This review is of the 187 minute, Ultra Panavision 70mm roadshow cut.
Can a filmmaker have too much freedom? The question used to be asked of George Lucas, Hollywood’s luckiest cynic, who secured a lifetime of creative and financial autonomy with one sweet merchandising deal. Now it’s time to ask it of Quentin Tarantino. QT, as he calls himself, is only one of a handful of directors who doubles as a brand in his own right. Such is his pop cultural cachet and the respect he’s earned within the industry as the world’s most gifted pastiche artist, most notably with Miramax producer Harvey Weinstein, that he’s long been free to do whatever the fuck he likes.
Amongst the moneymen, the mantra appears to be ‘in Quentin we trust’. QT wants to unnecessarily split Kill Bill into two movies? Fine. We won’t insist he shows some discipline in the editing suite. QT wants to revive grindhouse movies? Sure, why not. It’s a niche audience but if anyone can expand it, it’s Tarantino (he didn’t). QT wants to make a three-hour western in an old but grand frame format, unused since 1966, and have a staggered release at selected cinemas, complete with overture and intermission? Well we wouldn’t do it for anyone else but okay. As long as the film earns its three-hour length of course. Wait, does it earn its three-hour length?
The Hateful Eight doesn’t earn its three-hour length but it is a magnificent showcase for everything Tarantino’s become. It’s both beautifully shot and self-indulgent; a film that spends too long with its cast of villains while failing to develop them beyond stock characters. It’s a movie undisciplined in editing and dialogue, with scenes distended beyond their natural length by a director who loves the sound of his own words, yet cut brilliantly when it comes to moments of balletic, bloody violence. It’s a movie that celebrates movies, without being an essential one in its own right.
Eight’s blessed to have a playful, sometimes sinister original score by veteran composer Ennio Morricone, and a fine cast including a lively Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Dern, but as is now standard in Tarantino’s work, there’s no grand themes, no moral challenge, just the will to create pressure cooker scenarios while playing games with linear storytelling. The brutality and rough justice of frontier life is present and stark in QT’s western, but it’s undercut by a wearying and occasionally sense deadening self-awareness. There are characters in movies and movie characters and everyone in Eight is the latter to such a degree that it’s impossible to care who lives and who dies. Instead, with our bloodlust up and tongue in cheek, we wait to see how they’ll be killed. Isn’t there more to great westerns than that?
A tighter first half, before the interval, might have made a difference. It’s here that Tarantino’s self-regard is most prominent. His characters like to talk and at length, and while this builds up their personas and motivations in a literal way, one would think a movie buff like QT would know that great movies do it with more economy. Screen dialogue doesn’t have to be expository or a laden stream of consciousness, it can be concise and ambiguous, hinting at a character’s depths. Sometimes a look is enough. Here we tread in the shallows. By the time Tarantino ups the ante and starts to deliver on the promise of his cabin scenario, he’s wasted the first half of his flick failing to layer the requisite tension. He’s alleged to have shown his cast John Carpenter’s The Thing in preparation for the kind of movie The Hateful Eight wants to be, but JC made a much better fist of creating a claustrophobic environment and scenes of nerve shredding paranoia. A movie that spent less time grandstanding and exchanging smartarsery at the Haberdashery might have challenged Carpenter’s film. But Eight is all environs without atmosphere, blood but no guts.
Quentin Tarantino’s a frustrating filmmaker because he’s visually literate and gifted at created memorable compositions and vivid, if slight characters. What he lacks however, and may wish to consider honing going forward, is the ability to populate his movies with men and women with light behind the eyes; to trust that visual storytelling, pure cinema, can tell a story better than a wordy script. It’s time to drop the pompous and edit unfriendly literary conventions – chapter headings, excess dialogue – and trust the medium. Sergio Leone did and he made some of the best Westerns of all time. Unless QT can get over himself and invest in the fundamentals, his legacy may be that of a gifted tribute artist, lacking the artistic imperative of the greats.