Few filmmakers ascend to the the levels of both commercial success and critical acclaim required for Hollywood to extend them a pass to make whatever film they desire, within reason, but Quentin Tarantino has seemingly occupied such a privileged position for the last decade. Tarantino’s blank checks, made out by his career-long godfather Harvey Weinstein, have paid off two times out of three, with the recent massive hits “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained.” However, those movies came after the filmmaker’s only box office flop, 2007’s “Death Proof” (released as one half of the double-bill “Grindhouse”), which found Tarantino indulging his most personal cinematic fantasies in the form of a ’70s B-movie throwback made for a blockbuster-level budget. It was the first entry in Tarantino’s oeuvre that many of his fans disliked, both because it was his talkiest to date and because one’s enjoyment was largely dependent upon one’s familiarity with the works to which the filmmaker was paying homage. But there’s no denying that “Death Proof” is special because it is a movie that only Tarantino could get away with making, a cinephilia-steeped joyride that would never have been financed had it been pitched by a director of less-than-enormous success.
Tarantino’s latest feature, “The Hateful Eight,” is another such miracle movie. Whether you love it or you hate it—my gut reaction is that the film will earn far fewer casual fans than “Basterds” or “Django”—you’ve got to give Tarantino credit for using that blank check to make a product totally unlike any other currently on the market. “The Hateful Eight” is a three-hour, dialogue-dominated two-act play, ninety percent of which takes place on one interior set. Even with a cast that includes Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, most filmmakers would have a hard time securing $10 million to make such a motion picture. But Tarantino decided to shoot “The Hateful Eight” on an ultra-widescreen celluloid format that hadn’t been used for 59 years, the grandly-named Ultra Panavision 70, at a reported cost of $44 million. That doesn’t include the additional $7 million-plus that was spent outfitting nearly 100 theaters nationwide with the 70mm projection equipment required to show Tarantino’s preferred Roadshow version of the film, complete with old-school overture and intermission. This isn’t Christopher Nolan wanting to shoot and project giant Batman action set-pieces on 70mm IMAX for the sake of spectacle; this is Tarantino resurrecting a bygone format chiefly to get audiences to reflect on the inherent beauty and visceral power of widescreen lensing and photochemical processing, given that just about everything happens in one cramped location.
This isn’t to say that “The Hateful Eight” is for aesthetes only, or that Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson’s immaculately staged and delicately lit close-ups and two- and three-shots—which are often one in the same given the extreme width of the format—are the film’s primary reason for existence. On the contrary, “The Hateful Eight” boasts some of the zippiest dialogue and most effectively scenery-chewing performances of Tarantino’s filmography, perhaps best showcased in a Samuel L. Jackson monologue for the ages that comes just before intermission. My discussion of format dominates this piece, however, to point out that nobody but Tarantino would think to give a work this logistically simple such a formally grand treatment, to such great effect. As one of the most ardent champions of celluloid in today’s digital-dominated era, Tarantino maximizes this opportunity to show what these tools can do for even the even the most dialogue-driven material. The rich, unorthodox format imbues what is, at its essence, a simple Agatha Christie-style murder mystery with all the weight and gravitas of a Biblical epic (it’s fitting that “Ben Hur” was one of the few films shot in Ultra Panavision 70 during the format’s short heyday). Certainly, if this script had been brought to life through conventional proscenium coverage with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio and 2K resolution, it would have been plenty engaging. But Tarantino understands that in the era of premium cable, good storytelling alone isn’t enough to sell cinema’s specialness over other media. “The Hateful Eight” is a testament to form and story working together to restore film as the preeminent popular art.
I’m reticent to dig too deeply into the narrative in this review, however, given how much the story relies on the element of surprise. Sure, when the eponymous eight characters find themselves stranded together in a snowed-in Wyoming haberdashery in the days of Reconstruction, it’s clear that no good will come of the endeavor. Tarantino spends much of the first half of the film playfully taunting the audience without so much as hinting at a more specific plot direction, slyly teasing the inevitability of bloodshed. Never mind the fact that this is a Tarantino film and it is therefore bound to be violent: What else could one expect when a Confederate General (Bruce Dern) responsible for executing black Union soldiers occupies the same room as a black Union Major (Jackson), or when a handcuffed fugitive (Jennifer Jason Leigh) sits across from the new sheriff (Walton Goggins) of the town where she’s due to be executed? But there are surprises aplenty along the way; alliances shift, motives are fleshed out. It’s best to go in without any prior knowledge of where the story heads, or which A-list actor makes a sudden appearance in the final hour. What I will say is that the customary Tarantino banter is even more cutting and darkly funny than ever, despite none of the usual pop culture references, and that the entire ensemble cranks on all cylinders (though Jackson and Leigh are the unquestionable standouts). Additionally, Tarantino uses the premise to examine America’s history of racism in provocative, thoughtful ways, the polar-opposite of his recent misjudged, publicity-whoring comments on contemporary police violence.
“The Hateful Eight” may not be one of Tarantino’s most commercial films—one can only hope it grosses more than “Grindhouse”—but it is certainly one of his best.