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All spectacle, no substance

Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, The Hateful Eight, begins with a slow succession of images: snow-capped mountains, seemingly endless forests, and crisp winter light breaking through foreboding clouds. After the title is emblazoned across the screen, we cut to a close-up shot of a crucifix which slowly – or rather, painstakingly – zooms out to reveal a horse-drawn carriage gently plodding through the snow. 

This opening sets the pace for much of the rest of the film, and thereby highlights the main problem with it: it is far too drawn-out. The running-time of almost three hours is not a problem in itself, especially with Tarantino’s decision to include an interval halfway through to assist the audience in regenerating their attention spans. What makes it problematic is that for much of the first half we are led on a sluggish, surprisingly tangential journey, first through the snow in the carriage, and then inside and around Minnie’s Haberdashery (which serves as the setting for the rest of the film’s action, barring some flashback scenes). I imagine Tarantino intends for this overly naturalistic pacing to serve as a way of immersing us into the world he has created, so that he can then slowly build tension until it culminates with the first spilling of blood just before the curtain falls on the first act. 

There are two issues with this decision. First, we never fully accept that the world in which we are being immersed is naturalistic in composition. Tarantino’s films hold a not unfair reputation for being over-stylised, post-modern tales with intricately woven plots. Thus, knowing that you are sitting in a Tarantino film produces a set of expectations that the director himself, for all his scene-setting and pacing, cannot shake. It certainly does not help that he insists on brazenly introducing the film as ‘the 8th film by Quentin Tarantino’ in the opening credits, but even without this attempt at cleverness I doubt many will believe that tension (and bloodshed) will not make a starring appearance, even if such an appearance is delayed and slow-building. The second issue is that the script’s first half is slack and loose – there is a fine line between intrigue and boredom, and Tarantino fails to place the first half of the film on the desired side of it. 

It is a shame, because the characters themselves are all varied, all interesting, and given a more tightly-wound plot would produce a fascinating and thoroughly exciting set-up. We know Tarantino is perfectly capable of creating a scene which holds the audience’s attention in its building of tension, not least in the flawlessly executed milk scene from Inglorious Basterds. It is thus sad to see him miss the mark so flagrantly here. 

Some may take issue, as they do with many of Tarantino’s films, with the depravity of every single major character in the film. Those who do are likely members of the tribe of cinema-goers who affirm Jackie Brown, with its clear protagonist, to be Tarantino’s best work. This is of course a matter of taste, but there is certainly no hero to this story. For a while, we are offered it in the form of Samuel L. Jackson’s Major Marquis, but such a notion is destroyed spectacularly when he takes on the mantel of storyteller, in a proudly shocking retelling of the torturing and sexual assault of a man at his hands. Whilst Jackson continues to provide most of the film’s laughs, he stops being our hero. The film’s conclusion situates Walton Goggins’s Sheriff Mannix as the closest thing to a hero that we get, both in his victory over the Domingray gang members and the seeming reformation of his racist disposition. But Mannix is a comically caricatured, rather meagre hero, and in any case such a title is applied to him too late in the film for audiences to have much time to appreciate him as such. 

But the lack of a clear hero should not be regarded as a fault. Instead of giving us a character whose side we can back, Tarantino presents a grotesquely comical spectacle of blood, brains, and balls. In this way, the film’s second half can be seen as a modern cinematic updating of the Jacobean revenge tragedy genre. It is ironic, then, that the pacing of the film’s first half would be better suited to the stage. (Interestingly, even Tarantino himself seems to understand, implicitly at least, that his story takes the wrong medium, for he splits the film up into ‘Chapters’.)

Stylistically, the film is far less overblown than what we have come to expect from Tarantino. Costumes are historically accurate and largely lacking in quirkiness, and Robert Richardson’s cinematography does well to both portray the bitter cold of the natural world outside and contrive a claustrophobic stage within Minnie’s interior. The prevalence in the film’s final chapter of split diopter shots in many ways reflects the complete breaking down of any pretence of naturalism, in their Tarantinoan proclamation of artificiality. The jarring marker of the beginning of this move towards artificiality comes at the very start of the second act, when Tarantino himself provides a voice-over narration of what the characters have done in the fifteen minutes of the interval, before going on to pause the scene, rewind the tape, and rewrite the narrative to include a plot point that will dictate the course of the rest of the movie. Such a bold opening to the film’s second half is jarring in the best way, as it immediately alleviates the film of its naturalistic heaviness and imbues it with a postmodern playfulness. Tarantino finally produces some spectacle. 

Yet spectacle is by its nature often hollow and one-dimensional. In a film where no one gets what they want, it is hard for one to grasp hold of any point other than the repeated exhibition of entertaining gruesomeness which so permeate the film’s latter scenes. Ending the film with the final reveal of the content of Marquis’s forged letter (something which has been referred to throughout) thus seems fitting, for the letter, like the film, is significant only insofar as it is an exercise in hollowness.

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