**/**** Image A Sound A Extras C-
starring Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Dern
written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
by Walter Chaw Quentin Tarantino's eighth film, The Hateful Eight, features eight hateful people trapped in a small space during a blizzard. The hullabaloo surrounding its release has to do with the production shooting in an extinct widescreen format (70mm anamorphic) and putting up a lot of money so that it can be screened accordingly in select theatres. A few critics have misidentified its vistas as belonging to Wyoming (it was filmed in Telluride, Colorado), which is understandable given that only about five minutes of the 187-minute running-time is spent outside. There hasn't been a Tarantino feature until this one that I haven't loved; I believe he is our finest working film critic. He understands things about the movies he pulls from--that certain traditions of Japanese and exploitation filmmaking are strongly feminist, that blaxploitation was initially empowerment before it was instantly gentrified, that the best slave narratives involve legacies of violence, which is why Lalee's Kin and Django Unchained have a biological connective bridge. I've learned more about movies from watching Tarantino than I have from watching Godard, who's actually trying to teach me something. I think the Kill Bill saga is a remarkable statement about motherhood. I find his dialogue to be distinctive and sometimes exhilarating. I struggled with disliking The Hateful Eight for each of its 187 minutes. It's the first time I've ever understood the popular criticism of Tarantino as self-indulgent, nihilistic, misogynistic, even racist. I don't agree with every charge, but I do get it now. It's the first time, too, that I was troubled by a plot point in his film: there's someone in the piece who hates Mexicans, see, but when we get a flashback to this person engaging with a Mexican, we see that this is a fallacy. I can't figure out if this was intentional; I fear that it wasn't. I fear, more, that this is evidence that for the first time Tarantino has lost control of his screenplay. I also finally felt the loss of Sally Menke, who was his Marcia Lucas. I hope it's not a harbinger of things to come.
For me, the reason The Hateful Eight doesn't work is that Tarantino has a lot to teach about exploitation cinema and not very much to teach about Howard Hawks. The picture is essentially a remake of the Hawks-produced The Thing from Another World, complete with Ennio Morricone's lost score for John Carpenter's remake starring Kurt Russell, who also headlines The Hateful Eight. The premise that over the course of time, people trapped together might be trying to kill one another, is familiar--as is the tick-tock checking-off of characters one-by-one in a "Ten Little Indians" closed-room intrigue. There's a long monologue just before the roadshow version's Intermission (which feels like affectation, let's be honest; this ain't The Sand Pebbles--why does it want to be?) in which the Samuel L. Jackson character provokes a Confederate general with the story of how he made said general's dead son suck his big black dick before putting a bullet in his brainpan. This scene has already been read as a commentary on the sexual mystique of the black man. Hawks does a similar thing with homosexuality in Red River when he has John Ireland and Montgomery Clift discuss the virtues of handguns and ask to hold each other's pieces. There it's done with a beautiful economy of images and language. Tarantino bloats this scene with a dozen pages of dialogue. The film reminds me a lot of Crimson Peak in that this is a filmmaker showing off what he knows rather than offering insight into what he understands. There's even a musical interlude, à la Hawks's similarly claustrophobic Rio Bravo, to break the mood and build some character, with Jennifer Jason Leigh's desperado Daisy performing a song. (Leigh's singing a lot on screen this year). But then bounty hunter John Ruth (Russell) 'Blutos' the guitar against a post and...and nothing.
Ruth is bringing Daisy to hang, but he's waylaid by the blizzard and forced to spend a fateful evening ("the fateful eight?") in Minnie's Haberdashery, a little general store in the middle of nowhere. Along the way, he's picked up a Union war criminal, Maj. Marquis Warren (Jackson), plus newly-starred sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who, lately, had run with a band of murderous hillbillies. This causes some racial tension. Already at the Haberdashery are Bob the Mexican (Demian Bichir), Christoph Waltz (Tim Roth), broken-down journalling cowpoke Joe (Michael Madsen), and dotty Reb General Smithers (Bruce Dern). Is that eight? They spar; Warren takes on the position of investigator, wondering where in the world Minnie could be seeing as how it's her haberdashery; and Ruth periodically punches Daisy savagely in the face, since this is commentary on violence against women in addition to commentary on racism and capital punishment. The Hateful Eight is the first Tarantino that's self-important. It seeks to bolster and explain a body of work that needs no bolstering or explanation, lest you equate the historical esteem afforded Hawks to that afforded Sergio Corbucci. In so doing, it invites uncomfortable comparisons to just exactly why Hawks's films work (economy) versus why Tarantino's do (excess). Fusing Hawks with Peckinpah, in other words, is messy business. There's a lot of tissue rejection in that kind of graft. The patient invariably dies.
The oral rape sequence, then, comes off as merely a jutted chin and a chip on a shoulder. It's meant to shock where other moments in Tarantino's films that do shock (like the shooting of Marvin in the back seat) build character and explicate genre. They used to be grace notes, now they're the melody and bass line. Whatever The Hateful Eight has to say about race, it revolves around a letter from Abraham Lincoln that Warren carries around with him and allows white people to read once in a while to lend Warren some cachet. There are revelations around this letter that aren't very interesting. There's a moment where Warren realizes that his fate is in the hands of a bunch of inbred crackers, which should have led to a different conclusion, I think, because the current one is perilously close to a "bros before hos" thing that doesn't make a whole lot of sense, given the universe Tarantino's created. And the other late revelation--I'm loathe to give it away, except that the cast list gives it away--feels a lot like an unfair contrivance when others in Tarantino's oeuvre, like the gimp shop in Pulp Fiction, feel more in line with a savant-like understanding and honouring of predecessors. It's a deus ex machina--right? Or at least from the basement. This is also the first time Tarantino's use of "nigger" has bothered me, as it's the first time I've heard that typewriter labouring and this artist reaching for relevance. I imagine it's like the fourth hour spent alone with Don Rickles. It's shocking, I get it.
Still, The Hateful Eight is beautifully photographed (by Robert Richardson, once Oliver Stone's go-to DP, now Tarantino's). The detail of these fine actors and their fine faces is strikingly present. The performances are accomplished, as expected, the production design is above reproach, and the special effects, when it comes time to do them, are vivid. The film's cruelty is expected, its nihilism is not--but neither is it well-explored: the ending is in fact sort of hopeful in a way that neither version of The Thing could be said to be. It mostly fails as a Hawks shrine, in other words. (Ultimately, the film's bullying unpleasantness just feels like nihilism.) I want to say that it will satisfy Tarantino fans, except that I'm a huge Tarantino fan and found it wanting. I waited weeks to write about it, because I wanted to first see it again in case I missed something. Like the sense of displacement and the uncanny in The Thing, I look at what should be familiar and beloved and I don't recognize it. It's existentially peculiar for me to be on this side of the fence, but so it goes: I didn't like The Hateful Eight. I didn't like that it's not nihilistic enough (if that's what it wants to be), that it's self-consciously provocative, that it doesn't have anything to say about race on the heels of Django Unchained, an amazingly insightful film about race. I didn't like that it uses the violence against Daisy as a bucket-of-water gag, or Warren's dick as a metaphor, or "nigger" as an affectation. Whatever's there to recommend The Hateful Eight is overshadowed by this feeling that it's trying too hard. I'd never felt that before about a Tarantino joint. He's got two more to go. I hope I don't feel this way again. Excerpted from a longer review originally published here on December 25, 2015.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers I've been asked numerous times on Twitter this week if Anchor Bay's Blu-ray release of The Hateful Eight contains the picture's roadshow incarnation, and the answer is a disappointing "no." This is the 168-minute general-release cut shorn of overture, intermission, and six minutes of select footage. In VARIETY, Tarantino also claimed differences in the way scenes are presented to, now, the home viewer, saying they feature fewer "big, long, cool, unblinking takes." It's easy to be cynical about him withholding the roadshow for a future double-dip, but that's not really Tarantino's M.O.: he has yet to make good on hinted-at reissues like Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair and a longer Django Unchained, and Grindhouse took forever to come out on video in its native form, so it's more a matter of daring to fantasize about a double-dip.
Until then, we have this extravagantly beautiful presentation of the film in all its 2.76:1 glory (actually, it measures just shy of that Ultra Panavision70 standard--around 2.72:1), the 1080p transfer occupying an impressive 44GB of a dual-layer disc. Condensing large-format images to small-screen HD leads to a rich density of detail; here, the clarity at times seems impossible for its lack of any digital characteristics. Even the darkest corners of the image exhibit some form of definition, with supple dynamic range honouring the wider latitude of 70mm stock, although the purplish colour grade tends to flatten mid-range shadows. Whites are suitably film-like: For once, those signature Robert Richardson pools of light don't singe the TV screen along with the actors' hair. It's more or less perfection, and I like the subtle wobble on the closing credits, which suggests they were either shot optically--rather than digitally generated--or sourced from a film print. The attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is very much in the vein of Django Unchained's: the high end is slightly harsh in a not-unappealing way that adds loudness to voices and makes those boomy gunshots shred the soundstage. Ennio Morricone's Oscar-winning score sounds warm, expansive, and deep.
Extras are an afterthought, promotional pieces seemingly produced for the Internet or as HBO filler. "Beyond the Eight: A Behind the Scenes Look" (5 mins., HD) interviews the principals, mostly about each other. Jennifer Jason Leigh speaks very highly of Kurt Russell ("There's no one I'd rather be chained to for three months," "It was a dance") and vice-versa ("I got to watch her blossom"), so there's that, at least. "Sam Jackson's Guide to Glorious 70mm" (8 mins., HD) is an overview of the roadshow concept and the event nature of shooting The Hateful Eight in Ultra Panavision70 that delivers the information a bit too broadly for its own good. For instance, when Jackson says the size of the projected image doubles with 70mm, that's hardly true of today's retrofitted cinemas, where screen sizes get shorter instead of lengthier to accommodate widescreen grandeur. The most interesting part is a glimpse of the test footage Richardson brought back from Telluride--wish there were a way to see this entire reel, which looks beautiful in its own right. Maybe that would've been perverse (considering it was produced for demonstration purposes), but it couldn't be any worse than putting this featurette on a disc that excludes the roadshow version it's touting. The only other supplement is kind of a nifty one: a separate scene-selection menu that provides direct access to every piece of music used in The Hateful Eight, including the discrete passages of Morricone's score. DVD and digital copies of the movie are bundled with the BD. This way you can watch it as it was meant to be seen: on your phone.