If you ever wondered whether Quentin Tarantino would make a movie worthy of a PG-13 rating, the answer is “Yeah ... kind of.”
His Western “The Hateful Eight” is actually two stylistically different pieces, if you see it – as you should – in its full three-hour-and-seven-minute length, divided after 100 minutes by an intermission. That means a trip to Regal Stonecrest, where the 70 mm film version premieres Christmas Day. (The one that opens everywhere on New Year’s Eve will be 20 minutes shorter and shown in the now-usual digital format.)
Except for profanity that peppers the first portion, punctuated far too often by the N-word, Tarantino has made a PG-13-style Western with a few harsh punches and one quick, discreet shooting. It relies almost entirely on unstated menace and gradual revelation of the characters’ unsavory motives and connections.
In the second portion, the gleefully juvenile writer-director loses all restraint. Bloody killings, projectile vomiting, verbal abuse and cruel vengeance abound, and the film peters out at the very last in a flat moment. But until that final scene, he keeps us guessing about alliances, relationships and tall tales spun by the characters, as they pick each other off.
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The title refers to eight people stuck together at a resting point on a stagecoach line in post-Civil War Wyoming. Two bounty hunters (Kurt Russell and Samuel L. Jackson) transport corpses and one live prisoner (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the nearest town to get paid. Along with them rides the new sheriff of that town (Walton Goggins) – or so he claims.
When they pause at this way station in a blizzard, they encounter a sullen former general of the Confederacy (Bruce Dern), a Mexican cook (Demian Bichir), a glib and genial hangman (Tim Roth) and a cowboy whose behavior remains obscure (Michael Madsen).
Tarantino makes only one narrative mistake, giving away a surprise before he needs to. Otherwise he extends suspense cleverly, aided by the unhurried, well-judged editing of Fred Raskin and the icily beautiful cinematography of Robert Richardson (who has shot all of Tarantino’s features since the first “Kill Bill”). Ennio Morricone gives the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences another chance at age 87 to hand him his first Oscar for a score – not one of his best, but atmospheric nonetheless.
Like all Tarantino’s movies, this one contains homages. The opening line – “Got room for one more?” – echoes the famous moment in “Dead of Night” when a hearse driver offers to pick up a passenger during a nightmare. Leigh’s bloodthirsty Daisy Domergue takes her last name from Faith Domergue, a guest star on just about every Western TV series of the 1950s and early ’60s.
Yet even if you don’t get the references, you can enjoy the ripely robust acting – especially Russell, Jackson and Leigh – and Tarantino’s storytelling skill. I could have done without the bad-boy excesses, which always seem like the mark of his immaturity, but the rest of the film comes from a mature and capable artist.
The Hateful Eight
☆ ☆ ☆
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Demian Bichir, Bruce Dern, Michael Madsen.
Writer-director: Quentin Tarantino.
Length: 187 or 167 minutes (depending on whether you see it in 70 mm or not).
Rating: R (strong bloody violence, a scene of violent sexual content, language and some graphic nudity).