Todd McCarthy on Tarantino's 'Hateful Eight': 'Samuel L. Jackson Would Have a Field Day With This'

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Quentin Tarantino

The script, with its slangy, smart-ass dialogue, surprising associations, extended digressions and tangy flavor, is recognizably Tarantino all the way

Most writer-directors like to keep their scripts out of the public eye until their films come out. So did Quentin Tarantino, at least until his latest, a Western called The Hateful Eight, was notoriously posted online a few months ago, sparking a lawsuit and an initial peevish reaction by the author to abandon making the film altogether.

Then Tarantino decided to go the other way and do something possibly unprecedented, to hold a star-studded public reading of the script prior to shooting the film, which he presently intends to do next winter. Most screenwriters would be lucky to fill their living rooms for such an occasion, but a rock concert vibe surrounded the start of this unique event Saturday night at the jam-packed old United Artists movie palace in downtown Los Angeles, now part of the renovated Ace Hotel complex, with the best seats going for $200 apiece.

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And an event is what is was. Introduced by Film Independent at LACMA curator Elvis Mitchell (the event was presented by Film Independent, with proceeds gong to support the year-round programming of Film Independent at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), Tarantino strode onstage to a delirious reception attired in a black cowboy outfit, then grandly introduced his dozen cast members, including Samuel L. Jackson (in black, but not cowboy style), Kurt Russell, Amber Tamblyn, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen and Bruce Dern. One of the new initiatives developed under Mitchell's tenure at LACMA has been the table reads by well-known actors of famous screenplays presided over by Jason Reitman. Those are unrehearsed, but Tarantino acknowledged that he and his cast had prepared for three days. What the audience would hear was the same first draft that was posted. A second is underway, said the writer, and there will probably be a third before he rolls the cameras on this saga set in a snowy Wyoming a few years after the Civil War.

The author did not say how long the evening would be, but we should all know by now that Tarantino scripts are long. In the end, it took 177 minutes to read, not including a 10-minute break, with the writer indulging in some elaborate descriptions of the locations and action while stressing several times that it would all be captured in “70mm gloriousness.”

The story throws a bunch of strongly drawn characters together, first in a stagecoach dominated by two bounty hunters, one a white man called The Hangman (engagingly read by Russell with a pronounced John Wayne elocution style), who's taking a wild young woman (Tamblyn) into Red Rock for trial and presumed execution, and a black man (Jackson), a former Union army soldier who prefers dispensing justice himself.

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The cast of characters expands when the stage arrives, just in advance of a big snowstorm, at a mountainside establishment called Millie's Haberdashery. Peculiarly, the proprietress is absent, but present is an international crew including Roth's punctilious Englishman, an odd-speaking Frenchman (later joined by an Australian woman), Dern's former Confederate officer known for his brutality toward blacks (the N-word once again gets a major workout, its first usage spurring Tarantino to joke that it would recur an additional 322 times) and more who take shelter from the storm.

The script, with its slangy, smart-ass dialogue, surprising associations, extended digressions and tangy flavor, is recognizably Tarantino all the way. But it employs two old-school conventions that are new for the writer: The confined setting that forces together suspicious and sometimes violently opposed characters (especially the racist old rebel and the black ex-soldier) harks back to such pressure cooker misfit assemblages as The Petrified Forest and Key Largo, while the final act sizing up and winnowing down of suspects lies in the direct lineage of Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians and others of its ilk.

Especially during this long stretch of largely sedentary confinement to one small building, Tarantino did all he could via descriptions of camera angles and action to remind the audience of the eventual cinematic aspects of the story, but it was easy to feel something of a collective audience sag through this middle section. However, employing perspective changes and some leapfrogging and back-circling in time reminiscent of Pulp Fiction, things are eventually seen in a very different light that leads to what, as Tarantino described it, would be a wildly violent and nihilistic climax.

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The writer-director also branches out further with a central motif from his most recent film, Django Unchained, in having the major black character specialize in ever-more extreme revenge against white devils. After having played the house slave in Django, who'd gone so far around the bend that he was the major facilitator of his owner's acts of oppression, Jackson on Saturday night was noticeably relishing playing this dispenser of unlimited personal justice and would clearly have a field day doing so onscreen. Tarantino unsurprisingly works in numerous in-jokes, such as naming Jackson's character Marquis Warren, after the 1950s B Western director Charles Marquis Warren (and is Tamblyn's Daisy Domergue character named after Howard Hughes's late-1940s RKO protege Faith Domergue?).

What's important to remember at rare events like this (and it has been evident at some Reitman table reads) is that a script reading is not cinema, not anywhere close. Although words and the speeches they sometimes comprise are more important for Tarantino than they are for some filmmakers, so are such elements as camera angles, shot duration and music. A couple of the major moments in the screenplay, one in which Warren gleefully recounts how he made Dern's officer's son service him sexually before killing him, another of prolonged retching, came off as pretty gross in the telling Saturday evening but, depending on how they're presented, onscreen they could play well -- either through restraint or by being pitched so over the top that they're genuinely funny.

As for using 70mm, even from the point of view of a lifelong fanatic for the format, it's hard to imagine how the expensive format would greatly benefit a story that's mostly confined to a stagecoach and then the inside of a Western roadhouse. But that's a practical viewpoint, while it may be that a director as consistently successful as Tarantino is, both artistically and commercially, may know how the format will give his film an extra dimension that a mere reading can't suggest.