Chances are you already know if Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” is on the Christmas list this season. Tarantino is, as ever, and acquired taste who has only grown more stylized over the years. “The Hateful Eight” is perhaps his most indulgent film while at the same time one of the most faithful. This isn’t an off-the-wall take on the Western genre like “Django Unchained” turned out to be; this is Tarantino fully embracing the likes of Sergio Leone, even going so far as to have the great Ennio Morricone provide a perfectly dusty score. But it’s also Tarantino’s most intimate and personal film in quite some time, harkening back to his breakout crime flick, “Reservoir Dogs”.
At its core, “The Hateful Eight” is a simple whodunit; a mystery in which every one of the scoundrels shacked up in the middle of post-Civil War Wyoming is a likely suspect. Of course, nothing is ever truly simple with Tarantino at the helm. The film finds the divisive cinephile exploring themes of racism and festering hatred at a time when wounds from the War still ran deep. Everybody’s a bad guy here, again like “Reservoir Dogs”, and nobody makes you want to root for the bad guy better than Tarantino does.
Much of your enjoyment of “The Hateful Eight” will depend on your tolerance for Tarantino’s long-windedness. The film is broken up into five chapters, led by a musical overture and split by an intermission old school-style, but it takes an eternity for the plot to actually kick in. For those who appreciate Tarantino’s fondness for narrative minutia, this won’t be a big deal at all. With a blustery blizzard swirling, a stagecoach rattles through the snow on the way to find some shelter. Inside are two of the film’s colorfully-named antagonists, “The Hangman” John Ruth (Kurt Russell, perfectly suited to this kind grizzled character), and the convict he intends to see hanged, Daisy Dormegue (Jennifer Jason Leigh, all fangs and snake-tongued). Before they can get where they’re going, two chance encounters hold them up. The first is white-hunting former Union soldier Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), who carries around a note written to him by President Abraham Lincoln. The second is Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), the supposed new Sheriff of Red Rock, which happens to be where Daisy is meant to meet her fate. Coincidence? You know better than that.
Things start to get ugly or uglier when they arrive at Minnie’s Haberdashery, which doesn’t resemble the pit stop they were expecting. Instead of the usual owners they’re met by four instantly-suspicious sorts who all resemble villains from out of a John Ford movie. The new caretaker is Bob The Mexican (Demian Bichir), who insists the owners are out of town; the roguish Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), the apparent hangman of Red Rock; tight-lipped and secretive cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen); and legendarily racist Confederate General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern). Stuck in this broken down old shack with a hilariously unusable door and different political and social agendas at work, the fuse is lit for what is guaranteed to be an explosive dénouement.
Tarantino turns up the heat slowly, almost to an excruciating degree. It becomes clear that someone isn’t who they claim to be, and it’s Warren who is forced by extenuating circumstances (read: a murder attempt) to play detective. And it’s a mystery with real meat on its bones thanks to Tarantino’s hearty screenplay which fleshes out each character in defined strokes, doling out generous amounts of levity to lighten the tension. There may be no better comic duo all year than Russell and Leigh, who are in literally every scene together for reasons best left unsaid. While definitely an ensemble it’s Jackson who comes through with his usual brand of Tarantino-inspired braggadocio. He gets one long soliloquy that is both bizarre and strangely fitting, in which he ruffles racist feathers by forcing them to imagine his big black penis. Tarantino seems to have a fondness for the subject of racists obsessed with black male genitalia, and he takes that subject further than he’s ever taken it before. Let’s just leave it at that.
With so many characters mostly stuck in one confined space for the film’s duration, shooting in glorious 70mm doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. And yet it’s strangely perfect, not only in the wide, snowy expanse of the outdoor scenes, but inside where it allows for a surprising level of detail. While it may seem sedentary at times, there’s a lot going on in each and every scene which the broader Panavision makes clearer. Keep a close eye in the background or on the fringes and you might catch a character’s subtle reactions to a passing comment.
Where the film begins to unravel is, unfortunately, in the deflating reveal which comes after the perfectly-timed intermission. Unveiled mostly in an awesome flashback (which includes the always-great Zoe Bell, by the way, and an A-lister some may not expect), once it’s over it leaves the story with little place to go but down and a lot of time to get there. Tarantino fills that space with a generous helping of gore and brutality. In particular there’s a great deal of Leigh getting smacked around and beat like a mule; all of which her character takes with a bloody and knowing smile.
“The Hateful Eight” is ultimately Tarantino hashing out the issue of racism, and his approach to it is brusque, pointed, and a little uncomfortable. But only he would have the stones to build such a thrilling Western homage around it. While some will continue to take issue with his stylistic touches, the violence, the language, whatever, Tarantino always has something he wants to say and we’re better off every time he gets to say it.