There is no screenwriter working today that has quite the way with words that Quentin Tarantino has. His films may be known for being more violent than most, having talented casts, and usually for containing more swears/derogatory terms than a multitude of films combined, but when one sees one of his films, it’s the dialogue that’s most often remembered, and indeed it’s this talent that has earned him two Oscars for Best Original Screenplay (“Pulp Fiction” and “Django Unchained”). For his eighth feature, “The Hateful Eight,” Tarantino once again weaves a web of fascinating characters, filling the roles with an exceptional ensemble, and, along with that good old crackling dialogue, presents a tale that is both grand and claustrophobic, while also being perhaps his most ambitious work to date.
Set a few years after the end of the Civil War, John Ruth (aka “The Hangman”) (Kurt Russell) is on his way to the town of Red Rock to turn in his bounty, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), for $10,000. His driver, O.B. (James Park), is just barely keeping ahead of a nasty blizzard when they are stopped by another bounty hunter, Maj. Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), who is also on his way to Red Rock with a few catches of his own. As it turns out, Warren and Ruth have actually met before, but that doesn’t stop Ruth from being a little paranoid about the possibility that Warren is after his bounty. During a brief stop, they are approached by Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a man who claims that he is to become the new sheriff of Red Rock. He too ends up joining their little group, who are at this point just trying to reach shelter at a rest stop known as Minnie’s Haberdashery.
Upon their arrival, they find that the proprietor and her usual company are not at home, and that a man by the name of Bob (Demian Bichir) has been left in charge. Inside, they discover an array of strange characters, including Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), a hangman headed to Red Rock, Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), an old Confederate General, and Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a cowpoke who is on his way home for Christmas. It doesn’t take long for Ruth’s paranoia to strike up again, figuring that one, two, or perhaps all of them could be in cahoots with Daisy and just might be planning to help her escape. As the storm rages on outside, trapping them all together, Ruth must figure out who among them he can trust, and which in this collection of seedy folks wants him dead.
After Tarantino had delivered the decent, but not-particularly-great western “Django Unchained,” I had reservations about him doing another entry in the genre right away, and indeed it seemed as though the first half of his latest epic was setting us up for another ok film, but yet another one that wouldn’t stand up with most of his previous work. However, in that way, “The Hateful Eight,” is a somewhat misleading film. For the first half of its nearly three-hour runtime, we have characters sitting around having pretty interesting conversations that help them develop, but there are not a whole lot of advances in the plot, other than more and more characters joining the mix. Again, thanks to Tarantino’s knack for riveting dialogue, the audience can still get engaged with it, but you do eventually start to wonder if there’s going to be more to the story than what he lays out in these first 90 minutes.
However, when that second half kicks in, you realize that Tarantino was doing all of this for a purpose, creating a sort of lull before the storm that allows us to get to know the kind of people that we are holed up with in this seemingly spacious, though all-too-small room for these characters that are forced together during a blizzard that leaves them little choice but to tolerate the present company. It’s here where the plot kicks into high gear and the paranoia level jumps through the roof (all of which is triggered by a certain event that won’t be spoiled here). That mystery element that Ruth begins to hint at almost immediately upon their arrival suddenly becomes the main concentration as, like him, we are forced to cast doubts on just about everyone present, calling into question whoever it is that these guests at the haberdashery claim to be.
Thanks to Tarantino’s slow, but thoughtful setup, the audience quickly becomes riveted, joining in on that paranoia right along with the characters. What’s particularly impressive is that much of the mystery is unraveled by one character, and with nothing else but the strength of their performance and Tarantino’s sharply-written script, they manage to flip the film around from being a meditative character piece to a tense thriller that you can’t turn away from. In fact, the entire ensemble deserves credit for making the film work as a whole, from the setup of the characters right through to the mesmerizing and bloody second half. It’s one of those casts that’s so good that you can’t really highlight one character and say that they were the best, because everyone plays so well off of everyone else that each and every one of them ends up leaving a lasting impression.
What Tarantino has delivered here is a fascinating portrait of deception and mistrust. Like Ruth, we have no idea who most of these characters are, and the way that Tarantino paints them offers up several possibilities as to what the outcome could be. “The Hateful Eight” has the incredible writer/director back in fine form, presenting not only an intriguing (and soon to be Oscar-nominated) script, but also top-notch direction, which is made all the more extraordinary by the fact that most of the film takes place in just one room. It may take a little while to get into for some as Tarantino takes the long way around to get to the bulk of the plot, but for those who are patient, you’ll be well-rewarded with one of the best films of the year. 3.5/4 stars.
Starts today in limited release. Expands nationwide on January 1st.
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