The good, the badass and the absurd

Tarantino’s wild, energetic and half-baked Western

Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell and Tim Roth. Directed by Quentin Tarantino. Cinemark 14, Feather River Cinemas and Paradise Cinema 7. Rated R.
Rated 3.0

One way of looking at the new Quentin Tarantino extravaganza: cinephilia run amok, again.

It’s a delirious, movie-mad comedy of violence and deception. It’s an indoor Western set among snowy Wyoming landscapes lovingly filmed in wider-than-widescreen 70mm. It’s a lurid, bloody Wild West chamber play, part revenge tragedy, part chamber of horrors in 19th-century drag.

It features a lively group of lethal characters who aren’t exactly what they seem, but only because nearly all of them are much worse, or much further from any hope of redemption, than they at first seem to be. And the movie itself isn’t exactly what it seems to be either, but that’s simply another facet of Tarantino’s exuberantly perverse entertainment schemes.

On the whole, I’d say the first half of The Hateful Eight is first-rate Tarantino, but the second half rejiggers much of what has preceded it and sends the title characters off to some kind of action-movie junkpile. There’s a lot in that junkpile that’s salvageable, but the film as a whole still ends up being decidedly less than the sum of its considerable parts.

Rival bounty hunters played by Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell loom particularly large in the action (much of which is mostly talk), but the character closest to this movie’s dark heart is a hillbilly trollop wanted for murder and played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. She is the prisoner of mustachioed John Ruth (Russell), who means to collect the bounty on her and witness her hanging in a town called Red Rock. She spends much of the movie handcuffed to Ruth and enduring the violence visited upon her by him and others.

The blows, mostly to the head and face, are ferocious, but she seems to have the stamina and durability of a cartoon character, and that along with her viciousness and rascality gives her a kind of bond with most of the other characters. Tarantino, for his part, puts her in the center of group shots and lets her lewdly leer while the men around her bark dialogue at each other.

Tim Roth shines as an English dandy who has credentials as a hangman, but there’s not much he can do with the part of the role that reveals his actual identity, which is far less convincing and not very interesting. The one thing that is interesting about that character and several of the others (including those played by Bruce Dern, Michael Madsen and Demián Bichir) is that Tarantino has chosen to build much of the film’s meandering narrative around good actors playing cliché characters who, inexplicably, are very good at acting a part—but only for as long as some cockamamie plotting requires it.

All told, The Hateful Eight is both epic and absurdist, with not enough of either one. It’s got eight very bad people in deadly conflict, but its most inspired moments involve a heavily damaged cabin door that won’t stay closed against a howling wind unless it’s nailed shut with at least two boards. W. C. Fields did it better in the classic 1933 two-reeler The Fatal Glass of Beer.