Tarantino’s films are never perfect.
No matter how you feel about Quentin Tarantino’s films, they are cinematic happenings that promote discussion. The director has often featured criminals and morally questionable scoundrels, daring us to identify with his rogues’ gallery of murderers, thieves and liars. But there is always something there, a flash of humanity shining up like the light from the inside of that suitcase in Pulp Fiction. When we’re not cheering for victims (such as the leads in Kill Bill and Django Unchained), we are hoping his smooth-talking rapscallions, like those in Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, get away with the loot and their lives. This may not be the case with Tarantino’s latest, The Hateful Eight, a Western whodunit featuring a bevy of unsavory scumbags trapped in a small cabin during a blizzard, just a few years following the Civil War. But for these folks, that shining light is nowhere to be found.
Taranto writes loquacious characters. He always has. Yet, some of The Hateful Eight’s detractors take issue that the first hour is nothing more than conversation. Does it ever feel boring? No. Does the dialogue contain the punch and liberal helpings of the “N” word like many other Tarantino scripts? Yes. This is a story of bullshitters and liars. To be a good bullshitter, one needs to know how to weave a tale. And that’s exactly what Tarantino does here—he crafts a script of liars telling lies to other liars. And some of those lies are doozies!
To call The Hateful Eight a Western might be inaccurate. Sure, Westerns are filled with outlaws with guns and often take place after the Civil War, but Tarantino’s script reads more like an Agatha Christie novel in Stetson hats. Everyone is made of suspect moral fiber. Unlike the criminal stars of The Wild Bunch, the men and women in The Hateful Eight lack a code. They wouldn’t step into a wind-swept night, let alone a hail of bullets, for one another. Also, many of the film’s shootings happen when a character is unaware. There is no honor here. Although the setting shares some similarities with the snowbound McCabe & Mrs. Miller, these aren’t real people just trying to get by. Altman’s characters—shysters and whores they may be—felt like living, breathing people. Those in The Hateful Eight are just bad to the bone.
Tarantino’s films are never perfect. They suffer from overlength and oftentimes his characters are merely cyphers that should not induce empathy, even with nifty backstory digressions. Without being funny, Tarantino’s biggest sin this time is trying too hard in the symbolism department. A snow-covered effigy of a mournful Christ fills one of the movie’s first images, shot beautifully by three-time Oscar winner Robert Richardson. Later, a similar figure—skin bare and freezing in the snow, Ennio Morricone’s creepy score underlying the dread—pays for the sins of his father. And a key death in the film looks an awful lot like a mixture of a lynching and a crucifixion. Being on the nose isn’t something Tarantino does often without full awareness, but that is what pushes The Hateful Eight into the bottom side of the director’s impressive oeuvre.
The true shining light here, though, is Tarantino’s decision to promote a Roadshow version of his film, showing in 70mm film at select theaters. My screening reminded me of what going to movies was like when I was kid, the flickering on the screen, the light pouring out of that magical square window in the rear of the auditorium. These graceful imperfections have been replaced with the slickness of digital, its creep so surreptitious we didn’t realize the glint had departed us. It takes something special like a Tarantino film to relive that trembling magic of the cinema.