This a film with superb production values, loving details in its art direction, commendable for its valiant use of wide-screen 70mm film, vigorous in its acting and with smartly written dialogue that forces you to hang in for 167 long minutes.
It is also a film of such nihilism and contempt for humanity that you leave the cinema in dire need of a spiritual shower.
In his previous films, the world’s most famous video-store clerk has indulged in his love for grind-house cinema and genre excess with such a passion for Movies that you could ignore the basic misanthropy at the core of every Tarantino movie.
His previous films are all genre mashups from old fight movies or war movies or gangster movies or spaghetti westerns, and its characters cool hipsters rigged out in contemporary slanguage and smart-ass, postmodern attitudes.
Everything is an anachronistic joke that plays not only with genre expectations but your knowledge of movies. For Tarantino knows old movies better than any of his contemporaries and can redeploy their archetypes and plot conventions with disarming conviction.
But there lurks within these cinematic fantasies, cobbled together like Dr. Frankenstein’s creature from old B-movie parts — gore-fest outrage and martial-art doozies — a deep-rooted cynicism about humanity. Much as he admires the guy — or gal — who stands up to oppressors or, better still, goes after them to exact revenge, Tarantino sees a heart of darkness in everyone, even his protagonists.
Again this has never come home to stew in such a nasty bile of human hatred as in this quite accurately titled film. In a post-Civil War Wyoming, first on a stagecoach and then for the remainder of the movie in a stagecoach stop isolated by a blizzard, Tarantino locks up eight merciless predators to stalk one another in a game of who will kill whom first.
Everyone perhaps is suffering a hangover from the brutal antebellum race war that was Tarantino’s last picture, “Django Unchained” (2012). Post-war loathing pollutes the air. Upon meeting anyone, a person converses a while in order to find a reason not to kill him.
The actual plot mechanics though is straight forward: A prisoner is being delivered by a bounty hunter to a town up yonder and must be closely guarded from those who might want to spring her.
A black man and a white man once shared the same Civil War battlefield but, of course, on opposite sides. Everyone recognizes the cocky new sheriff as the son of a bloodthirsty Reb who slaughtered Yankees even after the war.
He in turn recognizes the Confederate general who admired his pa. The two bounty hunters actually shared a dinner together about eight months back. And so it goes.
Each character, in other words, has a reason to kill just about everyone else in that increasingly crowded tavern. (It’s called Minnie’s Haberdashery oddly.) Eventually each will get his chance.
The film has two default protagonists — heroes would be too grand a word. I say default because nothing much compels you to like or even empathize with anybody here; you might even want to venture into that blizzard rather than stay cooped up with these rattlesnakes.
Yet two actors are strong enough, and funny enough, to win you over to their performances if not their characters.
Kurt Russell plays bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth, buried beneath his own blizzard of facial hair and cold-weather hat, clothes and gloves. He affects an amusing John Wayne cadences in his dialogue delivery. Not an imitation, mind you, but simply in the rhythms and how emphasis falls on certain words.
Samuel L. Jackson is Major Marquis Warren, a former Union soldier turned infamous bounty hunter. His character is an extension of his Jules the hit man in “Pulp Fiction” with hypnotic dialogue and soliloquies and the righteous attitude of an angry black man in a white man’s country.
Marquis hitches a ride (along with two dead bodies) — although it takes a long scene of convincing to do so — with Ruth in Ruth’s personal stage coach in which he is escorting his prisoner, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to Red Rock to face justice for murder.
Ruth is handcuffed to Daisy and part of their odd couple routine is for Ruth to slam an elbow or fist into her face whenever he dislikes anything she says. Which is often, which means the makeup department has its work cut out to make Leigh’s face into a red and black mess of bruises, cuts, blood and no doubt a broken nose.
Before too long Marquis punches her too. She has that kind of effect on people.
Another hitchhiker —one too many for Ruth who is soon speculating about the likelihood of so many men out for a stroll in a blizzard — is Walton Goggins’ Chris Mannix, who claims to be the new sheriff of Red Rock. No one seems to believe this story, but they do realize he is a southern renegade with a bloody history.
At Minnie’s layover Marquis is surprised to encounter not Minnie but rather four men he knows not at all. Demián Bichir’s Bob says he’s taking care of the place while Minnie’s off visiting her mother on the other side of the mountain.
Tim Roth’s Oswaldo Mobray introduces himself as the new hangman of Red Rock — what a coincidence that Daisy may be his first customer! — while Michael Madsen’s Joe Gage, a cow puncher, says as little as possible about himself.
Sitting more or less permanently near the fireplace is Bruce Dern’s white-haired Sandy Smithers, a former Reb general who came out to Wyoming to learn what happened to his disappeared son. (If you’re guessing one of these men might just happen to have information, you’re dead right.)
The presentation of this movie is done like a “road show” picture of the ‘50s and early ‘60s with an Overture by Ennio Morricone (composing his first film score in years) over a card depicting a horse-drawn carriage riding through snow before a mountain range, Chapter headings for each major episode (“Chapter One: Last Stage to Red Rock”), a 12-minute Intermission and, of course, that wide screen.
The opening credits also announce: The 8th Film by Quentin Tarantino. I can’t remember any director since Fellini who kept track of his films in the actual title credits.
A little pretentious you think?
Well, the presentation does keep you in this movie for a while despite a languid pace dictated by the surfeit of dialogue endemic to a Tarantino screenplay. The epic look, long meaningful pauses between exchanges (and their subtext) and a jam of rough, seedy characters hold you until Intermission, timed to the moment the first of these characters gets blown away.
Then as the second act begins, the movie takes an unexpected tact. A narrator suddenly comes onto the soundtrack to fill in necessary information that Tarantino couldn’t figure out how to insert into the film without a voiceover from on high.
Then there’s a flashback, the first of two actually, to show events you missed while the camera was pointed elsewhere or happened before the movie even began.
A little sloppy story construction, you think?
You might not mind were these unconventional intrusions leading to an outlandish place where the Tarantino of “Pulp Fiction” or “Kill Bill” brought you. But no, the movie has its one big reveal when it lifts the veil behind the mystery that is Minnie’s Haberdashery before plunging you into the bloodletting of a low-grade, grind-house exploitation flick.
Only the expertise of the special visual effects and prosthetic devices do make this an A movie.
Sadly, the concluding half hour or so is enervating rather than exciting; it’s dreary, prodding and boring unless, as a film student, you’re interested in how movie crafts people can fake human suffering and death.
The humor turns coarse, the deaths unimaginative and the humanity perverse. Worst of all, the movie becomes a pointless exercise in directorial self-aggrandizement: “Look at what the Weinstein brothers let me do. I can throw any shit up there and expect applause.”
I can praise Tarantino for one thing though, which has already been mentioned. The film opens Christmas Day in a special 70mm road show release before going digital and nationwide December 31. Tarantino did work with Panavision to shoot in an Ultra Panavision format, which is to say real, honest-to-goodness film.
He is not alone in his crusade on behalf of film. Paul Thomas Anderson and Christopher Nolan still demand film. Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” was shot on film.
A trend, you think? Let’s hope so.
Meanwhile “The Hateful Eight” may be one of the most disappointing and discouraging films from a good director in a long while. Merry Christmas anyway.
Opens: December 25, 2015 (The Weinstein Co.)
Production company: The Weinstein Co.
Cast: Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Demián Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, Tatum Channing, Zoë Bell, Dana Gourrier, James Parks
Director/screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino
Producers: Richard N. Gladstein, Shannon McIntosh, Stacey Sher
Executive producers: Harvey Weinstein, Bob Weinstein, Georgia Kacandes
Director of photography: Robert Richardson
Production designer: Yohel Taneda
Music: Ennio Morricone
Costume designer: Courtney Hoffman
Editor: Fred Raskin
R rating, 167 minutes (not including a 12 minute intermission)