In a snow-laden, post-Civil War Wyoming, the last stagecoach to Red Rock pulls over to pick up a passenger; Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson in an Oscar-worthy performance). He is ushered aboard by John "The Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell), en route to bring his prisoner, Daisy Domergue (a battered Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the noose. With a blistering blizzard hot on their trail, they stop over at Minnie's Haberdashery, where they (and we) are met by the titular cast of players, including Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, and veteran westerner Bruce Dern, in a very engaging role as a disgraced confederate General. Expectedly so, it's soon discovered that not all is what it may seem; as the logline states, "no one comes up here without a damn good reason".
Billed appropriately as "the 8th film by Quentin Tarantino", fans will especially delight at the immediate recognition of certain elements he's taken a particular liking to that 21st Century audiences associate with the cinema of yesteryear; lengthy opening credits, an elaborate and lush score (from master veteran Ennio Morricone), shot on 70mm Panavision film (another master veteran, three-time Academy Award winner Robert Richardson), and of course, the use of chapters. With these aspects taken alone, there are certainly expectations from a variety of audiences; not only fans of this man's cinematic catalogue, but seasoned viewers of classic Westerns, and even younger, more curious audiences who have perhaps let Tarantino's reputation precede any actual viewing of his work. That being said, a harrowing, entertainingly enigmatic circus of a bloody 'whodunnit' ensues, delivered blow-by-blow in both comic and cruel proportion that only the wickedness of this filmmaker's approach promises.
With much of the almost-three-hour runtime taking place in the aforementioned shack, one could easily envisage this played out on a stage right before our eyes. There is a constant discomfort of close-quartered tension that keeps us beautifully hooked. As the snowstorm outside rages on, so to does the storm inside the shack, as the "hateful eight" engage in a slow-burning battle royale, reminiscent of Tarantino's first film effort Reservoir Dogs , except with an Agatha Christie-meets-Sergio Leone approach. It's violent in some of the most unusual ways, but this only adds to the macabre masochism with which it's executed. This is a director who makes no apology for the films he creates. To like it or enjoy it, one needs to love it, even if it's particular, because everything is undertaken on a grander scale than what our planned perception allows; if not, it would risk a reticence to view any of his work. It might feel slow for some viewers, and the narrative does depend heavily on dialogue, but contemporary audiences should be reminded of the vitality of verbal communication, even in a visual medium such as this, because it is how we come to understand these characters and their values that we even want to indulge ourselves in their demise.
From left to right: Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tim Roth.
With The Hateful Eight, Tarantino serves up a deliciously brutal, barbaric, and yet laughable power struggle piece that is both so compelling and confronting, that we lap it up and ask for seconds with a dirty grin on our face. With strong performances breathing raw, juicy life into a solid screenplay that unfolds with mellow mercilessness, the video store clerk-turned-filmmaking extraordinaire reminds us of the escapist power of the cinema and the relative reality with which it both coincides and challenges.