Wednesday 14 August 2019

From the archive: "The Hateful Eight"

Film culture's enduring indulgence of Quentin Tarantino - the most mollycoddled of enfants terribles ever since Harvey Weinstein afforded him eternal final cut in return for Pulp Fiction saving Weinstein's Miramax - has taken a yet more curious turn in recent days. First, there was Tarantino's refusal to have The Hateful Eight screened to press unless it was in the 70mm Panavision print due to be screened in precisely one West End cinema: an instance of morbidly nerdy format fetishism that suggests Quentin is now as hung up on millimetres as his increasingly long and leery movies have demonstrated a thing for feet. Such exclusivity appears to have backfired. Hot on the heels of that decision came news that several leading UK exhibitors - including Cineworld and Picturehouse - had decided not to show the film in any format, the result of behind-the-scenes wrangling over the destination of that 70mm holy grail.

Amid these industry manoeuvres - which boils down to a power struggle between a director, his distributors and exhibitors over how we lowly proles might best witness Quentin's genius - the film itself risks becoming an afterthought, as it has done in other territories where it's bypassed the awards nods that conferred some respectability on Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, and opened to generally lacklustre numbers. This is some feat for a film that runs anywhere between 167 and 180 minutes (depending on the print being shown), opens with the actual onscreen credit "The eighth film by Quentin Tarantino", and comes complete with chapter headings that will provoke groans among anyone who has a life to be getting on with, and - even in its shorter incarnation - an intermission that at least allows spectators to weight up whether or not to cut their losses and relieve the babysitter.

At any rate, you can see how our collective patience with Tarantino might just be approaching its limit. With all its auteurist flourishes, The Hateful Eight takes the germ of a good, taut 90-minute B-picture, then smothers it in an avalanche of waffle and lashings of gore. The sad thing is that Tarantino has had many worse ideas than this: to splice the murder-mystery of an And Then There Were None (though one suspects Quentin prefers the original title) with the Western by forcing a set of loose, suspicious acquaintances to share the same confined space - an isolated haberdashery - after a blizzard hits their party. 

The yawning chasm between the economy of Christie's storytelling and Tarantino's trademark hot air is soon evident. It takes fully an hour to get these characters into place, and a further 35 minutes before the first body hits the ground - an enervating drag-out, during which we're simply meant to sit back and fawn over Quentin's virtuosity as a writer of dialogue, his irreverence as an enthusiast of the N-word, his daring as an habitual beater-up of his female characters. 

In this universe, it will takes twenty minutes for Samuel L. Jackson to get on a bus, and five minutes of bellowed back-and-forth just to get a door shut, while an apparently simple question ("Is my ass fat?") occasions ten more lines of blather at a point where The Hateful Eight should, by rights, be moving forwards, not looking over its shoulder. What Tarantino has taken from all those B-movies he's championed over the years is a belief they really needed he, Quentin Tarantino, to talk them up into three-hour marathons. Christopher Walken's much-imitated Pulp Fiction monologue anticipated everything that was to follow: so many words, so much clockwatching.

Yes, The Hateful Eight gestures towards scale - one bigger than The Magnificent Seven, two better than The Ridiculous 6 - as a means of fitting everybody in. (Although, in the common-or-garden multiplexes where most viewers will see the film, cinematographer Robert Richardson's snowy vistas are ill-served by the ugly great black bars inserted at the top and bottom of the screen.) Yet Tarantino the writer keeps having to seek out safe interior spaces - a stagecoach, the haberdashers - to enable his characters to sit around gabbing: the nailing-shut of that door, keeping the outside world firmly at bay, provides an apt metaphor for the Tarantino approach.

It isn't just through the presence of Reservoir Dogs alumni Tim Roth and Michael Madsen that Hateful betrays a strong sense of an arrested creative development. Tarantino's dialogue gets no more distinctive over this length - whether white (Walton Goggins), black (Jackson), English (Roth) or Mexican (Demián Bichir), whether male (Kurt Russell) or female (Jennifer Jason Leigh), young (Channing Tatum) or old (Bruce Dern), everyone winds up spouting forth in Tarantino's voice. It may now require a virtuoso like Walken or Christoph Waltz to turn those words into music - and Tarantino hasn't asked for anything like emotional depth from his players since the Robert Forster-Pam Grier pairing of Jackie Brown

The monoglot bluster dulls the movie's already negligible claims to profundity - what we're getting is but a treatise on how hard it is for people to co-exist when they talk and act like characters in a Tarantino movie - and means the violent flourishes by which Tarantino the director has traditionally cut through the talkiness have to become even more extreme. Where once it was enough for Madsen's Mr. Blonde to flick open a straight razor, now we have to have heads exploding in close-up and an obsessive defiling of Jennifer Jason Leigh's face; again, it's all too much, and it's unlikely we'll see any corrective until Weinstein withdraws his sweets and treats (a box-office failure might do it) and our more excitable critics quit their pandering.

Let's give Tarantino this: he has continued, throughout this latest brouhaha, to give outrageously good interview, which may explain why he's become so beloved of certain media outlets. Yet the qualities that make for compelling copy - the leftfield enthusiasms, the evident delight in the sound of his own restless voice - are precisely those that, left unchecked and unedited, have made the films so tiresome and resistible. Those interviews will likely stand as the most generous and lasting gifts Tarantino has handed film culture, repositories of and monuments to a very modern fanboy mentality. It's just a pity they should have had to come with such hoary, butt-, brain- and spirit-numbing movies attached to them.

(MovieMail, January 2016)

The Hateful Eight is available on DVD through Entertainment, and to stream via Netflix.

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