The best things during the interminable three hours of the latest film by Quentin Tarantino are the stirring new musical overture by the great Ennio Morricone and the 12-minute intermission, when you can flee the theater without bothering the rest of the audience.
Set in post-Civil War Wyoming, The Hateful Eight is a Western ensemble piece that revolves around a gaggle of mercenaries and miscreants forced into close quarters while escaping a blizzard en route to the town of Red Rock. Arriving by stagecoach are John Ruth (Kurt Russell), a bounty hunter who doesn't like cheating the hangman, and Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a fugitive guilty of sundry sins and a nasty disposition. Apparently, to Tarantino, this justifies a man slugging her in the face every time she grouses a cross word.
They pick up fellow bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a black former Union soldier who carries a letter from Abe Lincoln as a conversation starter with white folks, and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a onetime renegade with his daddy's Confederate marauders, who says he's the new sheriff of Red Rock.
In all, 10 people take shelter in the stage stopover called Minnie's Haberdashery, including "the Mexican" (Demián Bichir), a taciturn cowpuncher (Michael Madsen) and the local hangman (Tim Roth). As their furtive motives and backstories are gradually revealed, the plot assumes the guise of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. Christie's novel was originally published in the United Kingdom, in 1939, under the title Ten Little Niggers, a pejorative Tarantino deploys excessively throughout The Hateful Eight.
Though it was divisive, Tarantino's frequent use of the racial slur in his early films, like Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, felt organic in the vernacular his modern urban milieus. But he treats his Civil War-era settings, here and in Django Unchained, as license to gorge on the insult to a cartoonish, wearying degree. In a typical exchange, a character makes a declaration containing the N-word; another basically repeats it as a question, ostensibly seeking clarification, and then the first character says it again. This happens over and over.
Tarantino's script is garrulous, but it produces few memorable sequences. The main exception is a tense, lengthy tête-à-tête between Warren and an aging ex-Confederate general (Bruce Dern) that devolves into literal revenge porn. The film's final chapters are a nihilistic fever dream, filled with projectile blood-barfing, splattered brains and balls, and a lynching.
What's missing is maturity and meaning.The characters are mere ciphers for Tarantino's base indulgences. Russell's performance is a watered-down version of his well-worn John Wayne impersonation. Leigh's snarling redneck is like Linda Blair in The Exorcist by way of Deliverance. Sam Jackson plays Sam Jackson, and it's the least of his four Tarantino-film performances. Tim Roth is just a foppish British version of Christoph Waltz's character in Django.
Still, Tarantino's devotion to classic cinema suffuses The Hateful Eight, the first motion picture shot using Ultra Panavision 70 cameras in decades. The "roadshow presentation," in select theaters now, is the first fictional feature screened with a single-projector Cinerama system in anamorphic 70mm since Khartoum in 1966. A slightly edited digital version will then roll out nationally.
Tarantino can still be a captivating, adroit filmmaker who is thrilling because of his visual dexterity and eye for detail, as in a close-up of a stagecoach step conspicuously weathered by a thousand boot heels. But his narrative predilections have become entirely predictable, and his films are teetering on self-parody. Redemption can begin only if he jettisons his period revenge fantasies and returns to the wheelhouse of contemporary hyper-realities. Otherwise, Tarantino will soon feel as dated as his film stock.
Correction: This article originally misstated the name of an actor in the film. He is Walton Goggins, not Walter.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Stage of rage."