There has always been a magic in Quentin Tarantino’s way with words. He has the gift of being able to write textured, beautiful dialogue that somehow sounds both earthily naturalistic and completely unlike anything you’ve ever heard anybody say. His newest film, The Hateful Eight, ought therefore to be the film that foregrounds and celebrates this talent to the fullest extent; for it is a three-hour character drama consisting almost entirely of a small group of people talking to each other. And yet instead, tragically, The Hateful Eight marks the moment when this director’s talent fails him. The characters in this movie talk in a kind of baroque, overwrought, and yet weirdly stilted parody of the distinctive speech we know and love. And what is more, they talk interminably. Tarantino indulges his every whim here, stretching out into the most twisted fever dream of his dizzily feverish career. Because he is a consummate filmmaker, his whims are still interesting enough that they add up to a watchable and sporadically enjoyable movie. But it is a flabby, sprawling thing nonetheless; and if a sensible editor had taken the knife to it, it could have been a much, much better film.
The premise is the stuff of classic stage drama: a cast of disparate characters are thrown together in a confined space (in this case, a mountain cabin in Wyoming) and are forced to interact with each other because none of them can leave (in this case, because there is a blizzard outside). The Civil War is a recent and painful memory, and the party includes both a black former Unionist officer (Samuel L. Jackson) and a former Confederate militiaman (Walton Goggins). There is also a bounty hunter (Kurt Russell) who is taking a female captive (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to be hanged in the next town. Various other suspicious and unpalatable types fill out the cast, and as the night wears on, tensions predictably escalate.
The previous film of Tarantino’s that The Hateful Eight most recalls is his first, Reservoir Dogs. That too is a film set mostly in one room, composed mostly of dialogue, and ending in horrific violence. Now, here is a comparison worth considering. You can legitimately ask of Reservoir Dogs, what is the point of this film? Nothing of substance is said, learnt, or achieved in it. But nobody asks that, because the movie is so funny, fast-paced, and surprising that nobody cares if it’s all just empty style. The Hateful Eight, by contrast, is not funny, it is certainly not fast-paced, and it is almost never surprising. (Indeed, the big plot twist is disappointingly simple and predictable.) But it does have a point, and the point is this: America is a blighted, ugly nation.
For these characters are America in microcosm, and the vile cruelty with which they treat each other is Tarantino’s mockery of American history. Throughout the film, Jackson’s character carries a letter from Abraham Lincoln, and at the very end, it is read out. It turns out to be a rather trite exemplar of the kind of worthy-sounding moral rhetoric that is still routinely trotted out by the nation’s politicians – an affirmation that justice will prevail and the future will be bright and fair. But we hear it with our stomachs still sick and heaving after witnessing the orgy of sadism that concludes the film; and in any case, we learned quite early on that the letter is a forgery. American ideals are mere empty phrases, and everybody – black or white, Northern or Southern, man or woman – is potentially a cold-blooded murderer. That is Tarantino’s gore-soaked declaration. The Hateful Eight is worth seeing once, but I would be cautious of anybody who expresses much desire to see it again.