A little cool is cool, but...

So, I caught up with the new Quentin Tarantino movie, The Hateful Eight, the other day. This isn’t a review blog, so I’m not going to do the standard film review stuff; instead, a few thoughts on the movie (spoiler-free, just in case) and what the film – on its first viewing – indicates.

Now I like Tarantino’s movies in the main. He’s an avowed movie fan, he’s a repository of geeky arcana as regards certain types of cinema, and he’s got an interest in genre cinema. His movies tend to be crime or revenge-filled violent dramas with healthy side orders of comedy and opportunities for grandstanding performances, the rediscovery of somewhat neglected actors, and quirky-but-apposite soundtrack cues. Tarantino likes to mess with time; analepses and prolepses abound as we zip back and forth temporally.

The Hateful Eight’s a long movie. In the standard release version that I saw, it runs 168 minutes. There’s also a roadshow version, that’s not getting much of an outing in the UK, featuring another twenty minutes of footage, plus an overture, intermission and an entr’acte (that’s the bit of music played at the end of the intermission to get you back into the movie-world). The roadshow’s presented in Super Panavision 70, a seldom-used film format, and one revived in production and projection terms for this movie. So, the geekiness runs deep.

The Hateful Eight wears its influences proudly: the plot’s a mashup of Tarantino’s debut Reservoir Dogs and John Carpenter’s The Thing, and these story influences are evidenced in the casting, with Michael Madsen and Tim Roth from Dogs and The Thing’s lead (and regular Carpenter collaborator) Kurt Russell top-billed. Sydney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson is also an influence, in part of its storyline, its production design, the location work and in the use of an overture, intermission and entr’acte.  

For various reasons, eight people are holed up in a backwoods trading post, waiting out a blizzard. Matters soon turn ugly.

Now, this is a movie that could have been wrapped up in the same 99 minutes’ length of Reservoir Dogs. Here though, we’ve got a flick that’s got a full additional hours’ worth of material (and an hour twenty if you see the longer version). And, boy, does your behind feel the impact of the extra time.

In a Tarantino movie you expect a little loquaciousness from at least some of the characters, and you certainly get that here. You get a story about stories, about the telling of tall tales round the fire. And that’s all good. But it does go on. And on.

You get a movie divided, like Tarantino’s latter flicks, into chapters; another overtly novelistic device. Plus, a director voiceover at the halfway point, presumably another aid to bridge the gap between the two halves, but also a pointer to new plot information. Now, Eight isn’t a movie that benefits from this; the second half’s decision to mix matters up temporally and plot-wise might well have been better dealt with by dealing with the storyline in strict temporal sequence. It feels tricksy rather than organic. Plus, it pulls you out of the movie. I found myself, in the second half of the film particularly, being aware that I was watching the film, rather than just watching it. That immersive spell that cinema should cast over you had been broken.

I was mulling this over afterwards. Not just in the what-would-I-have-done-differently sense of thinking, though there was some of that (cut the film down to an hour forty-five maximum / lost most of the outdoor stuff, which, though great-looking added little to the film / recut it into temporal order / fixed a couple of nagging plot issues / swapped the genders of one pair of characters). But also in the how-did-we-get-here stakes.

So, a few thoughts.

First, Tarantino is indulged. Since Jackie Brown (still his best), his movies have been allowed to get bulky. Kill Bill 1 and 2, Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained, and now The Hateful Eight. All of them. There’s good stuff in each of them, but these are films of bits and pieces, and often as not better dipped into and out of than watched in their entireties. The exception of his latter output is Death Proof, which is at least mercifully short, though was originally intended as a double-bill under the Grindhouse banner with Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror.

Second, he seems to have lost the people around him that were useful checks and balances. Lawrence Bender, his original producer, hasn’t a co-credit since Inglorious. Sally Menke, Tarantino’s long-time editor, died in 2010. Roger Avary, screen-writing collaborator, fell by the wayside in career terms early on. One gets the feeling that there are fewer and fewer people prepared to sit down and say “Yeah, this scene’s great, and it’s funny, but do we need it? Does it tell us anything new? Can we lose it for the sake of the film?”                    

Third, that a little cool is cool. But too much cool leaves you cold. Enough with the quirks and the longeurs already.

So that’s what I came away with after watching The Hateful Eight. A little bit of renewed purpose as regards my own writing. Both to listen to those internal and external Jiminy Crickets who act as useful and necessary checks and balances to our excesses and to our indulgences, and to act on their advice. Sometimes, though it may be trite to say it, less is more. Make the plot or character point, then move on.  

So, thanks Quentin. I enjoyed the movie (and I’ll keep watching your films) but they help in showing what doesn’t work as well for me just as much as showing what does.