The first thing you’ll see in The Hateful Eight is an overture. It’s a title card shown over several minutes’ worth of mood-setting music by spaghetti Western composer Ennio Morricone. A holdover from opera and ballet, overtures were a staple of Hollywood epic movies in the 1960s, but I haven’t seen a new movie with one since Return of the Jedi. Quentin Tarantino’s new Western looks to capture the feel of its mid-century predecessors like Alamo and How the West Was Won, but all it feels like is lesser Tarantino, even if it is still quite a bit of fun.
The movie is set in Wyoming in the years after the Civil War, as bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) takes his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) into a remote haberdashery to wait out an impending blizzard. Along the way, he picks up Maj. Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a former Union Army officer who has also gone into the bounty hunting trade. The company they find at the store turns out to be a bunch of killers, all hiding their own agendas.
Just about everyone has pointed up the movie’s parallels to an Agatha Christie mystery by now, with everybody trapped in a confined space, everybody being suspicious of one another, and everybody possessing some secret about someone else that the other person would rather keep under wraps. There’s one important thing that makes this distinctively Tarantino, though: Everybody is in love with the sound of their own voice. Before the intermission (yes, there’s a 12-minute intermission built into this three-hour film), the movie is awfully talky.
The plot doesn’t kick into gear until the second half, when Tarantino springs diabolically clever revelations upon us. A sequence in which Daisy idly picks up a guitar and sings “Jim Jones at Botany Bay” while key events unfold in the background behind her shows the director’s talent at orchestrating such set pieces. Leigh gets to unhinge her feral side as Daisy threatens to gain the upper hand, while Walton Goggins gives a neat performance as a racist sheriff who’s nevertheless smart enough to know when someone’s trying to play on his prejudices. As the killers turn on one another, the nastiness is sometimes delightful, with one bad guy’s death (the sixth one from the last) being particularly hilarious.
Then again, sometimes the nastiness is just nasty, as with the inexplicable hatred between the African-Americans and the one Mexican character (Demián Bichir) or in an ugly sequence when the major baits a mean old Confederate general (Bruce Dern) into doing the wrong thing and getting himself killed. In Tarantino’s far superior Django Unchained, the hatefulness had a clear, specific purpose for being there. Here, it seems like the filmmaker is merely indulging his own sadomasochistic movie-nerd fantasies. He’s too skilled not to squeeze some great jokes out of it, but that’s about all he accomplishes.
[box_info]The Hateful Eight
Starring Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Rated R.[/box_info]