All of Tarantino’s movies have a cinematic sheen, an assured director’s hand, a ton of homages, and a copious amount of entertaining dialog as well as blood and guts. The best Tarantino movies also have a second layer to them; they’re about more than the superficial. Pulp Fiction, still far and away his best movie, was about the power of grace, Jackie Brown was about the lengths women of color must go to in order to make it in the world, Kill Bill was about the futility and emptiness of vengeance, Inglorious Basterds dared to present Nazis as human beings like everyone else and also (somewhat hypocritically) pointed a judging finger at those who revel in the kind of violent movies Tarantino himself likes to make.
The Hateful Eight, a more or less spiritual sequel to Django Unchained, also has more on its mind. But it is perhaps the least successful of all Tarantino’s movies in presenting itself. Set about a decade or so after the Civil War, the plot involves a couple of bounty hunters (Samuel Jackson, Kurt Russell) and various other shady characters being forced to hunker down in a shop together while a blizzard rages outside. Several of the characters like Jackson are former Union soldiers. A few are former Confederates. And even though the good guys won and slavery is over, you’ll be shocked to learn that old grievances are still very much in play. The n-word is thrown around here liberally (it is a Tarantino movie after all) but much like with Django—and perhaps less so with his earlier work—there is a point to it. The movie is about the tense, ugly racial resentments of the Reconstruction Era. Thankfully we’re past all that now, right guys?
Everyone here is hateful, though some perhaps are more hateful than others. Jennifer Jason Leigh is a standout, here. She’s the lone female character, a prisoner captured by bounty hunter Russell, set to be hanged in the nearby town of Red Rock as soon as the storm passes. Leigh is hilarious in the role. And while every character is on the receiving end of some physical abuse, Leigh gets it by far the most, being beaten and brutalized by many of the males. While she is a fighter and a scrapper, she’s ultimately helpless to fight against the world she was born into. Jackson and Walten Goggins also bring their A-games to the proceedings.
The filmed 70mm stuff is nice to look at in a retro way, and I’m happy to indulge QT in his weird picadillos even though digital looks just fine by me. But the movie itself is overlong, filled with endless dialog that is interesting in fits, but isn’t as interesting as Tarantino thinks it is, and then ends with an explosion of over-the-top violence and insanity. And just when I thought I was out entirely, an extremely unlikely friendship develops between two of the characters that is A) Something the audience can glom onto and root for and B) this movie’s elusive aforementioned “second layer”. Saying anything more would ruin the surprise.
It’s not enough to make this movie a classic, but it’s enough to make it a worthwhile viewing experience.