Damn. So after the marvels of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino has swung back to the Kill Bill style of filmmaking, which I described in my review of Basterds as a cinematic “circle jerk in which he and his fans get off on one another and how clever they all are to be such rapacious film geeks.” With the inexcusably self-indulgent The Hateful Eight, Tarantino has returned to the gratification of his enormous self-love and his amusement at his own genius at the expense of all else.
There are no characters to like in Eight. It’s impossible to even hate them, never mind to root for them: they are not even bare approximations of people, and they all operate on the same flat level that suggests they know that they are cardboard cutouts in a bit of disposable exploitation junk. To be fair, they don’t have much of a story to engage with: what passes for plot here is mostly a roundrobin of trash talk, dick-measuring, and bloody violence. And all of that would probably be fine if Eight was nothing more than a quick and dirty 87-minute splatterfest. But Tarantino’s attempt at masturbatory movie geekery this time included shooting the film in an ultrawidescreen format that hasn’t seen the light of day in half a century and offering it in a Golden Age of Hollywood “roadshow” presentation, with an orchestral overture before the film starts and a 12-minute intermission to break up the three-hour-plus runtime (plus a souvenir program!). But this presentation is for sweeping epics such as the sort of films that used to receive it, such as War and Peace, Ben-Hur, and Lawrence of Arabia. Eight is not an epic film — there is nowhere near enough of anything here to justify the length or the presentation. And the standard digital version showing in most cinemas is only mere minutes shorter. I look forward to the truly clever fan who will eventually cut this down into the 87-minute version best suited to it; Tarantino should hire whoever pulls this off to edit his next film.
Eight does look amazing: the image is almost gasp-inducingly wide and gorgeously sharp (in the 70mm roadshow version, that is; I haven’t seen the standard version). And it sounds great, too: another bit of Tarantino’s geekery was hiring legendary composer Ennio Morricone, best known for scoring Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, to write the music. But these things alone do not a satisfying moviegoing experience make. They can be the icing on the cake, but they are not the cake itself.
The cake is mere crumbs. And it takes about 45 minutes for even the crumbs to be swept into a pile that might fool you into thinking you’re getting so much as a cookie. That’s when bounty hunters Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson: Barely Lethal, Avengers: Age of Ultron) — former major in the Union army — and John Ruth (Kurt Russell: Furious 7, The Art of the Steal), with Ruth’s prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh: Welcome to Me, Alex of Venice) in tow, finally arrive at Minnie’s Haberdashery, not a hat store but a stagecoach outpost and stopover in the wilds of post-Civil War Wyoming. Here, they will wait out a blizzard with those already holed up out of the weather: Sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins: American Ultra, Machete Kills), the myserious Bob (Demián Bichir: The Heat, Dom Hemingway), hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth: Selma, October Gale), Joe Gage (Michael Madsen: Scary Movie 4, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), and former Confederate general Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern: The Cake Eaters, The Astronaut Farmer). Minnie is nowhere to be found, which Warren finds mighty suspicious; Bob’s explanation for her absence sounds hinky to Warren. The dispositions of these folks and the nature of untamed frontier life would make them all uncomfortable company under the best of circumstances, and these are not the best of circumstances.
But as if this small movement in plot was exhausting, Eight takes a breather for another long while, standing still to engage in a lot of posturing, as the characters snipe at one another and Tarantino drops genre references like bombs: hey, there’s the piano player tinkling away, oblivious to the tension around him; oh, that recurring bit with the door is a tweak on the cliché about gunslingers busting into saloons through swinging shutters. After the intermission, suddenly there’s a narrator outta nowhere, telling us things we can see for ourselves; he’s not a character but has a voice-of-God perspective, so of course it’s Tarantino himself speaking. The only attempt the filmmaker makes as either screenwriter or director to say something, anything of even shallow import is in the attempt to depict the shadow play of racism and how easily it is punctured: Warren carries with him a handwritten letter from Abraham Lincoln he once received, which automatically garners him respect among white folks; Bob, as a Mexican, is considered fair game for hatred, merely on account of his ethnicity, even among black folks. But these are only more crumbs that never quite coalesce into anything meaningful. Both this and random film geekery are particularly annoying when Tarantino deployed both to such significant effect in Basterds and Django. It’s enough to make you wonder whether that significance is something he hit upon unconsciously.
Worst of all, the racist double standard that no one onscreen seems to recognize — indeed, they delight in it — is echoed, unconsciously, by the sexism of the film itself. Domergue is, without question, a bad guy — or bad gal, as it were. She is no worse than the men around her… and yet she is treated by the men as if she has crossed additional boundaries of good behavior in defying feminine propriety. She has done that, and that’s what makes her, marginally, the most interesting character here; she’s the least clichéd of them all. But where Tarantino is aware of the ironies of the racism he is depicting, he appears to have no clue that he is precisely as sexist as these 19th-century men. Lots of these men will be dead by the end of the movie, but their deaths will be depicted in comparatively more circumspect ways, with nothing close to the glee that Tarantino squees at the violence against Domergue. Tarantino revels in what are, essentially, bloody, gory cum shots of Domergue being debased in front of these men as she is drenched in the blood of a man who despises her. There is no dignity for her, no escape from the particular hatred of all of these men for her as a woman. And Tarantino presumes the audience shares that hatred.
By contrast, the one man stripped of his dignity here isn’t even a character: he appears in a story told by one of the characters, a story we are intended to presume may not have actually happened. The stripping of that man’s dignity is allegedly so outrageous — it is literally meant to enrage one particular character hearing it — that we are left to wonder at the truth of it. He doesn’t deserve that! we are supposed to think. What Domergue gets is unquestionably her real fate and — supposedly — she deserves what she gets. There is no Lincoln letter that can save her from it. Not in Tarantino’s imagination, and not in the supposed collective imagination of the viewer. Hateful, truly.