No one’s better at raising hell at the movies than Quentin Tarantino. And no one’s creative motor runs hotter than the man whose eighth feature aims to up the ante on his own previous magnificent seven. Tarantino always swings for the fences. He doesn’t connect with every wild pitch thrown here. At three hours, this Western whodunit can feel like too much of a good thing. But Tarantino writes like a flamethrower. His incendiary dialogue feels like profane poetry. And the dude thinks big. The Hateful Eight is available in select theaters in large-format 70mm, with an overture from the film’s iconic composer Ennio Morricone, and an intermission that lets haters get riled up about gore, misogyny, the n-word, and the usual bugaboos that make Tarantino a target. Hang on. Even if you think The Hateful Eight is something swung at and missed, you never doubt the cunning and commitment of the wiz behind the curtain.
Set during a Wyoming blizzard at a frontier way station, the film — shot with a poet’s eye by the great Robert Richardson — tricks us right from the start. After an opening that’s as big as the great outdoors, the film moves inside by the fire and pretty much stays put like a stage production that favors character over action. The much-vaunted 70mm format, used on such epics as the Sixties version of Ben-Hur, becomes Tarantino’s means to examine every flicker of the human face.
And what faces! The Hateful Eight is crammed with villains. Forget good, everyone here is just bad and ugly. Samuel L. Jackson, the best interpreter anywhere of Tarantino’s street Shakespeare, is a sparking livewire as Maj. Marquis Warren, an ex-Union soldier still battling racial tensions nearly a decade after the Civil War. The man who gives the stranded “black fella” a lift on his stagecoach is wild, whiskered John Ruth (a stellar Kurt Russell), a bounty hunter cuffed to one Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason-Leigh), a prisoner he’s taking into Red Rock for hanging. From the looks of Daisy’s black eye, Ruth is not above taking a hand or worse to a woman. But what with the blizzard brewing, the coach passengers stop at Minnie’s haberdashery to ride out the storm.
They’ve got company, a motley group of perps. A terrific Walton Goggins plays Chris Mannix, a Johnny Reb who claims to be Red Rock’s new shertiff. Tim Roth plays a British hangman wonderfully named Oswaldo Mobray, and he’s joined by another Reservoir Dog, Michael Madsen, as suspicious cowboy Joe Cage. There’s also Bob (Demián Bichir), a Mexican who contends that he’s a pal of the absent Minnie, and Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), a Confederate general who doesn’t like the look of Jackson’s Major one damn bit.
All the actors kick ass, especially Leigh who is sensational and then some as a battered woman with an agenda. It’s a tour de force performance that keeps springing surprises. So stay alert for this deliciously depraved nest of eight vipers, right out of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, if Dame Agatha had converted to pulp fiction. Coffee is poisoned, bullets are fired, blood is splattered, bodies pile up, and a letter from Abe Lincoln is read. Okay, maybe it doesn’t all add up. Screw coherence. Dig in for the fireworks and a whole lot of crazy. Then wait for the rug to get pulled out from under you.
If you know your Tarantino, you also know there will be tricks of time and unanticipated visitors blown in by a raging tempest that recalls one of Tarantino’s favored horrorshows, John Carpenter’s The Thing. Still, it’s the tempest of hilarious and horrific talk that rivets our attention. Since nearly everyone hurls the word “nigger” at the Major, he retaliates in a monologue that lets Tarantino make wicked fun of the white man’s fear of the black dick. It’s a given that some audiences won’t find this a hoot, or cotton to the beatings Daisy suffers at the hands of brutal men. Tarantino is a lot of things, but politically correct isn’t one of them. Safe doesn’t interest him. He brings the war home, baby, with all the political, geographical, social, sexual and racial implications we’re still wrangling with today. Watch out for Tarantino’s seething subtext in The Hateful Eight — it’ll nag at your conscience and no way will it let go.