Certain films vying this year for top industry honors offer an object lesson in the importance of editing and the value of brevity. Namely, because they drag on. Beautifully shot as it is, The Revenant runs out of story long before 156 minutes have elapsed. The shorter Joy still buries a fascinating life in minutiae.
Then there's The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino's defiantly three-hour western set in Wyoming just after the Civil War. Make no mistake: Despite dealing with issues of slavery and racial prejudice, this is no epic like Django Unchained. It's a chamber drama, most of which the small cast spends trapped by a blizzard in a one-room cabin.
Tarantino embraces those limitations: He's recently said he plans to turn the film into a stage play. And if anyone is equipped to pull off a tense, dialogue-driven drama in a small space, it's the man who made the similarly constrained Reservoir Dogs. But while that film wrapped up in 99 minutes, Hateful may strain viewers' patience. It has plenty of entertaining gab, and several standout performances. But the extra runtime stretches and flattens the narrative until it feels like a campfire tale told by a normally dynamic storyteller who's fighting the effects of a sleep aid.
Our story begins when Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a bounty hunter toting several corpses, hitches a stagecoach ride with John Ruth (Kurt Russell), a bounty hunter toting a very alive, very angry wrongdoer (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
Ruth is taking her to Red Rock to hang, but things keep slowing him down. First, a shady fellow (Walton Goggins) claiming to be the town's new sheriff claims the last spot in the coach. Then, when the foursome take refuge from the storm at isolated Minnie's Haberdashery, they find an oddball group of strangers — played by Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Demian Bichir and Bruce Dern — who may or may not have designs on Ruth's bounty. Whether there's honor among the hateful remains to be seen.
As the title indicates, these aren't sympathetic characters. That's not the problem, because Tarantino excels at siccing nasty people on other nasty people. (Roughly 85 percent of his dialogue in any given film consists of elaborately veiled threats, psychological torture and games of one-upmanship.) No, the problem is that, in a film driven primarily by verbal explosions, our cook lets the pot simmer far too long. Take the opening scene, in which Warren spends what feels like five minutes securing his place in the coach. The point — that Ruth is testy and mistrustful — could have been made in a few lines.
Even after the contents of this pot do boil over into juicy — and, bloody — drama, Tarantino lets it cool before putting it back on the burner. At one such juncture, when the filmmaker's voice shows up to provide thoroughly unnecessary narration, one might be tempted to think he's playing a Tristram Shandy-style trick and deliberately frustrating our desire to watch the damn story play out already.
The veracity of tales is an ongoing theme in The Hateful Eight. But, if such a postmodern game is afoot, the movie's content and style never quite work together. Granted, there's plenty of stuff here. The performances leave strong impressions — particularly Dern's querulous Confederate general, Goggins' slithery opportunist and Leigh's contemptuous, cold-eyed killer. There are clever narrative reversals, and there are set pieces — everything Tarantino's fans expect. Yet what there isn't, owing to the relaxed structure, is a sense of weight or urgency. It's like the world's goriest hangout movie.
Should filmmakers assume that moviegoers need something to explode every few seconds? Of course not. But there's an art to structuring a leisurely tale so it holds our attention. Perhaps the film's Minnie, who keeps her stew simmering on the fire, could give these prestige filmmakers a few lessons in the slow burn.