By Eleanor Ringel Cater
You’ve probably heard of the old Steve McQueen/Yul Brynner western, “The Magnificent Seven.”
Well, so has Quentin Tarantino.
Only, “The Hateful Eight,” his newest sardonic bloodbath, has less to do with John Sturges than it does with Agatha Christie. Or those ubiquitous TV westerns from the ‘50s, like “Laramie” and “Cheyenne” and “Bronco.”
Though a great deal of fuss has been made about Tarantino’s filming this in retro Panavision 70 millimeter — as opposed to digital, which is pretty much how all movies are shot these days — the movie itself is determinedly claustrophobic.
You get about a half hour of wide-open spaces before a blizzard forces a stagecoach and its passengers to seek shelter at a worn-out saloon in the middle of nowhere. A saloon, moreover, with the decidedly odd name of Minnie’s Haberdashery (as in, you can get anything you want at Minnie’s…?)
Said passengers are a slippery crew. John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is a grizzled bounty hunter, best known for bringing ‘em back alive so they can hang in the town square. His newest prize is a ragged bit of murderous scum named Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who’s more junkyard dog than Calamity Jane.
They’re soon joined by another bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a stylish type with a pile of corpses in tow. “Got room for one more?” he asks, echoing the Grim Reaper’s invitation in the horror classic, “Dead of Night.”
Plus, there’s the town’s new sheriff, a former Confederate named Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins who, decades ago, could claim Georgia as his home).
So … they pull into a kinda sorta stagecoach stop where, strangely, Minnie is nowhere to be seen. And Minnie’s stew tastes … different.
Further, a bunch of oddballs have already settled in: a dandy-ish hangman (Tim Roth) whose rope could soon be around Daisy’s neck; a former Confederate commander (Bruce Dern) who still likes to dress in gray and gold (and who still prefers to see the world as white and … other…); an enigmatic cowhand (Michael Madsen) who’s writing a book or something; and a sour-faced stable hand (Damian Bichir) who says he’s running the joint while Minnie’s away.
Along with the throwback 70 mm, Tarantino has added an Overture and an Intermission. Just like they did back in the days of “Dr. Zhivago” and “The Sound of Music.” (Hmmm, which would I rather see— the Tarantino take on Julie Andrews or Julie Christie?).
What this means, essentially, is the first half of this 187 minute picture is all build-up to a splatter-happy second half — a slow-burner as they sometimes say in The Biz. To explain what ensues would be an unconscionable spoiler. Let’s just say, well, just about anybody who can shoot or get shot up, does so. Or gets done in otherwise.
The profane beauty of Tarantino’s dialogue still holds its own with his trademark proliferation of blood squibs. And the actors manage a few standout moments. Jackson centers the craziness, proffering his personal letter from President Lincoln as a kind of safe passage through a savage post-Civil War land. Russell plays around with a drawl that’s part John Wayne, part Snake Plissken. And Goggins proves himself imminently suitable to the Tarantino world-view (let’s hope he becomes part of the director’s stable of regulars).
Finally — amazingly — there’s Leigh, who gets regularly smacked across the face and spits back pure venom in reply. She’s flat-out marvelous as an equal-opportunity bad ass. This is the sort of showy role that usually goes to guys — and she plays it with a startling snarl that suggests a sleepy yet deadly Dormouse at Alice’s Mad Tea Party. If the Oscar voters knew their butts from their…well, let’s just say she’s more than deserving of a Best Supporting Actress nomination.
As we expect from Tarantino, the film is jam-packed with cinematic references, from a snow-covered Christ to Ennio Morricone’s score (an homage to himself as much as to the scores he wrote for Sergio Leone). Leigh’s last name is borrowed from Faith Domergue, best known for … well, for being Howard Hughes’ mistress
And there’s a running gag straight out of the Marx Brothers —or maybe “Casablanca.” Everyone wants to see everyone else’s papers. Is Goggins really the new sheriff of Red Rock? Is Roth really the new hangman? What about that supposed Lincoln Letter? And so on. And so forth.
Ultimately, “The Hateful Eight” isn’t about much of anything — other than, perhaps, Tarantino’s particular, albeit limited, virtuoso talents, which have been better displayed in other movies.
Still, it’s almost always entertaining. And it goes down easy. It’s a guilty pleasure — the movie equivalent of empty calories.