I went into the 70mm "roadshow" version of the Hateful Eight essentially not caring if the film itself was any good. Conceptually, the idea of a limited-run expanded cut of a film, complete with overture and intermission, is one that absolutely thrills me. As Tarantino himself opines in the film's promotional material, going to the cinema used to be an event for which people dressed up, and in those days (that is, the 60s & 70s) the norm was for both run-times and aspect ratios to be gargantuan. It was a time in which we really paid attention to films in a way we almost never do nowadays. If you want to go way back, we could even talk about Wagnerian shit like the notion of Gesamtkunstwerk and the cult of the auteur. Cinema as a force to be reckoned with. In a way that even your Avatars and your Episode VII's just can't hold a candle to.
Recreating that type of all-encompassing spectacle in a modern climate of constant screentime and 140-character attentions spans was always going to be a niche endeavor, like 180-gram vinyl or (increasingly) actual, physical books. But it isn't nostalgia alone that makes such an enterprise appealing to many filmgoers; it's also the truth that epic art, confronted on an epic scale, genuinely offers us a transformative experience that is qualitatively different from an experience derived from art we engage with only casually. While it's unclear whether The HatefulEight itself has anything to SAY on such a scale, the spectacle is certainly captivating.
I keep waiting for Tarantino to "mature" as a filmmaker but, terrible infant that he is, he never does. In one sense, I applaud this. Why should he ever have to tone down his style just to make his work more cohesive? But, on the other hand, I think he really needs to tone down his style to make his work more cohesive. What I'm talking about here is his incessant compulsion to clutter up his art by constantly showing his audience all the other movies he likes.
Now, I get that cookie cutter references are his thing; I really do. I genuinely love that about his stuff. I mean, why the hell SHOULDN'T you put a 7-minute anime sequence smack dab in the middle of your four-hour otherwise-live-action epic? Why on Earth SHOULDN'T your characters discuss the finer points of Madonna singles or the localized designations of fast-food sandwiches in the downtime when they're not shooting people in the face? Who cares if, in reality, Hitler WASN'T assassinated in a hail of bullets by a rag-tag cadre of lovable ruffians unable to fake an Italian accent to save their lives? 'It's a damn movie; have fun with it' is an ethos worthy of consideration.
And on that note, I don't mind occasionally being reminded that I am watching a movie. It's an interesting distancing device. So if your characters inexplicably possess the power to DRAW ON THE ACTUAL FILM REEL for no apparent reason and in ONE SCENE ONLY, or if your MacGuffin-suitcase thing contains an iridescent light source for no discernible diegetic reason, that's totally ok with me. It's probably good for us to remember to maintain some semblance of intellectual distance from a film, and to appreciate a good wink and a gimmick with the director. I think we can all agree that I'm right about this.
But there are definite times when I feel like Tarantino overuses these devices. And the entire second half of this movie is one of them. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
One especially bizarre consequence of the choice of the 70mm format for this film in particular is that we barely get to appreciate any of the kind of gorgeous sprawling Western landscapes for which the ostentatiously wide 2.76:1 aspect ratio is known before our characters get trapped inside a one-room cabin with each other for the rest of the movie. This is a story mechanic that seemingly obviates the benefit of having that extra screen real estate in the first place.
On the surface it comes across as an incongruous choice, but it's surprisingly effective. By initially showing us the grandeur of those magnificent Wyoming vistas (yeah, I know it's not actually Wyoming, but I will remind you that this is a movie and you are being a stuffy butthead if that bothers you), Tarantino causes us to feel much more directly the desperate claustrophobia of the characters once they get trapped within the four walls of Minnie's Haberdashery.
Likewise, the relaxed editing afforded by the longer runtime really gives the story room to breathe in a wonderful way that I haven't seen in a Tarantino film before. Unusually for Tarantino, almost none of the dialogue in this movie, particularly the exquisitely languid first half, seems overly showy or extraneous in any way. In contrast to Django Unchained, this film actually feels like a Western in its pacing and character—apart from the occasional anachronistic soundtrack cut of course. Thankfully there are much fewer of these here than in that film.
Speaking of the soundtrack, I'm very happy to say that most of the Ennio Morricone score is actually newly composed music this time around! I have mixed feelings about Tarantino's reappropriation of Morricone's music in his films, usually because I'm familiar enough with the music's original context that the knowledge completely takes me out of the movie, often to the point where instead of actually thinking about the film, I'm sitting there analyzing my resentment of his apparent disregard for the composer and their contribution to his art. You can goddamn be thankful that Sergio Leone never settled for some piece originally written for something else, and his films are stronger because of that. And his films are more his because of that.
So while we do have a couple of passages from The Thing and the by-all-accounts-abominable Exorcist sequel (both of which are mercifully unfamiliar to me), the majority of the Maestro's material here was written specifically for this film, and it's vastly to the film's benefit that this is the case. The brutal, laborious overture, in particular, is phenomenally effective at drawing us inexorably into the film's unrelenting bleakness, and sets a glacial pace that the latter mostly imitates up until the last act. The score is incredibly strong throughout, and it complements what's happening on screen in a way Tarantino's usual mix-tape approach never has. It's loud when it needs to be, even to the point of drowning out some of the actor's voices sometimes. Don't worry though because no meaningful dialogue is ever obscured; it's always four-letter words if it's words at all, and usually it's only the kind of involuntary vocal tic one might make if one was, say, shot in the dick or something (just spit-balling here). Even more importantly, the score is subdued or totally absent in the places where it needs to be.
Because Tarantino is Tarantino, we get some shenanigans in terms of narrative structure, and this silliness rears its ugly head at the beginning of the film's much weaker second half. After a rather silly monologue from Samuel L.—apparently inspired by a classic sequence from The Good The Bad & The Ugly but infused with what I imagine to be someone's uptight mom's caricature of what a Tarantino film is—the film flashes back to show us a big chunk of time from another perspective. It feels a little forced in a way nothing has up until this point, but it's not a problem exactly.
Worse though, we also get some completely unnecessary narration, all of a sudden and from no particular character we can identify. It comes in halfway through the film with no prior justification and a few times thereafter. As far as I can tell, it has no purpose in the film other than to remind us that we are watching a movie and that our director has ADD. It's a nearly catastrophic choice. From here on out the film starts to abandon the careful stylistic consistency it has heretofore maintained, and it loses much of its cohesion as a result.
The big mystery, such as it is, while hardly thought-provoking or inventive, does just barely manage to hold our interest through to the end. Like with most great Westerns (and most great Tarantino scenes for that matter), one gets the sense that the violence itself is not the focus so much as is the prelude to that violence. Think the bar scene from Inglourious Basterds, and you'll have a rough idea for how this entire film feels. Plus, lots of Bad Words!
Even as the narrative goes pretty far off the rails in the second half, the film is still a treat to watch. The acting never fails to entertain and it's crystal clear how much fun the entire cast was having during the shoot. In true Western fashion (well, the spaghetti variety anyway) there are no good guys, just guys (and girl-yep, just one, which sucks) that you kind of root for to get their comeuppance marginally less than all the others. Exactly which characters are on which side of that equation, though, changes constantly, perhaps even thoughtfully. And almost everyone gets some really juicy bits too.
In retrospect, I guess it's kind of like watching a version of The Good The Bad & The Ugly where 90% of the action takes place in one enclosed room and basically every character is Tuco.
If that appeals to you, then this is the film for you!