Hey — it’s Christmas! Let’s go to the movies. Slug some hot chocolate, throw on your wool hat, follow the colored lights strung from tree to tree on the citywide commons to the movie theater or the cinema or the multiplex or whatever you call it in your neck of the woods. I’ll get the tickets, you get the popcorn. What do you want to see? It’s Christmas, remember, so we need something that will encourage our merriment and warm up our capacity for joy. That disqualifies The Revenant. What about Star Wars for the fifth time? What do you mean you saw it again this morning? Why didn’t you invite me? Whatever, just go get the popcorn.
Here we go: a new Tarantino movie. One would think that a brand spankin’ new flick from Tarantino would, if nothing else, be entertaining. It’s Tarantino. This is the diabolical purveyor of histrionic, action-packed jaunts that bleed style and ooze cool, of movies that have banging soundtracks and automatically generate an Academy Award for Christoph Waltz. This is the director that champions violence in film as fun, responding to the masses that claim violence in film is a potentially toxic influence on viewers with a beautifully composed shot of red blood spewing out of a newly-severed neck. Take that! The violence-is-bad point always reminds me of part of the testimony of famed censorship bogeyman William Gaines during the 1954 hearings on the validity of the violent comic books he produced: “Do we think our children are so evil, so simpleminded, that it takes a story of murder to set them to murder, a story of robbery to set them to robbery?” I picture Tarantino saying that, only with a lot more gesticulation and overeagerness and a lot of “alright, you know, okay?” and a lot of averted glances.
Being able to say it’s a Tarantino movie with such gusto — with the foregone conclusion that you’ll know exactly what you’re in for by that description alone — is a testament to style. Tarantino the auteur is instantly identifiable in the films themselves, a distinction made more often with this particular dude than with any other living director. Spielberg and Paul Thomas Anderson and Scorsese all have their trademarks, can all be said to be “recognizable” in the movies they make, but not in the same way that Tarantino is recognizable, nor with the same consistency. Others that leap to mind in this category are Tim Burton and Wes Anderson — it’s a Tim Burton movie, or it’s a Wes Anderson movie — who do indeed prompt a similar mental picture, yet either stray questionably from their signature stylings (ahem, Planet of the Apes remake, Big Eyes) or are possibly just one-trick ponies (ahem, Wes Anderson). Quentin neither wavers nor is his schtick schtick.
By this criteria alone, The Hateful Eight succeeds. This is definitely a movie by Quentin Tarantino. It’s entertaining, which is what we were searching for in the first place when we left the house for the movie theater or the cinema or the multiplex or whatever you call it in your neck of the woods. And because we’re discussing a director so firmly set in his vision and his style, it only makes sense to view Eight, the eighth film by QT, in the context of the previous seven. Starring Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins and Jennifer Jason Leigh as arguably the four most hateful of the titular eight, the film rounds itself out by trapping the larger-than-life personalities in a haberdashery during a blizzard and watching them
interact counteract. In this The Hateful Eight is most like Reservoir Dogs, which traps a bunch of personalities in a warehouse and observes as they rip themselves apart. If only Russell’s “Hangman” John Ruth and Jackson’s Maj. Marquis Warren had the time to discuss the merits of Madonna.
There’s a political commentary prevalent in Eight, though, that’s absent from Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction or the Kill Bill movies, ostensibly marking a greater kinship with Tarantino’s latest films Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. The latter of those films featured a former slave on a quest of revenge and redemption and concluded, in pure Tarantino fashion, with a massive bloodbath, except this one left more of a sour taste than any bloodbath in the QT filmography. The why, oh why had nothing to do with it — these are slave owners, despicable people, not even people at all, and on that simplistic level it’s every bit the same as watching a theater full of Nazis explode. But Inglourious concluded by changing history, killing Hitler, boldly forging something that anyone watching the film in utter seriousness could call a cathartic commentary (Waltz’s Landa: “What shall the history books read?”); Django, on the other hand, which seemed destined for a conclusion as brilliant as that, simply watched the bullets fly. There was a catharsis to be had, of course, through the victory of the persecuted, but it lacked the same ambition as that of Basterds.
The Hateful Eight ends like Django Unchained, which is to say that the ending is spectacular but not at all on par with the best of Tarantino’s storytelling capability. It’s also predictable, sure, but one supposes that’s in line with the comfort of being able to say it’s a Tarantino movie. Should you watch it as a raucous bloodsoaked comedy, or as a serious politically-minded film? Yes and yes. This, in a nutshell, is the direction in which Tarantino seems to be taking his style. Inglourious is a historical film that changes history, Django is a movie about slavery with jarringly cartoonish characters, and The Hateful Eight is a post-Civil War film starring a black man who at one point describes in fantastic detail his gigantic penis in the minutes leading up to a long-awaited fatal gunshot. Those three films definitely belong in the same breath, and the fact that they seem to decrease in ambition and overall quality might just be chalked up to the unvarying ways in which lightning strikes. The new film is a far cry from the best of the Tarantino movies, but it certainly is one of them.
And this particular Tarantino movie is filmed and screening in 70mm, making it one of the most attractive QT flicks, and the roadshow quality of the entire affair — complete with an intermission — only adds to the appeal. If you’re a Tarantino lover, you’ll probably love The Hateful Eight. It’s caught between the political sensibilities of the later part of the director’s career and the bare-bones foundation he laid in Reservoir Dogs, but it’s still a rollicking and entertaining ride. So celebrate Christmas this year in the traditional fashion: by out-talking everyone in the room, keeping one step ahead as the dialogue ping-pongs around you, finally unveiling a long-held secret in a far more articulate manner than you should be able to manage, and then blowing everyone’s head off. ‘Tis the season!