When Tarantino – you’ve truly arrived when people need use only one of your names – released his second film, Pulp Fiction, critics dubbed him a post-modern director.
I’ve never known when post-modern began or where it ends, but I do know it’s often a cover for people who steal other people’s ideas, mix them around, and fashion their work describing it as an ‘homage’, or influenced by, so-and-so. Usually, it’s an excuse for a complete lack of originality, especially in the case of modern architecture.
Tarantino does steal from other directors and admits it, character ideas, plots, styles, he throws them all into the mix, but what he constructs has a freshness to it, in content, dialogue, and hybrid genre. His plots rely heavily on the final reel bloody shoot out. That’s how he began with Reservoir Dogs, and that’s what he relies on in his latest and longest film, a western The Hateful Eight, together with people dying for thirty minutes but managing to function covered in blood and racked with pain. They remind me of opera singers, their character mortally wounded, they are able, somehow, to sing at the top of their lungs for who knows how long.
Again, there’s all the Tarantino trade marks to enjoy, extended dialogue that would sit comfortably on a theatre stage as a play, perfect in pace and structure, with larger than life characters. Extended speeches allow an actor room to develop nuance. There’s liberal use of profanity as in Django Unchained; the ‘n’ word everywhere; (nigger) sexual explicitness; illogical use of flashbacks that somehow work; lots of guns, mill wheel buckets of blood, and more guns. And most of the action takes place in one room, with the occasional flashback thrown in for plot explanation.
Dammit! Hateful is about an hour too long.
There are three hours with an interval.
The interval is an inflated, pompous intrusion. (It caused me to buy a packet of crap chocolates and scoff the lot.) Great sweeping epics such as Lawrence of Arabia or Dr Zhivago justify an interval, sophisticated narratives with fast-paced action in both sections. Hateful begins by screwing up its opening visuals with crappy titles, and then slows down to a cold crawl. We wait for the large coffee pot to brew, and nothing much happens. It reads like a first draft screenplay.
The second half is electrifying, just as indulgent, but gloriously so. You leave the cinema very pleased, but an hour’s life lost.
There’s a superb thriller at two hours length. The Weinstein brothers, Harvey and Bob, his long-time producers, allow Tarantino to indulge himself instead of employing a tough editor. Yes, it’s a thriller, but I’ll come to that shortly.
Though most of its action takes place in a Wyoming frontier haberdashery of a coach station, a place to rest a team of horses in the snowy wilds, the sheer dynamic of its dialogue carries you along.
I called it a thriller, and a thriller it certainly is in the style of Agatha Christie. A group of unlikely characters holed up in one place for a few claustrophobic days. Who gets it in the neck first? Who is the villain? Is it all of them? Like his From Dusk to Dawn it leads us down one path only to rush us off along another, throwing us with a face slap of a twist in genre. Only Tarantino can get off with that cheat.
Samuel L. Jackson in wonderful form aces some Miss Marple sleuth work, and there’s a timely guitar ballad sung by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who plays a high-bounty prisoner chained to gruff and grizzled Kurt Russell.
The writer-director’s hallmarks abound. Here again are chatty killers and the very basic pleasure of seeing put upon characters get their revenge by blowing out the brains of their oppressors.
As in Django Unchained, Tarantino invests his attention in log rafters and creaky floorboards, in long whiskers and overladen stagecoaches, in heightened manners and low-down treachery. You can count on ludicrous anachronisms in attitudes and speech. And speech after speech has you riveted asking, how could even the least educated person have so much to say, and say it so well? Like Christoph Waltz in Inglorious Basterds, some of the speeches are heavy with tension.
With the exception of the distinguished opening section of Christopher Waltz’s interrogating Nazi, I disliked Inglorious Bastards because I thought it thin stuff, petty, insulting to allied war veterans and Germans alike, poorly scripted, full of implausible plotting, a geographical and cultural territory way out of Tarantino’s experience. With Hateful he is back where he belongs, among America’s sociopaths and psychopaths but without the heroic fantasies such as those in Kill Bill.
The slapstick butchery of the final reel is extremely nasty, the opposite of a Bond movie were no blood is spilled other than a split lip. Blood and guts are Tarantino’s signature, guiltily satisfying in its sick pointlessness.
Warning – the bloodbath is ugly but the jokes and the irony lighten it. There’s no moral dilemma that threatens a career, or a man’s ambitions, only the simple statutory multi-shoot out that secures instant justice.
The centrepiece is another taboo-flouting monologue from Samuel L. Jackson that stands as the writer-director’s most lurid and sustained expression of one of his great preoccupations: the reputed sexual might of black men. You reject it as your hear it spoken, but accept it as a piece of sheer bravura. It reaches your ears like a profane aria, beautifully executed by Jackson, calculated to upset as many African-Americans as whites.
One American observer put it this way: “The script isn’t always shrewdly judged on these matters, but in all its shock-talk, The Hateful Eight airs a couple painful truths about race in America – “When niggers are scared, that’s when white folks are safe.” Jackson’s bounty hunter adds a stinger. “The only time black folks are safe is when white folks is disarmed.”
Jackson and Russell dominate the entire film – Jackson slyly, his character putting together clues before it’s clear that there’s a mystery, and Russell brusquely, uncertain of what’s happening around him, full of bluff and bluster, swinging his way to and from the coffee pot. (The coffee pot is a major player in the story.) Jennifer Jason Leigh is rootin’ tootin, down and dirty, Daisy Domergue, dragged along by Russell to hang for murder. The frequent beatings she endures at everybody’s dirty hands might repulse a few. In the end, I thought she stole the show.
In the background Tim Roth plays a nice Englishman who is not at all nice, Bruce Dern is a psychologically wounded southern officer or perhaps not, Michael Masden plays another dour thug, and Channing Tatum plays the cowboy whose come to get his sister, a change, I suppose, from coming to get his brother.
I thought the main players were all wonderful, but Jennifer Jason Leigh more so, an actress usually too mannered for my taste, here playing her acting cards close to her chest until they build up to a violent, gory blast.
Sadly, the aged Ennio Morricone’s sparse double base grunt is an epic fail, phoned in, nothing like his past westerns; the least said the better. Tarantino has Robert Richardson shoot the film, (El Salvador, JFK, Nixon and Casino) in a over-bright log shack lit by candles and hearth fire, missing the natural light and shadow of a Clint Eastwood western.
The Guardian’s critic has given Hateful five stars, but if six is a flawless, memorable work of high art such as Cyrano De Bergerac, and five an excellent movie all-round but no classic, this should be a four star film. I’m hovering at three-and-a-half. Some might knock it back to a three because they find it empty and about nothing much. Tarantino gives us Tarantino but some feel he writes the same script each time using different costumes and locations.
It’s more than that, a lot more, nihilistic, American right-wing Texan justice pulp fiction, but a good way to spend two unthinking hours, just not three hours plus advertising and trailers. Furthermore, because it’s shot in wide-screen 70mm a lot of cinemas can’t show it. Some people might think that a blessing.
- Star rating: Three-and-a-half stars
- Writer-Director: Quintin Tarantino
- Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason-Leigh
- Music: Ennio Morriconi
- Cinematography: Robert Richardson
- Duration: 3 hours 7 minutes