Snappy dialogue and intricately planned-out scenes put Quentin Tarantino on the map as a generation-defining talent, so it sure is nice to see him once again embracing that spirit in his eighth film, “The Hateful Eight.” After the bloated, mangled mess of “Django Unchained,” operating within his usual wheelhouse of tension ratcheting conversations and raucous bloodshed feels more welcome than usual.
In many ways, however, “The Hateful Eight” is somewhat of an anomaly in Tarantino’s canon. Sure, it bears the usual stamps of expressive language, scrambled chronology and unapologetic gore, but he appears to eschew his favored postmodern pastiche in favor of a more classical vibe.
This proclivity appears most obviously in his selection of music. Apart from “Kill Bill,” Tarantino has never commissioned a composer to score his films. Repurposing aural cues from other films or cultural products has served as a thread running throughout his filmography, reinforcing Tarantino’s DJ-like position as director. He blends, appropriates and remixes to unify and synthesize disparate styles and genres into something entirely new.
Tarantino does not abandon this approach completely in “The Hateful Eight,” although the majority of the sonic landscape in the film comes from a brand new Ennio Morricone score. The very musician whose compositions Tarantino has deployed to great effect in each of his films made this millennia gets to express himself on his own terms. Morricone grants the production a heightened level of prestige and legitimacy with his participation, allowing it a certain measure of independence. “The Hateful Eight” does not rely on referencing other films to imbue the proceedings with meaning. Rather, Tarantino casts his gaze inwards toward the dark, beating heart of his own work.
While this shift towards a more established model of filmmaking may initially strike one as a pivot towards the conventional for Tarantino, his decisions on “The Hateful Eight” are in fact anything but. It is a vote of confidence in his skills as a dramatist and cineaste, channeling the power of the past through emulation rather than imitation. The classics act less as a history for him to play around with, instead serving as a legacy against which Tarantino must measure his own work.
Thus, allowing an original Morricone score illuminates the duality at the heart of “The Hateful Eight.” Tarantino is at his most humble here, opening up the creative process to more input and allowing others to make their mark on the film (rather than just implementing his will). Yet the film might also be his most audacious work as he strives towards a cinematic creation capable of standing on its own merits. The gambit mostly succeeds.
Tarantino enables himself to triumph by smartly selecting a real-world issue as his subject. His prior films all, in one way or another, are really about cinema at their core. “The Hateful Eight,” however, is a story about the lengths to which black Americans must go in order to carve out a place in a hostile American society. In Reconstruction-era Wyoming, Samuel L. Jackson’s bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren finds himself entangled in a dangerous plot that requires some chicanery and wise-talking to survive.
How fitting that the majority of Tarantino’s self-contained pleasures should take place in a single location, Minnie’s Haberdashery. There, Warren mingles with fellow bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell), ex-Confederate general Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), self-proclaimed sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) and notorious fugitive Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) – along with a few other shady characters here and there. Each, in their own way, seems to place a different kind of target on Warren’s back. It’s up to him to avoid getting taking fire.
Warren’s primary strategy to stay afloat is through some dexterous verbal maneuvering; so, in other words, he spits some classic Tarantino dialogue. The film starts off a little bit long-winded, dawdling a little longer than it should in the opening two chapters, but quickly finds its footing at the Haberdashery. In these borderline theatrical scenes, “The Hateful Eight” bounces around from being a race drama to a whodunnit mystery and even a buddy cop comedy. All these shifts in mood and tone are so exciting to watch unfold, particularly because they feel so organically produced by the script itself. Tarantino might not have a classic on his hands here, yet he should certainly be proud of making a movie that audiences at any level of film history knowledge can recognize as genius. B+ /