I used to be a big Tarantino fan. In fact, I’d still consider myself one; I can still remember the exhilaration I felt after first seeing Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill (both parts) or Inglourious Basterds, and they still feel fresh and exciting to me now. Even Death Proof, which many of his fans were, let’s say, ambivalent about: the film puts a big goofy grin on my face.
Any grin, goofy or otherwise, was short-lived during The Hateful Eight. The film isn’t bad, and it shows that Tarantino, even when he’s trying to get a rise out of people, is smart and savvy, a master of his craft. He also surrounds himself with master craftsmen and -women; while not as showy as The Revenant, The Hateful Eight is gorgeous to look at, and the acting, editing, music, all of these are as good as ever. (In fact, I think I prefer the stylised, brash and cartoonish Tarantino-style acting to Di Caprio masochistic frontier grunting, though it’s almost impossible to compare these styles fairly.)
In spite of all of these, the one thing I found The Hateful Eight was this: unpleasant. I understand that there are many who find Tarantino’s violence, both physical and verbal, hard to stomach. Hey, I don’t find a lot of what he throws at his audiences fun: the violence against women in the first half of Death Proof or the Basterds’ sadistic killing of a Nazi, neither of these struck me as enjoyable, though they were thematically meaningful and far from gratuitous. Nevertheless, with most of his earlier films I felt that there was more of a balance: there was a sense of playfulness, a formal joy, and there were bursts of creativity and, yes, fun. Christoph Waltz’ Hans Landa going from chilling menace to childlike glee at strudel and whipped cream (and back) in the blink of an eye, the over-the-top, bloody cartoon of O-Ren Ishii taking over the Yakuza, Mr Blonde’s little dance, and while we’re talking of dances, Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace’s twist: in these, he blends the creative impulses of American B-movies, Asian pulp and the French nouvelle vague into remixes uniquely Tarantino, alive with the possibilities of the medium.
The Hateful Eight isn’t without these moments, but there is a single-mindedness to the film and its violence that, at least for me, practically drains it of that sense of exuberance. Its unpleasantness is not pointless, Tarantino isn’t nihilistic in his violence: he has things to say about America, violence and notions of justice, about race and gender and oppression. The things he says are pessimistic, and perhaps this doesn’t fit well with his usual stylistic exuberance (which was also there in Django Unchained, which I wasn’t a huge fan of either, but its bloodsoaked meditation on slavery was simply more varied, among other things) – but mostly I think it may be this: Tarantino takes more than three hours to make his single-minded point. He is usually a master at slow-burn tension, building up until it explodes in a brief but intense burst of ultra-violence, but as The Hateful Eight builds up its haberdashery mystery, it takes ages to establish any tension. Roughly two thirds into the film, this is highlighted as Tarantino inserts a flashback telling us what happened before the beginning of the film, and this flashback serves as a miniature of the movie as a whole, echoing what has happened before beat by beat – except there is tension, there is a sense of pace, and the first two hours of The Hateful Eight simply take too long to establish.
As a result, what should feel tense simply feels overly drawn out, and while I greatly enjoy Tarkovsky’s Stalker, I will freely admit that during the first two hours of The Hateful Eight, reader, I felt bored. Not Russian Ark bored, admittedly, but perhaps for the first time in a Tarantino film I very much thought, “Get on with it, Quentin.” The film draws its premise out too much, and we’re locked in with its characters for too long, by the time its denouement comes around I’d been ready for it to be over for half an hour. The flashback injects some energy into the proceedings, as do the odd, unexpected character moments – Kurt Russell’s bounty hunter gently wiping stew from the corner of his female prey’s mouth after we’ve seen him punch, kick and generally abuse her, or Tim Roth’s absurdly prim, stagey British accent – but watching those unpleasant characters being unpleasant to each other? They deserve each other, absolutely, for as long as possible, but do we deserve them? I’ll freely admit that I’ll gladly sit with Bill for hours, listening to his Superman-themed monologues, or get French lessons from SS Colonel Hans Landa, but the murderers of The Hateful Eight, not so much. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s fugitive, destined for the gallows, ends up being the only one that interests me as a character, and she’s mostly at the receiving end of abuse and violence.
Again: none of this is gratuitous. I think that Tarantino very much has a purpose for all he does, from the Agatha Christie pastiche to the bigoted screeds – but now that he has something to say, he ends up choosing a way to say it that makes me want to stop listening to him. Perhaps the film’s themes and Tarantino’s treatment of them is more specifically American, and therefore more relevant to American audiences. But in the end The Hateful Eight is the first of the writer-director’s films where I’d rather go and watch the movies that inspired him, and whose DNA is evident throughout – not least John Carpenter’s The Thing – than his remix.