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Film review: The Hateful Eight

There’s so much happening on the surface of Quentin Tarantino’s films that you can almost forgive the people who think they’re nothing but surface, though hopefully the increasingly clear political slant of his recent run has made them see there’s even more underneath. The Hateful Eight, as it’s promotional materials have pointed out is the first movie to be shot on Ultra Panavision 70 in almost 50 years, making it the widest screen movie since 1966, but outside the sweeping, snowy vistas of its opening shots and three hour-ish runtime, this might be the writer/director’s least flashy film ever. But contrary to the expectations that may invite, it might also be his least focused.

Rolling through the plot barely faster than the blizzard-trapped carriages of the its characters, The Hateful Eight is an extremely patient movie. Sit down, get comfortable, and let me tell you a story, you can practically hear Tarantino tell you: While bringing murderer Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in, bounty hunter John Ruth (the recently resurrected Kurt Russell) takes shelter from a blizzard in a cabin with the rest of the titular eight. As some of them still burn with the fires that ignited the only recently ended Civil War, they’re soon at each others throats, for those reasons and many more.

One of Hollywood’s less discussed subplots is how over the last few years Samuel L. Jackson has broken back out of the one-dimensional “yelling guy” shell he’d been trapped in, but he’s still never better than he is with Tarantino. Here he’s Major Marquis Warren (Samuel Jackson), a former black union soldier, especially pissed to be stuck with Chris Mannix (the eminently weird Walton Goggins), a former member of a renegade Confederate militia claiming he’s now a sheriff, to give you an idea of the kind of animosity you can expect. Tarantino claims he doesn’t intend to rebuild actors careers, but I pray it’s happening for Leigh, who rocks a rare kind of role here. Almost always, Hollywood forces actresses to pick between charming and horrible, but Domergue is the kind of irredeemable, dastardly scum who so relishes her own nastiness you can’t help but sort of like her anyway.

It’s a shame there isn’t about 20 times more of her, though the rest of the eight make up for it pretty well. They’re aptly named, since, with the exception of Jackson, none of them are quite likable. But then this is not much a movie of audience rooting interests as a post-Civil War… political allegory? Morality play? Not those, but “play” is key, with the bulk of the story taking place in one cabin, and conflicts fought out mainly through dialogue and simple movements around a room that could easily be a stage (’til the guns finally fire at least). Unlike Inglourious Basterds, whose slow burns detonate in violence at the end of each of of its five chapters, The Hateful Eight strings its web of high tension wires across over half the movie’s considerable length before they finally get to snapping-though snap they do.

But to what end? Maybe I’m still just digesting this massive quantity of 70mm film, but as much there is going on in Hateful Eight, I’m not sure what to do with much of it. “Messy” doesn’t describe the discipline at work here; the languid pace results from moments teased out like taffy, not loose and limp. But its layers of theme and character are less precise, crystalline architecture than the jumble of flakes you get from biting into a croissant.

The unavoidable question though, is of that one ingredient. Rejoice that this food metaphor is finally over, but don’t get too comfortable, because now is the part of the Tarantino review where we talk about the n-word. Ugh. Hateful Eight is a funny movie. but the amount of times the punchline to a joke is basically just someone saying the n-word is, well-how you feel about it is subjective, but what’s not subjective is that it is a lot of times. There’s going to be a lot of variation across the audience at your screening as to who laughs at what, and how they laugh, to a degree that might leave you unsettled.

Yes, Tarantino is grappling with heavy stuff when he spins a movie from the horrific thread of American racism, so discomfort is probably inherent, if not critical, but, y’know… the fact that the screenwriter by far most frequently invoking the word’s power and all that comes with it is a rich white guy is not a great state of affairs, whatever said guy may be trying to do. And again, while it’s clear he’s aiming high, it’s hard enough to even make the target out in all the snow.

Because for all the symbolic import you might ascribe to the characters, they feel more like a disparate group of people from post-Civil War America got caught in a cabin together than the enactors of some grand statement. Take out the big nature shots, put it on a stage, and it might even feel like it was written back then too. Given the imminent assassination of President Lincoln and failure of reconstruction that loom over the film’s head, and their connection to structural racism that persists to this day, I could see why that’d be worth seeing on its own. But if The Hateful Eight is meant to hold a mirror the present, then someone needs to scrub a couple centuries of dirt from it first.

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Film review: The Hateful Eight
Maybe I'm still just digesting this massive quantity of 70mm film, but as much there is going on in The Hateful Eight, I'm not sure what to do with most of it.

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