Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins
Gilbert: Now, the local alchemist is killed in an explosion. And there, among his effects, a chorus of villagers discover a potion.
Sullivan: Magic, no doubt.
Sullivan: I thought as much.
Gilbert: The effect of this magic potion is to transform the character who takes it into whatever he or she is pretending to be.
Sullivan: You and your world of Topsy-Turvydom! In 1881, it was a magic coin. And before that it was a magic lozenge. And in 1877, it was a magic elixir.
Gilbert: …In this instance, it is a magic potion.
No director has ever been quite so interested in the peculiarities of architecture as Quentin Tarantino. In Reservoir Dogs, the shooting of Mr. Blonde is simply surprising because we thought Mr. Orange was down for the count. In Pulp Fiction, Tarantino puts someone in a bathroom to try to blow away Vincent and Jules, only for the bullets to miraculously miss them. In Inglourious Basterds, a heretofore unseen Nazi officer, hidden behind a wall, pops out just as it appears that the Basterds and their British liaison will fend off the German enlisted men. In The Hateful Eight, just when it seems that Marquis (Jackson) might be getting somewhere in his interrogation of the three men who might have poisoned the coffee, lo and behold a man is hidden beneath the floorboards and he discharges his weapon to great effect. Bathrooms, walls, and basements: Quentin Tarantino keeps saying he’s only going to make ten movies, but maybe it’s because he’s just out of ideas? Maybe this sounds excessively nitpicky. Maybe this is like criticizing a Woody Allen movie for having a neurotic protagonist, or Spielberg for returning to families dealing with divorce and other forms of parental turmoil. But I don’t think so. (One reason, which I cannot emphasize enough, is that Channing Tatum’s name sits all by itself in the opening credits…when you go two hours without seeing Channing Tatum, you’re liable to have a guess about him popping up.) Watching this movie, which is loaded to the gills with the most typically Tarantinoish stuff, one gets the sense that he’s got the same hodgepodge as ever without being able to expand on it in any meaningful way. The answer is in the snow.
The film slowly lurches toward its first events by giving us enormous snowy vistas to look at. They are attractive picture postcards of the West, and what they do primarily is establish remoteness. This is middle of nowhere Wyoming, entirely open country. It’s not long before the stagecoach finds Marquis with his dead bounties on the road and the movie becomes abundantly talky. From that point on, the movie is almost exclusively inside somewhere. It’s inside the stagecoach, which gets more crowded all the time. It’s inside the stables. It’s inside Minnie’s Haberdashery first and foremost; no doubt there are classical Greek plays which spent less time in one location than we spend inside Minnie’s Haberdashery. The snow becomes a way to put people inside the stage, or to keep people inside the cabin. Tarantino brought on legendary cinematographer Robert Richardson. He filmed in Colorado. He could have made a western. Run through the great westerns in your mind, or the popular ones, or even the overrated ones. How many of them are as desperate as The Hateful Eight to stay indoors? Count the story Marquis tells Bruce Dern’s General Smithers about his son as a snowy scene if you like, but there’s no doubt that it’s a scene which, all other considerations aside, would have done better just to leave the camera on the faces of Jackson and Dern throughout. Our imaginations are typically more lurid than a screenwriter’s words, even if is the fabled (and firmly post-peak) Quentin Tarantino. All in all, his take on Big Sky country is Big Ceiling country, and what we get instead is a long, occasionally taut unraveling of a mystery, The Thing with training wheels, rather than the genre this purportedly belongs to. I am as likely to make an honest-to-goodness western as Quentin Tarantino, who had all the resources to make such a picture but none of the willpower. It was much safer, it turns out, to have gotten the same people together to make a movie which has, you guessed it, lots of blood and gore and murder and the n-word and pleasure in violence against women and all the other things which Tarantino has done many times already.
(Other people have talked about all of those elements in this movie more than I care to subject myself to writing about, and I strongly recommend that you find them. I recommend Matt Zoller Seitz on the movie, especially his reading of the aforementioned oral rape. What I do want to talk about is the film’s strident and joyful violence against women. Some of them are unarmed black women who are murdered by a gang. One of them is the film’s central character, in the sense that everything revolves around her. Leigh’s Daisy shows up with a cartoonish black eye, like she’s been interrupted halfway into preparing to dress as a raccoon for Halloween. I’m sure I’m missing some, but she is beaten in the face multiple times, has stew thrown on her, gets her front teeth knocked out, sits around drenched in her brother’s blood, and then is hanged by the movie’s surviving characters, both men. No other character’s death gets nearly as much loving attention from the camera, even though like, everyone dies. The people who execute her actually come together despite their past differences in what I have to imagine is meant to be a sort of racial reconciliation, which is tremendously dumb. No other character suffers violence in a way that invites our laughter. And it is so interesting to me that Kurt Russell plays John Ruth, the bounty hunter bringing her in. No one talks about Death Proof except to say they didn’t like it very much, but in Death Proof Russell plays a killer of women whose first victim is Rose McGowan. In this movie he spends long stretches parceling out pain and physical violence to Jennifer Jason Leigh. In both movies Russell’s character gets his comeuppance, sure, although killing McGowan or knocking Leigh’s teeth out certainly take up a heck of a lot more movie. I’m just a little fascinated by this repeated strand in which the primary actors are Russell, Tarantino, and of course Harvey Weinstein, who produced Death Proof and The Hateful Eight.)
With all that said, it’s not as if the inside bits don’t work visually. Tarantino and Richardson do a really good job of making that cabin big enough for all those people wandering about inside, giving each of them the room to wander about and explore the space. It is big enough for Mobray (Tim Roth) to proclaim that one side of the cabin can be “Philadelphia” for those with Northern sympathies, and another can “Georgia” for former Confederates; more than that, it actually stays that way for a minute without the action feeling nearly as stilted as the dialogue. Deep focus is their friend, and ours too. When we get it, it’s meaningful because we want to see as many characters reacting to as much as possible, and this is a good group that reacts (or doesn’t) effectively. The best part of the film might be the running gag that it takes two pieces of wood nailed to the door to shut it; the first time it happens, we know Tim Roth is one voice because we can see him speaking, but the other voice comes from off-screen. It’s a clever moment, one that give us a hint that the cabin is more populated than it looks, and hey, the cabin certainly turns out to be more populated than it looks. There are moments when the lighting is a little too clever inside—there’s a spot in the cabin when Ruth observes the light falling from above in a way that makes me worried for the structural integrity of the building—but for the most part it is dark enough inside, and that’s what counts. It is the second-best part of the film, because without that specific brown-yellow-blue darkness in the cabin the movie would absolutely fall flat.
That long parenthetical bit up there is what bothers me most in the movie. What bothers me second-most is that Tarantino appears to be increasingly designing his movies so he can point to a history book and say, “No, I’m super cereal, guys, people said the n-word this much!” And what bothers me third-most is the first forty-five minutes. This movie has long stretches of dialogue which commit huge sins. Instead of letting us learn about characters from the way they say things or what they leave unsaid, it is far more important to Tarantino that we know a specific background for these people which will not, in fact, matter a whit when you throw all these folks into a cabin with loaded guns and poisoned coffee. There’s a lot of “But did you tell him that…” construction in the dialogue, which is just flat bad. Mannix (Goggins) throws that it Marquis. Ruth does it regarding Daisy. And so on and so on, and it is just a bear to get through. Meanwhile, our actors are struggling to make these characters shine through despite the dialogue. Leigh is pretty good in this movie, and she is good because of the astringency she gets in her voice when she finally gets a chance to talk. Kurt Russell’s character can be summed up in the way he flips this mustaches (the only way to write about them is through the old-fashioned verbiage) in a hot moment in the stage. Dern’s always had the crazy eyes down pat. Demian Bechir, even though I think he was told to do an Eli Wallach impression, is my favorite of the supporting actors because his character, from the name on down (“Senor Bob”), is just totally disinterested in covering up the fact that he is a bad man. On the whole, though, they’re better gifs than they are elements of a coherent movie, which is a tough sell.