Stranded by a blizzard in the wilds of post-Civil War Wyoming, a posse of Quentin Tarantino alumni convenes at a remote cabin for a murderous reunion party. They’re an impressive bunch — weathered, whiskered and heavily armed — but their master’s wit seems to have abandoned them to their fates, like it stepped out into the snowstorm and never came back.
“The Hateful Eight” is a surprisingly limp effort from one of modern cinema’s most accomplished auteurs. The masterful wordsmith who once moonlighted as a Hollywood script doctor has refined his directorial craft at the expense of his screenwriting. Tarantino’s films have always been talkative, but it’s hard to remember them ever feeling this long-winded, or yielding so little.
While transporting a fugitive to Red Rock for a date with the hangman, veteran bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) reluctantly agrees to share his stagecoach with two men whom he encounters on the road. One is a fellow bounty hunter (Samuel L. Jackson) with a few corpses in tow; the other is a former Confederate guerrilla (Walton Goggins) who claims to have been appointed as the new sheriff of Red Rock.
As a blizzard descends, the travelers seek refuge at a familiar outpost, Minnie’s Haberdashery, only to discover that the shop’s regular occupants are mysteriously absent. In their place is a quartet of shifty-looking strangers (Bruce Dern, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen and Demian Bichir), and Ruth quickly suspect that at least one of them is in league with his malevolent fugitive named Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
The stage is set for an old-fashioned whodunit: Secrets are revealed, allegiances shift, someone poisons the coffee pot. But there’s little ingenuity in the route that Tarantino takes to his gore-drenched denouement. Even when he contrives a bit of wish-fulfillment revenge against a racist Confederate, it feels stale: he did that trick better in his last film, the 2012 slave-turned-gunslinger drama “Django Unchained.”
This marks the director’s second Western and he’s operating in full-blown homage mode. “The Hateful Eight” boasts an original score by Ennio Morricone and was filmed in 65 mm, the ultra-widescreen format used for earlier epics such as “Lawrence of Arabia” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Though a digital version is being screened in Japan, the film’s snow-blanketed landscapes — shot with vintage Ultra Panavision lenses by Tarantino’s regular cinematographer, Robert Richardson — still look glorious. Even with most of the action taking place indoors, the wide aspect ratio is used to arresting effect in the looming close-ups on character’s faces, and seems to soak up every cluttered detail of the sets. Japan’s Yohei Taneda deserves a hat-tip for his meticulous production design — though you know a film has issues when you find yourself admiring the production design.
Granted, there are some enjoyably salty performances, and Leigh — one of the players who hadn’t worked with Tarantino before — is wickedly good. If she wins an Academy Award this weekend, it will be well deserved. Yet the ensemble often feels wasted on the material.
Throughout his career, Tarantino has used verbal set pieces that ratchet up tension with the patient deliberation of a python devouring its prey. The scenes in “The Hateful Eight” are certainly long enough to fit the part, but their dynamics are less tightly controlled. Great swaths of dialogue are expended on back-stories, and the most suspenseful sequence requires a voice-over by the director to achieve its effect. The film’s central mystery, meanwhile, is so flimsy it feels like a mere pretext for the ensuing bloodshed.
What happened to Tarantino’s inventiveness, his insouciant humor? The closest “The Hateful Eight” has to a running gag involves Leigh’s character getting repeatedly punched in the face. After watching this, I could think of more deserving targets.