The first thing that becomes clear about The Hateful Eight is that Quentin Tarantino has long since reached the eccentric dad stage of his career. Early on, in the Pulp Fiction/Reservoir Dogs days, he attempted to translate his whims to the audience, to put just enough of himself into something that he thought people already wanted for it to be mutually satisfying.
These days, Tarantino is a known quantity. He doesn’t have to temper any of his impulses. His films are like a time capsule of all the things QT was into when he made them, and you can join the fun if you want, but he’s not going to hold your hand. That means: more blood, more N-bombs, more experimental techniques and obscure references, more wild-eyed character actors. Where in the past a producer might’ve tried smooth his rougher edges, nowadays Tarantino sits in his well-grooved La-Z-Boy and doesn’t have to rise for company. If he says something a little racist from time to time, well, that’s just Quentin being Quentin.
You can see Quentin being Quentin right away in The Hateful Eight, which begins with a title card, a stagecoach graphic that says simply “Overture,” and stays onscreen for a full five minutes while Ennio Morricone’s score plays. Any other director probably would’ve been pressured to cut this down, and even I thought “Okay, we get it,” somewhere around the three-and-a-half-minute mark. But even when I’m feeling like something QT does is a little too long, a little too crass, a little too pulpy, etc., I still enjoy experiencing vicariously his utter freedom from giving a f*ck. You can never truly separate Tarantino’s sophisticated storytelling from the fact that he’s also kind of a punk, who lives to get a rise out of people.
The basic pattern of The Hateful Eight is this: Tarantino displays a mastery of classic storytelling and brilliant suspense that would make him the darling of even the stodgiest elitist film critic, and then, just when they’re ready to elect him president of the snoot academy, he hits them with an exploding dick or some shitbomb of schlocky gore that ruins countless cravats. He never lets you forget that while he can do high art as well as anyone, low art is his first love, that no matter how much he evolves, he’ll always be a vulgarian.
The opening scenes set the tone. The Hateful Eight begins with Kurt Russell, playing bounty hunter “Hangman” John Ruth — the most overt John Wayne impression Russell has done since Big Trouble in Little China — encountering Samuel L. Jackson’s Major Marquis Warren (also a bounty hunter), along a snowy Wyoming road. Ruth is bringing a valuable prisoner (Daisy Domergue, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) into town to hang. When he encounters Warren, whom he knows, he has to try to puzzle out whether this reunion is just a strange coincidence, or if Warren has come to steal his prize. Ruth tries to solve this logic problem piece by piece, and he will not be hurried while he figures it out. Likewise, watching Tarantino build this scene is sort of like watching a comedian stretch out on a night when he’s really on, finding tags and punchlines with the breezy leisure of a man who knows the audience will sit there for six hours if he wants them to.
Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell’s characters pick up Walton Goggins’ Chris Mannix — a former Confederate marauder who claims to be the sheriff of the town to which everyone’s bound — on their way to an inn called Minnie’s Haberdashery to hole up and wait out a blizzard. (There’s some kind of jokey explanation of why the inn is called a haberdashery that I didn’t quite catch, I’m pretty sure Tarantino just likes the word.) When they get there, Minnie is gone, and in her place is a terse Mexican named Bob (played by Demian Bichir), and some other guests: an aging Confederate general played by Bruce Dern, an English gentleman played by Tim Roth, and a silent cowboy played by Michael Madsen. Ruth is convinced at least one of them is in cahoots with Daisy, and the next 90 minutes or so feels surprisingly similar to a vulgar, contemporary, post-Civil War version of Clue.
Actually, The Hateful Eight feels like the tavern scene in Inglourious Basterds (where the British spy is betrayed by using the wrong kind of “three” to order drinks) recast with Civil War players and expanded into a whole movie. It’s all tension-filled staredowns (we know something the characters in the room don’t!) and lengthy, scene-chewing monologues. It’s hard to mind the length, for one because few people are better at scene-chewing monologues than Jackson (how has he not won an Oscar for one of these yet?), and for another because each one is like an extended Rube Goldberg machine of meticulously articulated deductive reasoning. In a macro sense, pacing goes out the window during these scenes, because this is clearly Tarantino riffing, the storytelling equivalent of the “Aristocrats” joke. Part of the tension is built into the scene, part of it comes from watching Tarantino juggle narrative chainsaws.
If The Hateful Eight‘s scenes of tension built are the tavern scene from Basterds, its scenes of tension burst are more like the guy getting his dick shot off in Django, or the blood spray in Kill Bill. And that’s the dichotomy of Tarantino, that he can play both the professor and the kid in the back of the class making fart noises. How does a guy with such a seemingly nuanced, empathetic, and erudite take on Civil War-era race relations take so much glee in the word “n*gger?” Or in Daisy Domergue getting smacked around, which is part brutal realism and part Three Stooges slapstick? The simple answer is that as knowledgeable as he is, he’s still the guy who can’t spell and loves B-movies, the more tasteless the better. He makes high-art exploitation movies. Expecting Hateful Eight to be either one or the other is missing the point.