It’s one of the year’s best marketing jobs: A three-hour Quentin Tarantino Western, filmed in widescreen 70 mm, graced by a score from the legendary Ennio Morricone and starring a cherry-picked cast of Samuel L. Jackson, pulp icon Kurt Russell and an unexpected Jennifer Jason Leigh. Complete with a musical overture and an old-fashioned intermission, “The Hateful Eight” has the superficial trappings, at least, of a magnum opus.
It’s a movie any movie lover would want to see, and Tarantino is one of our greatest movie lovers. In the opening images of a stagecoach rumbling through snowy Wyoming (actually the Colorado Rockies), you can see decades of great Westerns, just as you can hear the power-packed dialogue of stage-to-film classics like “Stalag 17” and “Sleuth” as the characters fall into place. The film’s first act promises something sweeping, intense and, because we know our director, explosively violent.
The actors grab us instantly. The role of a cunning Civil War vet, Marquis Warren, was tailor-made for Jackson, while Russell puts his oft-mocked John Wayne delivery to good use as John Ruth, a bounty hunter dubbed “The Hangman.” His prize catch is Daisy Domergue, played by a very good Leigh with bad teeth and a smart mouth. Along with a would-be sheriff (a scene-stealing Walton Goggins), they’re trapped by a blizzard in Minnie’s Haberdashery, where they meet several suspicious fellows played with enjoyably broad strokes by Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern and a hilarious Demián Bichir (doing a spot-on Eli Wallach).
And yet, this big film has big problems. One is the waste of 70 mm on what is essentially a one-room play. Another is the film’s overly talky nature. No one writes dialogue like Tarantino (or rather, everyone does, now), but snappy lines are no substitute for a contrived plot and a dearth of action. The violence feels glib: Heads explode and genitals are decimated, but with no dramatic or emotional impact. Tarantino’s liberal use of a racial slur — so daringly employed in his “Django Unchained” — here feels gratuitous. The film’s misogynist streak is also a grave error in judgment.
“The Hateful Eight” probably looked stunning inside Tarantino’s head, which is always an interesting place to visit. On screen, though, the movie doesn’t deliver the grandiosity it promised.