It’s nice that Quentin Tarantino has such a fondness for the movie past that he wants to revive the roadshow experience that ran from the fifties to the seventies—in which big productions were given special treatment, usually in extra-widescreen format complete with overtures, intermissions and entr’actes. That’s the form in which he’s opening “The Hateful Eight,” which just happens to be his own eighth movie.
With the musical introductions and intermission, the film runs to some three hours, and though it will be shown in the 70mm Panavision in which it was shot only in a small number of venues in major markets for a short run (in most of which the required projection equipment had to be retrofitted), the digital transfer that most theatres will screen is luminous, showing off the outstanding technical contributions—Robert Richardson’s cinematography, Yohei Taneda’s production design, Richard L. Johnson and Ben Edelberg’s art direction, Courtney Hoffman’s costume design and Rosemary Brandenburg’s set decoration—to best advantage. (Tarantino isn’t going so far as to screen it only twice a day, with reserved seating, as used to be the case with the old roadshow features—making them very much like plays.)
A pity the movie isn’t worth all the effort—not odious, but no classic either. It’s basically a western potboiler with a mystery-novel pulse, amusing in parts but overlong and less endowed with juicy characters, dialogue and plot twists than many of the writer-director’s previous films, though it does provide the expected bloodbath at the close. Of course, there were plenty of mediocre pictures that got roadshow treatment in the glory days—for every “Lawrence of Arabia” there was a “55 Days at Peking” (or virtually any other Samuel Bronston production), and for every “Sound of Music” or “My Fair Lady” there was a “Paint Your Wagon” or “Star.” So “Eight” is in good—or rather not-so-good—company.
After Ennio Morricone’s introductory music (the beginning of a somber, brooding score that one wishes were one of his best but while effective enough, is also no classic), the film starts with an exquisitely-composed scene of a stagecoach, at first barely a speck in the distance, plowing through the snowy Wyoming landscape toward us, the gorgeous but terribly leisurely pacing presaging all that is to follow. Inside the privately-commissioned coach, driven by O.B. Jackson (James Parks), are only two passengers: legendary bounty hunter John Ruth, aka The Hangman for his habit of bringing his quarry in alive for execution (Kurt Russell, with an enormous moustache), and his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a brutish murderess, whom he’s taking to Red Rock to meet her maker. Along the way to Minnie’s Haberdashery, a stop along the route where they’ll have to hole up during an approaching blizzard, they pick up two additional souls. One is Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a former Union officer now also a famous bounty hunter, and the other squirrely Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins, of “Justified”), a former member of a Confederate renegade band who claims to be the recently-appointed sheriff of Red Rock.
Reaching Minnie’s the crew find the proprietress and her usual helpmates gone on vacation and the place in the hands of a Mexican named Bob (Demian Bircher). And he has guests: former Confederate General Sandy Smothers (Bruce Dern), there to visit the grave of his son; cowpoke Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), who claims to be going to visit his mother; and oily, talkative Brit Oswaldo Mowbray (Tim Roth), who introduces himself as the hangman at Red Rock. Ruth suspects that one of them might be in league with the Domergue gang, headed by Daisy’s brother Jody (Channing Tatum), and announces his intention to ensure that she’s not rescued.
Oddly, what follows from this point isn’t the expansive outdoor experience the picture’s epic proportions might suggest, but lots of talk in the claustrophobic cabin setting as the various characters reveal bits and pieces of their pasts (or at least what they claim to be their pasts), sometimes accompanied by flashbacks (one, involving Warren and Smithers’ son, is particularly unsettling). Some of the dialogue bits are elaborate riffs (like repeated references to a letter written by Abraham Lincoln), but most of it, while colorful in typical Tarantino fashion (and, as in “Django,” taking advantage of the post-Civil War period to allow for multiple occurrences of the N word) is more functional. There are plenty of turnabouts, reversals and betrayals along the way, but it isn’t until post-intermission that the extreme carnage sets in—along with revelations, some delivered through narration from Tarantino himself, who reverses direction to show what actually happened before the coach arrived at Minnie’s and events since then from a different perspective (complete with flashbacks, of course), and others presented through what’s intended to be Holmes-like ratiocination, though the audience hasn’t had access to certain plot elements essential to unraveling the solution, which means that the puzzle isn’t precisely fair or airtight. But that probably won’t matter to Tarantino aficionados, who will be content with his typically over-the-top genre imitations, amplified in this instance by the technical pizzazz.
They’ll also doubtlessly enjoy the work of a cast with pulp credentials and a penchant for seizing on every bit of ripeness in the dialogue—which is a lot. Russell frankly seems a bit below his best—that moustache can’t have helped—but Jackson luxuriates in the incongruously elevated verbiage, as does the evilly grinning Roth who, along with the more taciturn Madsen, was also part of the ensemble of “Reservoir Dogs” and seems to relish being back in the director’s orbit. Newcomers Leigh and Goggins certainly get into the spirit of things, mugging ferociously throughout, while Bichir, buried under a mass of facial hair and scarves, grumbles his way through the picture. Dern, looking convincingly frail, barely stirs from his chair until his climactic moment with Jackson, and Tatum oozes charisma as Daisy’s far smoother brother, who makes an appearance at a turning-point in the action. The rest of the actors, some seen only in the flashbacks, bring some nice color to the proceedings.
There’s a good deal that’s enjoyable in “The Hateful Eight”—some rich lines, clever twists and unlikely alliances, along with the technical virtuosity and obviously committed performances. It’s even fun—for those of us old enough to remember it—to be taken back into the roadshow experience. But overall the movie feels bloated. Like so many of the old roadshows, it appears to have been overextended to meet the expectations of the “special” format—with too much repetitive dialogue, too many prolonged but extraneous sequences, too many recurrences of the same gags (like a door that has to be nailed shut against the wind). One can imagine a concise version of the film that might lack an overture and intermission but be more suited to this sort of material than Tarantino’s epic treatment.
Of course, that wasn’t his vision, or perhaps more accurately his dream. Unfortunately, the realization of his dream may cause viewers a few saddle sores.