"The Hateful Eight" is an ultrawide bore. If you have the option, and you're committed to seeing the thing, you should see Quentin Tarantino's latest in one of its 100 or so limited-release "roadshow" screenings, projected on film, complete with overture (a lovely, eerie one from the great composer Ennio Morricone) and running just over three hours. After that, it'll be the conventional digital projection editions at the multiplexes, running 20 minutes shorter.
Writer-director Tarantino has described his post-Civil War picture, set largely in a Wyoming roadhouse with a blizzard raging outside, as an Agatha Christie Western. It's not so much a shoot-'em-up (though the violence is outlandishly rough when it comes) as a guess-'em-up. Now and then one of the duplicitous weasels braves the cold (the film was shot largely near Telluride, Colo.) to remind us where we are, and what the scenery looks like.
I'm all for the old-school, 70 millimeter whomp of "The Hateful Eight." Having seen it both digitally and on film, it's clear to me the 70mm roadshow film version looks bigger, brighter, clearer, movie-er. Shooting on film for a blissfully spacious 2.76:1 aspect ratio, cinematographer Robert Richardson saturates every stewpot and blood spurt, pouring scads of heavenly light down on the actors, even when there's no plausible light source for the effect.
I just wish the results didn't feel like 70 minutes of viable story taffy-pulled out to a brazen length. Tarantino's a born writer, but he's not a born self-editor of his own writerly blab. The script here is riddled with showy rhetorical flourishes and tedious running gags, one being how often Tarantino can work in the N-word, as both a facetious and "serious" example of casual, venal racism. Similarly, some of the violence is meant to be sobering, whether directed at black characters or white scoundrels or the much-abused female lead, a murderous prisoner played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. But most of the splatter when things go bonkers is strictly for sadistic kicks. It's a strange blend, this movie: an Ultra Panavision 70 spectacular (the first since 1966) that takes place mostly around tables.
The entrances and exits are consciously theatrical, when they're not paying direct homage to the primary "Hateful Eight" influences, which include such TV series as "Bonanza" and "The Virginian." Various observers have noted a particular debt owed to the "Fair Game" episode of the lesser-known series "The Rebel." Whatever; Tarantino's a magpie, a mashup artist, and always has been. When the movies work, the movies work. The idea here, I think, was to slowly increase the heat on a pressure-cooker scenario. The experience (mine, at least) of it is more like the air going blllllllpppppptttt out of an overinflated balloon.
The War between the States, a few years past but hardly settled, rages along with the blizzard inside Minnie's Haberdashery. Tarantino's motley travelers include bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell, fantastically bewhiskered) and his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), bound for Red Rock and the hangman's noose. In the opening scene their six-horse stagecoach meets up with another bounty hunter, Major Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a Civil War veteran with a bloody resume and a slab of corpses ready for delivery to Red Rock. Warren corresponded with Abraham Lincoln, and he carries his famous "Lincoln letter" with him, always. Also on the snowy road is the new sheriff of Red Rock (Walton Goggins), who really doesn't seem like sheriff material.
At Minnie's, Minnie herself is oddly absent. The guests wait out the storm, with a tight-lipped Confederate general (Bruce Dern); a tight-lipped cowpoke (Michael Madsen, unable to stop playing with his hair); a voluble Englishman (Tim Roth, extremely welcome); and their nominal host, Bob (Demian Bichir). The opening credits promise appearances by, among others, Channing Tatum, but any more would wander into spoiler territory. Everyone in "The Hateful Eight" tells one story and hides another, and the sexually goading monologue (set ironically to "Silent Night") Jackson delivers just before the intermission is, I think, the splitter for this movie. If you find the speech arresting and effective, you're in for the duration. If you don't, you're probably already wondering why Tarantino struggles to activate the film rhythmically, dramatically, visually. Tarantino can do many things but he's not one to move the camera within a shot in unexpected ways.
The actors do what they can. Russell's the anchor, and unlike Jackson (who's good anyway), Russell seems like a 19th century artifact, not a 21st century gloss on the past. It's sad Morricone didn't compose a full score; too much of the soundtrack is taken up with deliberately anachronistic musical selections and music Morricone wrote for earlier projects. Tarantino doesn't care about hewing to plausible notions of period filmmaking. But as the bodies pile up in the second half, along with the switchback narrative reveals, "The Hateful Eight" becomes a hermetically sealed exercise of a dispiriting sort. Back in the late 1990s Tarantino played Broadway in a short-lived revival of "Wait Until Dark," a stage thriller that's all exposition in the first act, and a couple of prime payoffs in the second. The shotgun-blasting face-removal payoffs here may be enough for some. But I suspect that Tarantino's big secret is a simple one: He knows, deep down, that he overwrote the living daylights out of this one.
MPAA rating: R (for strong bloody violence, a scene of violent sexual content, language and some graphic nudity).
Running time: 3:07