Quentin Tarantino's elevation of pulp material continues in The Hateful Eight. He returns to the western, the genre of his last film, Django Unchained, to tell a legerdemain tale of murder, deception, and, well, more murder. It's a mess, but a beautifully-written one. And The Hateful Eight contains some of the great character performances of the year. It's shocking; it's hilarious; and it's completely captivating, a stone cold, claustrophobic whodunit that Tarantino fans will soak up like a bearskin in a puddle of blood.
The Hateful Eight revolves around a relatively simple premise and is chiefly set in only two locations. Filmed in 70mm, Tarantino and lenser Robert Richardson include a few shots of the snow-capped mountain terrain outside, but the format is utilized most impressively indoors, where little secrets are hidden in the corners of frames and conversations can be set against the backdrop of the main setting: a meticulously-art directed cabin called Minnie's Haberdashery.
The simplicity of the film, which has the scope (and intermission) of a stage play, allows Tarantino's characters and dialogue to shine through: "Keepin' you at a disadvantage is an advantage I intend to keep." One killer says to another. The film is a mélange of beautiful tête-à-têtes between murderers, bounty hunters, ex-soldiers, and downy innocent frontierspeople. It's the kind of film so packed with conversation, it must be seen multiple times to hear it all.
However, those with weak stomachs may not be able to get through one viewing. The Hateful Eight is also Tarantino's most vulgar and violent film. Although to focus on the blood would be missing the point. Buoyed by the special effects work of Walking Dead bosses Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger, Tarantino destroys the moralistic myths of the Old West in one fell swoop. There are no heroes. There are no villains. And no one is safe.
The Hateful Eight, Tarantino's eighth film, opens ominously thanks to legend Ennio Morricone's haunting score and a strategically-placed statue of the crucifixion. We meet John "The Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell), a bounty hunter escorting his latest captive, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to Red Rock to meet her maker. A blizzard is on their coach's tail, however, and death must be postponed to wait out the weather in a rustic stopover: the aforementioned Minnie's. En route, the travelers come across two more characters whom Ruth is loathe to help, but does after some convincing. Another bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren's (Samuel L. Jackson) horse gave out on him and the son of the "Rebel Renegade," Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), needs a lift to claim his sheriff's star in Red Rock.
Upon arrival at Minnie's, the blizzard is in full force and the coach passengers find they won't be alone while waiting it out. Minnie is conspicuously absent, along with others, replaced by a Brit, Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), a quiet cowboy named Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a Mexican, Bob (Demián Bichir), and a Rebel General (Bruce Dern). These are The Hateful Eight, and Tarantino allows us to get to know each of them intimately.
Ruth, ever-wary of the men he "don't know," confiscates firearms and warns everyone to keep their eyes off Daisy. But that's easier said than done and it soon becomes clear there are secret partnerships that put everyone at risk. The film leaves the introductions behind and morphs into a detective tale as lives are lost and the truth is slowly brought to light. Jackson owns the middle acts, playing Sherlock Holmes while recalling his intimidating, fiery monologues from Pulp Fiction.
The Hateful Eight will also remind you of Tarantino's first film, Reservoir Dogs, about a team of crooks who can't be trusted. Some of the same dynamics come into play. Allegiances are tested constantly and lies pile on top of lies. Tarantino structures the film in six chapters and, similar to Pulp, flashes back in one to fill in the blanks.
At 187 minutes, The Hateful Eight is Tarantino's longest movie yet, but it moves with abandon and there are zero dull moments. The script is so colorful every name, phrase, and utterance seems in place. Warren notices an out of place jelly bean on the floor. Mannix defends his daddy's troop—the Mannix Marauders—with fervor. Ruth carefully sizes up each man. And none of it feels written, which is Tarantino's greatest accomplishment. His ear for dialogue is honed by now and the cast is tailor-made.
Tarantino has "his guys." Russell, Roth, Madsen, Dern, Goggins, and, of course, Samuel L. have all appeared in his movies before. But the scene-stealer of The Hateful Eight is a Tarantino first-timer, Leigh, who spends almost the entirety of the film in some sort of bondage. The actress transforms into the grotesque Daisy Domergue and withstands brutal beatings that would cripple most. Listening to her sweet molasses-like drawl becomes the film's main course as her role expands towards the end. She's perfect. They all are, and isn't that another of Tarantino's many talents: finding the perfect actors for his wild characters? He's done it again here. They "sing" his dialogue, as the director likes to say and, this time, it's through mouths of blood and broken teeth.