that pays homage to the long history of action films. The Hateful Eight is yet again about revenge, but it at least shows Tarantino thinking about the subject—its nature, its roots, its role in American history.
During the opening credits, the camera is fixed on a snow-covered stone crucifix, the only man-made site for miles, which Ruth's carriage rolls past. Tarantino returns to this image a few times as a means of pointing out that this is the entrance to the region where Minnie's Haberdashery is located. Minnie's is essentially Purgatory, and we come to learn that each of the characters who inhabit the shop has committed terrible acts, whether as criminals, Civil War soldiers, or bounty hunters. These are all sinners of the Civil War and Reconstruction, and Minnie's is where judgment takes place.
"Justice without dispassion," one character says, "is in danger of not being justice." Therein lies the problem with The Hateful Eight, and with Tarantino's thinking generally. Without spoiling anything, in the final scene Tarantino wants the audience to question the very foundations of justice; impartiality and objectivity are impossible, in his view, therefore all acts of "justice" are essentially revenge. What's troubling about this stance isn't just its cynicism. It also discounts the tenets of law and philosophy that are the benchmarks of human progress. It's this frankly conservative reasoning that finally helps explain why the director doesn't think twice about indirectly discrediting the Nuremberg trials (as in Inglourious Basterds) or imagining the antebellum south as a cartoon where slaves become cowboys gleefully taking revenge on their masters.
And that brings us back to Tarantino's comments on police brutality. His "bad apples" comment evinces his one-dimensional attitude toward people. All cops are "bad apples" because Tarantino can't see people as more than stereotypes or caricatures; with all his talent for writing dialogue, he still hasn't learned that people are complicated. The characters of The Hateful Eight aren't ever really explored or fleshed out—they're mouthpieces for Tarantino's speciously clever screenwriting. That's what makes The Hateful Eight an even more frustrating film than Django: it shows Tarantino thinking but not being thoughtful. People come to bloody ends in The Hateful Eight, but at least they weren't bored to death. v