I spent my last 2015 movie review touting my lifelong fandom of Star Wars, so allow me to begin 2016 by declaring my feelings for Quentin Tarantino. After the opening minutes of Reservoir Dogs, he had an instant fan in me. I saw Pulp Fiction twice in theaters, once on opening day, then months later, with a cheering audience, when it was up for Best Picture. I spent two Christmas Eves attending the premieres of the disastrous, quasi-Tarantino anthology Four Rooms and Jackie Brown, which wasn’t a disaster. Like everyone else, I was addicted to The Bride’s quest to kill Bill.
But I had issues with Django Unchained. Exploiting slavery violence in a glorified B-movie felt like a misstep, as if Tarantino were trying to shock us by showing off, and not with his usual pop culture wit. Likewise, his latest goes over the line, but for material that doesn’t seem worth the trouble.
The Colorado-shot The Hateful Eight is a post-Civil War western in which eight despicable outlaws are holed up in Minnie’s Haberdashery during a blizzard. Of the actors, Kurt Russell and especially Samuel L. Jackson are so commanding that their performances stand with their best work. The rest of the cast isn’t as well positioned with their roles, as Walt Goggins’ flamboyant work can’t overcome how one-note his character is (ditto Bruce Dern). Tim Roth uses the same unfortunate vocal mannerisms from Four Rooms, while the only thing interesting about Michael Madsen’s character is the actor playing him. Channing Tatum is poorly miscast, his boyish, low key charisma at odds with the vermin he’s playing. Jennifer Jason Leigh is portraying the latest in a long line of Tarantino femme fatales who are beaten but stronger than they appear; unlike the women Uma Thurman played for Tarantino, Leigh’s increasingly feral character and performance grows more degrading with each passing hour.
After an intriguing start, the long-winded 187 minutes begins to drag. There’s no sustained tension or momentum. The intrusion of blackouts and title cards only stops and starts the tale, eliminating the suspense.
Ennio Morricone’s score is fantastic, though the end credits helpfully informed me that some of it is a reprise of his work from Exorcist II: The Heretic and John Carpenter’s The Thing, a movie this visually and thematically references. There’s also a lot of McCabe and Miss Miller, though Robert Altman’s western has never been matched for its depiction of the wild west as a muddy, dirty, morally scuzzy landscape of lost souls. Tarantino piles on the film references but even his song choices seem off.
By the end, the result is not only mean-spirited but quite sadistic. Tarantino has been justifiably cagey for journalists and critics who slap him on the wrist for his ultra-violence: he has a right to utilize extreme bloodletting in his narratives, for either story turns or shock value. He’s not the first to do so and won’t be the last. However, whereas the violence in prior his films have been used as dark humor, character reveals or commentaries on audience expectations, the wit in his splatter is absent here.
These characters aren’t just hateful, they’re vile and the camera revels in their sick behavior. I remain a Tarantino fan and appreciate how his works inspire film fans to seek out the films that inspired him. But his latest is a swaggering, pointless mess, both in terms of story and the pools of blood it leaves behind.
Since Tarantino loves to quote his prior works, here’s the final sentence from my Django Unchained review: “Django Unchained isn’t as hip and above the hateful muck as much as it thinks.” The same goes for his latest, hateful muck.