Quentin Tarantino is probably the most polarizing filmmaker in America; people either shout his name from the rooftops or condemn his work to hell. But his latest, The Hateful Eight, continues a streak started by Django Unchained: great ideas that fizzle when they should soar.
The Civil War-era Western stars Samuel L. Jackson as Major Marquis Warren, a former Union soldier turned bounty hunter, and Kurt Russell as John Ruth, a fellow fugitive wrangler who ensures that his outlaws hang. Ruth is toting Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an uncouth offender whose rotten crimes are never mentioned; she's being forcibly carted to nearby Red Rock for the princely sum of $10,000. Ruth and Warren join forces out of gentlemanly necessity—a blizzard is on the way—and happen to add former Confederate soldier Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) to the mix; they all end up taking shelter at Minnie's Haberdashery, a lodge that has come to house more than a few unsavory characters.
Tarantino's use of antique lenses and 70mm film projection gives us some beautiful shots of the wilderness in the opening minutes, but once the carriage arrives at the aforementioned lodge The Hateful Eight becomes a play. That doesn't harm the wide frame, however, which makes every inch of that room relevant. It's a treat to dart your eyes around and catch idle members of the eight distinctly active and engaged in the background during someone else's scenes.
And each of the eight have their own charms. Jackson is exactly as commanding as you'd expect as the booming, white-hating Warren; meanwhile, Russell channels an old-timey hero who's not above punching a woman in the face. But they're no match for the scene-stealing Tim Roth (doing his best Christoph Waltz impression) and Demian Bichir, both of whom make a huge impact early as seemingly ho-hum men with seamy underbellies.
Yet therein lies the issue with The Hateful Eight. The first half is wrought with tension: Think the basement scene in Inglourious Basterds or the dinner scene in Django, only stretched out for 90 minutes. As Tarantino gathers his minions and places them opposite one another through long, engaging bits of dialogue, you're just waiting for someone to pop. And when one finally does, it's a sight to behold.
Unfortunately, the writer/director doesn't have much up his sleeve after such a brilliant buildup. Conspirators are suspected and fingered, deals are offered and rejected, and an outrageous amount of gore is splattered. But as the eight split into heroes and villains, however unexpected those divisions might be, it reduces everyone to rote, cardboard cutouts. The thrills of a never-ending shootout where heads literally explode are offset by the plot's compression into an unnecessarily neat package.
Perhaps no payoff could suit the conflict of eight connivers occupying such a small space. But when lines are drawn seemingly at random and unions are formed via lax flashbacks, all momentum is lost. Even the oft-welcome insertion of Channing Tatum comes across as forced and unwarranted, leaving the final showdown a bit underwhelming.
All the recent talk of Tarantino's politics has little to do with The Hateful Eight; it's even more racially charged than Django Unchained but such outbursts don't do much more than serve the characters. And while it can be very uncomfortable to hear seven men calling one woman a bitch over, and over, and over, it doesn't seem like a commentary on the female gender or hate speech so much as, again, a story choice. More than anything, it feels like Tarantino cast his object of scorn as a woman—and an evil one at that—to set her further apart from the other seven male schemers with their own agendas.
At the end of the day, the man who said the N-word in Pulp Fiction and had a pregnant woman shot in Kill Bill isn't suddenly tipping the racism or misogyny scales. But he is the creator of an incomplete movie, one that starts strong and devolves into a violent jumble that's fun to watch but far below his previous standards.