You rarely encounter as much violence at the movies as you do at a Quentin Tarantino event. Yes, his movies are events. They don’t just happen; they explode and exploit, cause controversies, lodge pop songs in your head, delight, confront, pacify, and sometimes enlighten. Going to a Tarantino movie is like attending your favourite concert.
His latest event, The Hateful Eight, is his lengthiest, most testing effort. A dark, brooding, angry mystery set in the deep, racially restless west, about the trickery and lies nefarious individuals will concoct to achieve brand new levels of depravity.
Clocking in at about three hours, The Hateful Eight is a visual tome, split helpfully into six chapters (one of which could easily have been shaved off), shot famously on Kodak’s 65mm filmstock, borrowing some of the same lenses Robert L. Surtees used to film Charlton Heston whipping horses in Ben-Hur’s physically brutal chariot race. This is the kind of stuff Tarantino loves — digging his fingernails into cinema’s past, back to the very core of what drove him to the movies in the first place. If he could bring Sergio Leone back from the dead and have him hover over his films like a guiding angel, he’d be first to arrive at the cemetery with a shovel.
I enjoyed The Hateful Eight. I liked the way it unfolded like a great Agatha Christie murder mystery, in which several questionable individuals are cooped up in one location, usually a mansion or a cottage, and are armed with nothing but wit and guile as they try to decipher the identity — or lack of one — of the killer. But it omits the morally rigid shepherd figure — like your Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot — who ties the strands together into a final tapestry of truth.
I also liked the kind of fantastical performances by Tim Roth, as an eccentric, effete English hangman; Kurt Russell, as a macho moustachioed bounty hunter, famed for his promise to hangmen; Jennifer Jason Leigh as Daisy Domergue, vile, wretched, sublime; Samuel L. Jackson as Union veteran Major Marquis Warren. I’ve said before that no director is able to extract the delightful, natural essence of Sam Jackson like Tarantino. The two (and maybe Christoph Waltz) seem born to work together in film.
There is, indeed, very little to detest about a Tarantino film, especially the ones that paved the long, respected pathways of his career. Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994), and Jackie Brown (1997) still stand, to this day, as his best dramas, because they existed in a world we could all relate to, populated by men and women who were well-rounded characters that drove the plots forward; they didn’t let the plots dictate what they said, when they said it, how, or why.
Since the turn of the century, Tarantino’s stories have grown more whimsical, more genre-driven, less rooted in reality (to call Dogs, Fiction, or Brown “real” is, of course, also a stretch). His two Kill Bill revenge films started the ball rolling in the early 2000s, relying heavily on his affinity for old school Chinese martial arts comedies. They were drenched in blood, featured ruthless decapitations and amputations, and ended twice with characters dying innovative deaths (Lucy Liu was scalped by a katana in Vol I, and David Carradine’s heart exploded in Vol II).
Tarantino then paid homage to the dirty grindhouse era of the 1970s with his much under-appreciated Death Proof (2007), before tackling the Holocaust with Inglourious Basterds (2009) and the western with Django Unchained (2012). They were all entertaining in their own right, but none of them gripped their characters with the ways of the world. None of them played with the existential and metaphysical in the way Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown did (has there ever been, for example, a more thoughtful Tarantino character than Jules Winnfield?).
With these later films, it’s clear Tarantino has moved beyond telling the gritty, hard-edged crime procedural that so boldly propelled his early career. His films now are inhabited by dialogue-reciting machines that just happen to appear and behave like humans.
The Hateful Eight ensemble, for instance, is defined not so much by who they are, but by what they do and what they say. It is a testament to Tarantino’s storytelling and writing ability that we are able to see through the thin character soup and relish the delightfully incendiary dialogue that warms the bottom.
His dialogue has always been the best part about his movies. It isn’t afraid to drift away from the plot, to focus on the issues that matter to the characters and not just to the central passage of play (remember Vincent and Jules discussing fast food in France, or Hans Landa beating so far round the bush in Inglourious‘ masterful opening scene, or the entire screenplay of Death Proof). His words build character, which you could argue goes against the accepted tradition of imbuing characters first with recognisable human traits and then with thoughts and feelings. Tarantino is a linguistic rebel.
Every writer/director ages with time. Tarantino seems to have gotten younger. With The Hateful Eight, his movies have inexorably left the grit of his past behind. He’s having more fun now. Writing crazier and sillier stories. Filling them with thinner but more invested characters. Shooting them with expansive equipment but framing them on subversively minute scales, as if to kid. He’s still tinkering. Still exploring the vast richness of the medium we call film.
His cinematic career is set to expire after his next two pictures. I can see the end for him: A movie about gangsters in the old west, who chase villagers on horseback and get swallowed by a hoard of sword-wielding bandits, while Nazis arrive from the future and hold the world in a Mexican standoff. Guts will spill. Heads will roll. Limbs will fly. It will run for seven hours, feature three intermissions, and leave everyone in the theatre petrified. And then his job will be done.