Quentin Tarantino is known for making movies. He’s also known for making announcements. In the last six years, the period between Inglorious Basterds and The Hateful Eight, Tarantino made one each: a film and an announcement. The latter came first.
In an interview to Playboy magazine, published in November 2012, roughly a month before his film hit the theatres, Tarantino said, “I just don’t want to be an old-man filmmaker. I want to stop at a certain point. Directors don’t get better as they get older.” He continued, “I want this artistic journey to have a climax. (…) 10 movies in my filmography would be nice.”
The film that followed this rather brave deceleration was Django Unchained, an uneven and overlong Jenniferwestern, which hinted that the director was about to run out of tricks, that he was desperately holding on to the laurels of the past, rehashing ideas that once made him one of the most important filmmakers of modern American cinema. The poster of his latest release, The Hateful Eight, prominently say, “The 8th film from Quentin Tarantino,” possibly hinting towards a countdown that the filmmaker, if not anyone else, still holds dear.
The Hateful Eight, on the surface, is similar to Django Unchained in at least two major ways: This one, too, is a western and derives its dramatic mileage from a crucial time period for blacks in American history. If Django Unchained was set a few years before the American Civil War, then The Hateful Eight finds itself a few years after it. Eighth film or not, let this one be a ‘new’ Tarantino film, I thought before walking into this movie, one that’s ready to take risks, shake things up a bit, or, at the very least, not rest entirely on his past flair.
The first few minutes of The Hateful Eight — unfolding through sweeping shots of mountains, forests, and barren lands, showered with hesitant snowfalls — begin unlike any previous Tarantino film. After the panoramic shots, the camera gradually settles on, what initially looks like, an anthropomorphic part of a tree, but as it keeps framing the object in an unbroken shot, we find out that it’s Jesus Christ crucified on Cross. The camera then tracks back a few steps, and at a considerable distance away, a stagecoach, driven by six horses, lumbers into the frame. The stagecoach soon exits the scene, but the camera stays focused on the Cross for a few more seconds. Tarantino is usually not known for quiet, meditative frames like these, but what are big directors without small reinventions?
But the film’s first two chapters — which introduce John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and Marquis Warren (Samuel Jackson), two bounty hunters; Daisy Domergue, a prisoner (Jennifer Jason Leigh); and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a man claiming to be the new sheriff of town Red Rock, the original destination of the trio — unfold like a poor cousin of many Tarantino films. This part of the movie, as one may expect, is very talky (characters constantly bickering with each other, getting into fights), but it lacks the filmmaker’s wit and bite. Nearly none of the dialogues are memorable, and without a clear conflict in sight, this segment, after a point, tends to ramble.
And it takes a change of setting, from a stagecoach ride to Minnie's Haberdashery (a lodge), for The Hateful Eight to pick up some of its lost fragments. Here, we meet four other characters — Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), a hangman; Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), an ex-Confederate General; Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a cowboy; Bob (Demián Bichir), the lodge’s makeshift owner — ones who may not be what they claim to be.
As the blizzard’s particularly ferocious outside, this bunch has no choice but to remain indoors and stick with each other. Motley characters, suspecting each other and carrying guns, brought together by an exceptional circumstance, does this set up remind you of a 1992 film? It should: Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino’s debut (and, unfortunately, The Hateful Eight is not reminiscent of just one film of the director).
Although Tarantino does remind us of the familiar, to his credit, he executes that quite well. A long sequence, near the film’s first half, between Marquis and Smithers bristles with political and racial tension — one where Tarantino and Jackson are at their unrestrained best, making this portion memorable and disturbing. Tarantino also makes astute use of Ennio Morricone’s score, which, quite ingeniously, seems to have fashioned a narrative of its own. Music plays an important role in this film’s characters’ lives, too.
When Marquis is humiliating Smithers in the aforementioned scene, Tarantino keeps cutting to Bob simultaneously playing the piano in the same corner of the room, as if mocking their exchange. Similarly, a few scenes later, Daisy nonchalantly strums a guitar, while John, Chris, and Bob discuss who might have poisoned their coffee. It’s a wonderful shot, alternating from the musical bliss in the foreground to the noisy altercation in the background, imbuing the scene with a fascinating off-kilter mood.
Tarantino’s pretty much in control nearly throughout the The Hateful Eight’s latter half. He cleverly reveals vital information about the plot in chunks, defines the stakes, reintroduces the characters, leading to newer conflicts, but, most importantly, never lets the tension flag. As you gradually get sucked into the story, his familiar, often enjoyable, child-like obsessions — a reference to the much-discussed ‘Tarantinoverse’ (Red Apple cigarettes), a close-up shot of feet, characters seated across a table, filmed by a camera moving in circle — also come to the fore, which shows a director itching, sometimes quite overtly, to sign each and every film of his.
The Hateful Eight’s barely predictable; it’s also, for the most part, fairly engaging. But its failures and triumphs do share common roots: this film is, especially for someone of Tarantino’s stature, a bit too straightforward, too simple, too facile. For someone who made a deliriously inventive film, Pulp Fiction, two decades ago (and, through most of his subsequent films, kept pushing himself), Tarantino’s now begun tainting his own filmography.
The Hateful Eight is definitely not an incompetent effort, but, at the same time, it doesn’t offer enough evidence that the filmmaker’s further evolved (or, at least, wants to). Is that an unfair expectation? Probably yes. But you don’t get called great for nothing.