I’m going to close my eyes and imagine what my grandpa would say. He has a big cut-out of John Wayne in his shed and all the collectible plates. Every time I go and see him, he’s watching some old western show. He’s seen just about every western that exists, all the way through revisionism, stopping right around Tombstone. He owns pretty much the whole genre. I mean, the man has a DVD of the Maverick reboot from 1981. I bet you didn’t even know that existed. James Garner did Maverick again after Rockford Files ended. Isn’t that nice? Anyway, my grandpa’s word is not gospel, but it’s pretty close to it for my purposes.
I’m not sure my grandpa would even have words to describe Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, The Hateful Eight. He definitely wouldn’t give a damn that it was shot in Panavision or how hard it was to find all those cameras or that Ennio Morricone did the score. That’s all city boy stuff. He’d appreciate the presence of Kurt Russell and Bruce Dern, but not enough to say anything. Realistically, he’d like the pacing since it’s good and slow, he’d know it’s made by a guy who knows how westerns look and move, but if he stayed awake, he’d probably turn it off after about 45 minutes and call it bullshit.
I respect his imagined opinion. I think there’s a fair point to be made about this movie being bullshit. But I didn’t walk out of the thing, and I laughed a whole bunch of times, and I found it beautiful. The photography is stunning, and the texture even more so. It gets the feel of a good western exactly right. The bourbon browns and the tranquility of boots shuffling across wood floors and tin cups being clanked around. If you think the sound of somebody chopping wood is relaxing, this is a relaxing movie. That’s important, because the secret power of westerns, no matter how meta or revisionist, is in having them on in the background for a really long time. A western should function once as active entertainment and then fifty million billion times as pure ambiance.
So Tarantino got it right on a tactile level. It feels like a western. Most modern westerns don’t get that far. 3:10 to Yuma, for example, only ever manages to feel like a movie with Christian Bale in it. But Hateful Eight is still by Quentin Tarantino, and it’s 14 hours long, and all that hoopla about the leaked script and the way it was filmed and the way it was distributed makes even thinking about it vaguely exhausting. So is it worth watching? Is it worth divorcing it from all that damn racket?
The answer is complicated. Now hold on. Don’t leave. Complicated sounds like hell no, but it doesn’t mean the same thing. Here’s what complicated means here.
If you’re a Quentin Tarantino fan, go see this, and see it in a good theater if you got one. It has Samuel L. Jackson saying miles of Samuel L. Jackson dialogue in a really cool costume. You’re set.
If you’re not a Quentin Tarantino fan, he could make the successor to Citizen Kane while balancing the Great American Novel on his forehead and you’d still never see this movie. He’s just a teenager who only plays Mortal Kombat for the kills. This will never ever interest you.
But if you’re indifferent to Tarantino, your enjoyment of The Hateful Eight will depend on whether you’re intrigued by its engine. See, the premise is this. What Tarantino did is ask “what if I took a bunch of guest stars from TV westerns and gave them a whole movie?” before throwing them all into the same room for a long time.
That’s fun to me, and makes the movie fun, even though I’ve admitted to myself I’ll never set aside 3 hours for Jackie Brown or to find out what Kill Bill is. I was reared by TV before TV insisted on being good, and that makes this thing cozy. For all of Tarantino’s inevitable cartoon blood and guts, this is basically just a bunch of folks talking to each other. And they have great chemistry when they do it, all of them hamming it up like they’re half drunk at a party at their rich friend’s house by the beach. There are no stakes, it’s all pretend, they’re drinking on other peoples’ money, nobody has work tomorrow, and the least hungover of them can make pancakes in the morning.
Will any of it be remembered when you drive away the next afternoon? Will any words be remembered? Not really, but as with all Tarantino movies, the rhythm of it will. Tarantino knows the melodies of a fun movie conversation better than almost anybody, and his ear is as sharp as ever.
The highlight, really, is the suggestiveness of the casting. Specifically, Walton Goggins and Samuel L. Jackson are so great together, so great without pretense, that they suggest a buddy cop franchise you didn’t know existed. You wish they could just go and star in a southern Lethal Weapon reboot immediately. Or better yet, five years ago, so we could be on the third one by now. They play off each other like combative grade school pals who pretend they dislike each other but will ultimately both go back to Augusta for each other’s weddings long after they’ve lost touch with their “real” friends.
I left in a good mood over those two. But ultimately the voice of my grandpa kept creeping back. Did they need to cuss so much and pour out so much blood? Why do I have to feel like I’m in a Gallagher show? I know Tarantino’s got his voice, and cartoon blood and guts is part of it, and I like exploitation movies too, but here’s the long and short of it: Sam Peckinpah is dead and I’m not 15. We already got the point. This movie would have benefitted not from a reduced running time – the length isn’t turgid, it’s laconic – but maybe from the restraint to aim for a humble PG-13. Restraint is an underrated virtue.