Quentin Tarantino is as self-indulgent as ever with his eighth (or ninth, depending on how you choose to catalog Kill Bill) motion picture, which is both a good and bad thing. His pacing and story structure idiosyncratic, and he has always been a little too impressed with his own cleverness. Fortunately for him, he is a very clever writer and director, and although it’s not on as grand a scale as his previous two films, The Hateful Eight further cements his reputation as a gifted filmmaker.
An ode to spaghetti westerns (even more so than Django Unchained), it’s another Tarantino valentine to genre movies and the art of filmmaking, opening with an overture for the score by legendary composer Ennio Morricone before easing into a three-plus hour parade of gunplay, gore, f-bombs, shaky race relations, and film references that fortunately includes an intermission for the bladder-challenged.
The premise is best described as the bastard child of Sergio Leone and Agatha Christie: bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is escorting wanted criminal Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to a date with the hangman in Wyoming when a blizzard forces them to take shelter in a way station. They are joined by a thoroughly sketchy bunch of travelers that includes ex-Union officer-turned-manhunter Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), former Confederate soldier and supposed new sheriff in town Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), British hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), cow puncher Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), mysterious Bob the Mexican (Demian Bichir), and crusty ex-Southern general Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), who of course takes an instant dislike to Major Warren.
Naturally, tensions mount over the course of the night, especially once it becomes clear that few of them are who they claim to be. This being a Tarantino flick, there’s a slow but steady nerve-wracking build up to a series of violent confrontations. The emphasis isn’t on the orgy of destruction this time — in fact it seems almost perfunctory by the time the gunsmoke settles and the bodies stop twitching.
That’s not to say The Hateful Eight is ponderous — far from it. It’s clear that Tarantino is having too much fun with his eccentric nest of vipers to start picking any of them off too soon; instead, he plays his story out like a deranged drawing room comedy of Grand Guignol proportions. Never does he play it safe, either; plenty of verbal and physical is hurled at Daisy, and Warren is the target of more than a little racism. This is America circa the late 1870s after all, though it sadly mirrors today; that said, Daisy and Warren give as good as they get, allowing Tarantino some wry and sharply pointed commentary on modern gender and race relations.
It doesn’t hurt that he has a cast that is as game for anything as he is. Watching Jackson and Russell play off one another as instant best frenemies is a hoot, and a little depressing: Why did it take so long for such a pairing to happen? And where has Leigh been lately? She deftly steals the spotlight from all of her co-stars as the thoroughly foul-mouthed, conniving, and possibly unhinged criminal at the center of the tale. Her performances here and in Charlie Kaufman’s outstanding Anomalisa leave one begging for more.
The question remains as to whether or not the trademark Tarantino-isms littered throughout The Hateful Eight are indicators of his personal style or his limitations. Most likely they represent a little of both. Only time and deconstruction by obsessive movie geeks will tell. He claims to have two more left in him before he quits the medium. That seems unlikely. Let’s hope that it is.