Review: Tarantino shows defter touch in ‘The Hateful Eight’

The Hateful Eight, like its predecessor Django Unchained, is a western with taller-than-life characters filmed at epic scale. However, director Quentin Tarantino shows a nimbler hand in his eighth film.

When so much of the press has centered around Tarantino’s use of 70mm film for a super-wide screen presentation, you could easily be fooled into thinking that The Hateful Eight is a movie full of massive set pieces. On the contrary, most of the action takes place in Minnie’s Haberdashery, a cozy rest stop for bounty hunters and other wanderers of the wild west.

Boy, do you get to know that rest stop. It’s essentially one big room, and by the second half of the film I felt like I knew every corner of it. Point me in any direction and I could tell you which way to the bar, coffee pot, piano or Sweet Dave’s chair.

Like a good theatre production, the economy of the set puts the spotlight on the actors. Luckily, this is a talented cast with major presence. Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell shine the brightest, making it look easy to portray an uneasy friendship. Jennifer Jason Leigh is positively despicable, while Bruce Dern delivers half his excellent performance just by the expression on his face.

And look, eight killers trapped in a room together during a blizzard might sound like an obvious premise, but it’s also a very effective one. It’s impressive how much tension can be created by the presence of a mere coffee pot in a snake pit like this. Also, while every person in this “Hateful Eight” may be a bastard, they all — in typical Tarantino fashion — deliver immensely enjoyable dialogue that drips with secrets and hidden meanings.

Of course, this is still a Tarantino movie, and he brings along the stylized gore and indulgent distaste he’s known for. On occasion, the conductor sends his picture off the rails.

Actually, the first scene where this happened wasn’t even violent. At the start of Chapter Four, or immediately following the intermission, Tarantino actually starts narrating. For me this broke the fourth wall. Up to that point, I felt like I was stuck inside with the Hateful Eight — a sort of “Objective Ninth,” if you will. Tarantino’s narrative reminded me it’s a movie. I’m glad he’s proud of what he wrote, but I’d rather hear why he thinks a given scene is clever on the Blu-ray.

This particular scene is, of course, almost immediately followed by the first real gross-out blood scene in the film. To be fair, for a Tarantino movie, the gore in this film is pretty restrained. It’s also used more often to comedic effect, as in Kill Bill or an episode of South Park. It is rarely hard to watch, like the dogs or wrestling slaves scenes in Django Unchained.

Speaking of Django, slavery and racism continues to be a theme for Tarantino in The Hateful Eight. However, I appreciated this movie’s approach in conveying that through the characters’ histories and personalities rather than making it the focus of the plot itself. For example, we know that Major Marquis Warren (Jackson) fought in the Civil War and carries a letter from President Abraham Lincoln. This builds the world and adds to the tension with other characters, especially the former Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Dern). It is not, however, the main plot. It’s a more subtle approach to addressing slavery than Tarantino took in Django Unchained, but works just as well.

I’ve always preferred Tarantino when he seems like he’s having fun — Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction are my personal favorites. While critically acclaimed, Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained left me a little cold with their more realistic and hard-to-watch violence.

The Hateful Eight marks a return to the lighter, character-driven approach of Tarantino’s early days, but his characters’ discussion of race issues show more maturity than those first films’ chats about Burger King and how much to tip the waiter.

It’s engaging and also a whole lot of fun to watch. Pass the popcorn.

Note: I saw the “Special Roadshow Engagement” version of the film, which is a slightly longer cut presented in 70mm that includes a musical overture and intermission. This presentation was great fun and highlights Tarantino’s nostalgia for cinema. It’s definitely recommended if you have the option.

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