The strangest thing has happened to Quentin Tarantino in the last five years: His movies have turned into blockbusters. His last two films, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, both crossed the $100 million mark, making more money than three of Steven Spielberg’s last four films. Among Tarantino’s fans—of which I am a proud member, two decades standing—he will always be our indie filmmaker, the movie obsessive with his own in-jokes, meta references, and cinematic winks. (Red Apple cigarettes! The Vega family! His awkward cameos!) There was a time that Tarantino felt like a revolution, but that’s not what he is now. Today Tarantino is a Hollywood institution, the autonomous establishment, a man with absolute power to make whatever movie he, specifically, wants to make.
This is a victory, of course. I’d rather Tarantino have this power than, say, Michael Bay, but it comes with a price. I am beginning to worry that Tarantino has gone down the rabbit hole. He has always been an indulgent filmmaker: That indulgence, his willingness to just go for it, has always been one of his foremost strengths. But I’m not sure there’s anybody to reel him in, to dial him down, and bring him back to the world where the rest of us live. Tarantino, with Django Unchained and now The Hateful Eight, I fear, is beginning to drift too far afield.
This not to say that The Hateful Eight is without its pleasures, far from it: Tarantino is still a preternaturally skilled filmmaker, and the guy could make a phone book dance with delight. But there is a sameness to The Hateful Eight, a sense that we have been down this road before, with higher stakes, with a firmer hand on the till. All the Tarantino signatures are there, but a little more so, to less effect. The extended dialogue stretches last a little too long; the blood splatters a little too loudly; the performances are a little too luxuriant and protracted; the narrative disjointedness is a little too fractured and telegraphed. Tarantino has made a movie in which everyone in it not only knows they’re in a Tarantino movie, they don’t really know a world outside of one. On the whole, this isn’t always the worst thing. A Tarantino movie isn’t the worst place to hang out, after all, but it’s moving him farther and farther away from the rest of us.
This is Tarantino’s Big Western, and he hews closely to Western conventions, even down to a (magnificent) Ennio Morricone score. We have four main characters, coming in from a rough trail and heavy blizzard in post-Civil War-Wyoming. One’s a bounty hunter, The Hangman (Kurt Russell), bringing in a second, a foul-mouthed fugitive Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) for judgment in Red Rock. They pick up two others, a racist former Rebel soldier (Walton Goggins) headed to Red Rock to become the new sheriff, and a former Union soldier turned bounty hunter (Samuel L. Jackson) who is both a war hero and, in Tarantino-ese, one dangerous motherfucker.
To get out of the storm, they come across a haberdashery, where they run into a former Rebel general (Bruce Dern), a Mexican cowhand (Damian Bechir), a “cow puncher” (Michael Madsen) and a British hangman (Tim Roth). Here are your eight. For all the talk of Tarantino’s insistence on 70 mm film—and Wyoming does look fantastic in the rare landscape shots—the movie takes place almost entirely within that haberdashery: In many ways, it’s like a bottle episode of a television series where our main characters are stuck in a room together and have nothing else to do but talk and talk and talk. The movie is broken into two halves—the first is slightly longer than the first—but the split is a strange one; the big event that both illuminates the first half and sets the stage for the second happens nearly three-quarters of the way through. It almost makes the ending feel rushed, an odd feel after so much of the movie takes its sweet time. Tarantino draws every scene out as long as he can, yet then somehow seems to sprint to a conclusion. It gives the film a feeling of slackness that’s difficult to escape. The movie needs a lot of screws tightened.
One of the major problems with The Hateful Eight is that, well, none of these characters are all that interesting. They’re fun, sure, and at the very least, the film is an incredibly efficient Samuel L. Jackson delivery device. Here Jackson has his best Tarantino role since Pulp Fiction—though he’s terrifying in Jackie Brown too—and you can seem him taking pleasure in every juicy syllable Tarantino has written for him. There’s still not a lot to his character, not a lot to any of them, really. It’s as if Tarantino conceived of his characters as old Western archetypes but then didn’t progress them much beyond that. Each of the characters has their thing: Bichir mumbles, Madsen growls, Roth does a pretty terrible Christoph Waltz impression, and that’s about it. This could haved worked fine for an old Western, but Tarantino loves his own words and to watch his characters talk to each other—it’s too much to let them all just glower in the corner like they might in a John Ford movie. So we are left with the odd sensation of watching eight unusually chatty archetypes—Tarantino liked the notion of these characters so much that he never really conceived of them of people. It gives the film an almost dollhouse quality, like everyone would cease to exist if you took them off the screen. They live in Tarantino’s imagination, and only there.
I’m coming off harsher toward The Hateful Eight than I mean to, but Tarantino is so insanely talented that I find myself cheering for him to get out of his own way. There is a school of thought about Tarantino’s career some share—most notably my Grierson & Leitch colleague Tim Grierson—that believes the pinnacle of Tarantino’s work was in fact Jackie Brown, a film based on someone else’s work that was more infused with the Tarantino Universe than suffocated by it. I’m not sure I entirely agree. Inglourious Basterds, which I consider his best film, is only possible because Tarantino is so willing to take stupid, ridiculous risks and so brilliant that he can find a way to pull them off.
But with The Hateful Eight, I finally understand it: Tarantino has now taken up permanent residence in Tarantino Land. And as a fan, there’s a part of me that will always enjoy visiting that place, but I think he needs to, you know, get out a little. The Hateful Eight is fun and smart and will pay off in a way a Tarantino fan will expect it to pay off for them. But that’s all it does. We are reaching the point, as Tarantino and the rest of us get older, that payoff is just not enough.