★★ 1/2** out of ★★★★
For me, there is almost nobody more important that Quentin Tarantino in my journey to becoming a film buff. Pulp Fiction changed my life. It is one of the most important movies ever made...and for me, especially. It was my first grown-up film. It stands as a major favorite of all-time.
But, in the past few years, Tarantino has become a filmmaker I enjoy less and less. For me, Django Unchained is one of his weaker efforts, and, now, with The Hateful Eight, he has made his weakest film to date. (And don't even think about coming at me with..."but Death Proof...") At least I felt several rushes of pure cinema induced excitement with that one. I felt none of that for The Hateful Eight. It is a large movie with only one or two really great moments. The rest is just a bunch of vulgar, bloody nonsense. It's the type of movie I would've obsessed about 10 years ago. Today, I feel as if I get older, but Quentin stays the same age...or, even worse, gets younger.
By "large movie," I meant "large movie," in every sense of the phrase. It is three hours long, shot in the biggest, widest format possible (Ultra Panavision 70) and is uneven, in gigantic ways. I've seen it twice.
The first time was fueled up by an indescribable anticipation. A couple weeks before its Christmas Day 70mm Roadshow release, I found out that my home city of Knoxville, TN, would be getting a print. Knoxville is easily the smallest market on that list, but it's so right it played here. Quentin, of course, was famously born in Knoxville. And, even without all the spectacle, I always get juiced up for his movies.
The Hateful Eight is good for a few reasons. First, there are a trio of performances that can't be denied. Samuel L. Jackson is great here as Major Marquis Warren, a former Union officer turned legendary bounty hunter. He is the film's hero and earns all the grandstanding Tarantino gave him. The supporting turn by Walton Goggins as Sheriff Chris Mannix is the real winner, though. He is a force to be reckoned with, providing most of the film's funniest moments. His facial expressions and vocal inflections alone may be the reason to see this movie. Jennifer Jason Leigh's role as the film's punching bag is also notable. She provides some good laughs as the outlaw Daisy Domergue and deserves any and all praise for all the shit Quentin puts her through. She is covered in blood and/or spit and/or stew and/or verbal and physical abuse for most of the film.
But where those three succeed, nearly everyone else fails, or is given too little to do. The only other highlight is probably James Parks as the stage driver O.B. He delivers some great funny bits. Kurt Russell is just doing some weird John Wayne impression (on purpose, I'm sure). Michael Madsen is a shitty actor to begin with and just plays Mr. Blonde in a cowboy hat here. Tim Roth is pretty badass. So is Bruce Dern. Demián Bechir has his moments, but they are few and far between.
The Hateful Eight looks great, as expected. The exteriors are gorgeous. And, even the interiors (most of the three hours takes place in either a stage coach or the film's main locale, Minnie's Haberdashery) are perfectly captured. The amount of detail achieved by the production designer, Yohei Taneda, and legendary cinematographer, Robert Richardson, is quite impressive. Richardson and Tarantino went to great lengths to secure the right cameras and film stock, lenses that haven't been used since Ben-Hur. We can literally see the depth of things in both foreground and background, actors in and out of the frame even if not necessarily in the scene. Then, there's the legendary Ennio Morricone and a perfect, pretty much sinister, if also grand, score. It is all incredibly cool.
Why use such an expensive, glorious piece of machinery on a movie shot mostly indoors? That camera and those lenses are meant to capture huge landscapes. Aren't they? Is QT just experimenting here? That must be what it is. I shouldn't question it. It does look exquisite, but I can't help but be curious about it.
Then, there's the whole unevenness of this movie. It is a extremely dark comedy at heart, but it tries to push some serious message about race and the continuing issues of race now...I guess. I said "it tries" for a reason because I left my first screening totally confounded as to what I was supposed to feel or get out of this. At least Django uses its half-hour bloodbath at the end for triumphant reasons. The Hateful Eight just wants to watch characters die in extreme pain, covered in thick, fake blood.
It's also uneven in and of itself. The first half (before the intermission) is slow as molasses. I actually got bored. I couldn't keep up with the dialogue. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. It just talks and talks and talks and talks and talks and....The second half (after the intermission) is really great...for awhile, as it becomes a sort of locked room whodunit, then it just devolves into the mess I alluded to in my previous paragraph. Not only that...it is angry, abusive, racist, misogynistic, "hateful" (haha!) and just sort of stays that way...until the very end, when it takes a turn that doesn't really make sense given what came before. It is not in any way triumphant. It doesn't have that nice final touch Tarantino is known for, although I'm sure he likes it.
At the end of Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino's last great movie, he gives a nice big nod to the camera, quite literally actually. It really "may be his masterpiece." I want to give it a standing ovation every time I watch it. All of Tarantino's movies end in grand fashion, except this one. The shootout finale of Reservoir Dogs into Nilsson's "Coconut." The end-at-the-beginning reveal of Pulp Fiction. The look on Pam Grier's face as her Jackie Brown rides into glory. The same of The Bride in Kill Bill, Vol. 2. The excited jump into freeze frame in Death Proof. The final wink into the camera of Django. It is this failure of The Hateful Eight I can't stand the most. I didn't want to applaud. I was just ready to leave.
And then I went a second time, hoping I'd just missed something. And I will say, it was a little better on repeat. I was able to keep up with the dialogue a bit more, and I laughed a bit more as well. But it wasn't enough. This time, I caught it on its standard digital projection. The transfer hurts it a bit. It's a few minutes shorter, but I longed for that Intermission. And the film's supposed message still wasn't totally there.
Listen: I'm not one who thinks that every film needs some grandiose thematic connection or importance. But it's noticeable when a film tries for that and fails. Some people seem really taken with this movie. They seem to "get it." I don't think there's anything to get. It's fun and funny at times. I'll give it that. I wasn't totally bored either viewing, and it certainly has its share of cool, as I said and as is expected.
But, as a Tarantino fan who desperately wants to remain one, I can only hope that the Weinsteins at least try to reign the man in before he hurts somebody...or himself.
At least we'll always have Jackie Brown to wash away this bloody mess.
**Note: My star rating is really too high, but I have to give it bonus points for looking so damn amazing and providing a true film experience. It's really more like a ★ 1/2, but I'm awarding it an extra star just because I got to see it projected on 70mm film with an Overture and Intermission at a fucking multiplex. That, by itself, is just too good to be denied. For those who aren't as fortunate, it's a ★ 1/2.