I’ve never really understood overtures in movies. When they include them on the home media releases of classic epics like Lawrence of Arabia or Spartacus, it always seems arbitrary to the point of silliness; if they existed to push an audience into their seats during the “roadshow” engagements of old, they end up an excuse to run to the bathroom or check your email one more time at home. But now we have a real novelty, a new movie that opens with an overture, and it finally makes some sense.
The film is The Hateful Eight, the eighth feature from writer/director Quentin Tarantino, a film that runs just over three hours in its initial, 70mm roadshow engagement, and as the auditorium filled with the rousing sounds of Ennio Morricone’s delicious new score, I finally got it. The sequence, which patiently invites us into the world of this film, is encouraging us to relax and settle in. “Not so fast,” intones a key character, later in the picture. “We’ll get there. Let’s slow it down, let’s slow it way down.” That’s not just dialogue in The Hateful Eight; that’s a guiding principle.
It’s one that sure to meet with some resistance. Even under a strict embargo that extended to social media, there’s been some grumbling over the past couple of weeks about Eight’s hefty running time, and the deliberate pace Tarantino uses to fill it; these arguments resurface like clockwork every winter, as prestige filmmakers take advantage of the slack granted by the potential for year-end awards and golden statues. It’s an odd complaint, frankly, operating under the presumption that a trip to the movies is like a trip to the dentist, an unpleasant experience that should be completed as quickly as possible. (Meanwhile, the longest current movie is still shorter than an average football game, and I’d frankly take a root canal over the latter.) Long movies set us adrift, far from shore without land in sight, where they can make up their own rules.
This is (appropriately enough) a very long way of getting around to what’s so valuable about a movie like The Hateful Eight, which takes a great many familiar elements — of the Western, of the drawing-room mystery, of the Cinerama epic, of Tarantino’s own work — and makes them fresh, almost entirely via its patently unhurried approach. Set just after the Civil War and concerning bounty hunters (one of them African-American) in the Old West, it sounds like a spiritual sequel to Tarantino’s last picture, the Spaghetti Western riff Django Unchained. Gathering, as it does, a group of hard cases in a single location makes it something of a callback to Reservoir Dogs. And its titled-chapter structure recalls Inglourious Basterds and the Kill Bill movies, particularly as he begins tinkering with his timeline.
The manner in which he does is so ingenious, I don’t want to spoil it — the realization that he’s playing that card is particularly exciting after the basically straight-ahead chronologies of Django and its predecessor Inglourious Basterds. But he’s always advocated for the notion of scrambling narrative chronology — which he’s said he gets less from films than novels, particularly those of his hero Elmore Leonard (whose career model Tarantino is reversing, by moving to Westerns after crime stories), that think nothing of putting a narrative on hold to pursue a sidebar, or to fill in a bit of suddenly pressing background.
That kind of playfulness is all over the movie; Tarantino’s a filmmaker who, at his best, always seems to have a great time exploring the possibilities, taking wild ideas for a spin, throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. If I tell you he pops up in voice-over after the intermission playing, basically, himself-as-narrator (“Let’s go back a bit”), it sounds like a disaster, particularly considering the, ahem, questionable quality of most of his acting appearances. Instead, it’s a delightful little affectation, and an indication that the second half of the picture is throwing out the playbook, what with its interludes of unexpected gore (there’s a lot more blood vomiting than you might expect) and its surprise transformation into a whodunit, with Samuel L. Jackson stepping comfortably into Hercule Poirot mode.
And here we are, closing in on 700 words, and I still haven’t really summarized the plot; why bother? It’s serviceable but not ground-shaking; as with Reservoir Dogs and the other, chattier Tarantino efforts, it exists primarily as an excuse to get his characters talking, and do they ever; the dialogue is as ornate and quotable, snappy and smart, and frequently unsettling as you’d expect. There’s plenty of gunplay, but his characters more often use words as their weapon of choice, to poke and prod and provoke — and to make audiences uneasy. I’m already hearing a backlash to the way Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character is treated, both psychologically and physically (bear in mind that these aren’t meant to be likable people — I mean, it’s like right there in the title), and if the slur most often slung at Jackson’s Yankee Major is the one Tarantino often gets in hot water for, he simultaneously deserves credit for acknowledging, and examining, the uneasiness about the Civil War that sits unspoken in even the finest Western cinema.
There are plenty of other pleasures: the magnificence of Robert Richardson’s snow-swept photography (glorious and gorgeous in 70mm), the delicious eccentricity of Tim Roth’s performance, the way Jackson spins a yarn that may or may not be true (it doesn’t matter either way), Kurt Russell and Michael Madsen communicating in grunts and growls, the blood-soaked giddiness of Leigh’s work, the racially charged imagery of the closing scene, and that rousing Morricone score, which makes promises Tarantino has to scramble to keep Hateful Eight falls around the middle of the filmmaker’s oeuvre, lacking the restless energy that propels a Pulp Fiction or Django, or the lived-in resonance of a Jackie Brown. But it shows him reaching into the darker corners of the genre, where Sam Peckinpah and Anthony Mann dwelled, stretching his legs across the wide screen and expansive running time to come up with a gloriously unhinged, wildly unpredictable, yet subtly existential piece of work. Even if it’s not your cup of tea (or coffee, as the case may be), it’s certainly something to talk about.
The Hateful Eight opens Christmas Day in a limited, “road show” release on 70mm screens. It will open nationwide on December 31st.