With its orchestral overture, 15-minute intermission, three-plus hour running time, and 70mm film photography, Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” alludes to the epic historical films of the 1960s: “Exodus,” “Spartacus,” and, of course, “The Magnificent Seven.” The Western was a popular movie genre at the time and Tarantino’s eighth motion picture is a bloody, violent middle finger to an era of filmmaking confined by industry guidelines and societal expectations of restraint and modesty.
“The Hateful Eight” is the antithetical answer to John Sturges’ 1960s classic about gunfighters hired to protect a Mexican village from bandits. Not the case here in which eight (leave it to Tarantino to take things one step further) strangers are unwillingly forced together, each one more selfish and cunning than the last.
This may just be the director’s finest film yet as he doesn’t allow time constraints to get in the way of creating a cinematic masterpiece. It’s a slow, controlled, and sometimes painful burn; a time-consuming journey that satisfyingly explodes into the gory, graphic beast tinged with dark humor that you knew would break free of its cage. Nevertheless, it is perhaps longest movie you’ll see in a while, so make sure to clear your schedule before seeing it.
Tarantino returns to the ol’ West for the second time in three years (“Django Unchained”) except for one major difference: the movie takes place on the opposite end of the Civil War on a snowy Wyoming mountain. In the midst of a terrible blizzard two bounty hunters, a murderer, a British hangman, a cowpoke, a sheriff, a Mexican, a stagecoach driver and an ex-Confederate general find themselves cooped up in the confined inn known as Minnie’s Haberdashery.
But is everyone what they appear to be? Who is friend and who is foe? Can anyone be trusted? The whole thing is a postbellum cowboy version of “Clue,” a dark nail-biting whodunnit as things start to go balls up. It made me think of the 1961 episode of “The Twilight Zone”: “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” Almost like a Eugene O’Neill play, a group of damaged characters are thrown in a single setting together only to resent one another in an escalating cycle of negative outcomes. Of course, O’Neill’s characters were never shooting each other in the head at point blank range.
A deeply ominous and unsettling score (something out of a late-night horror movie) by Ennio Morricone brings to mind his work on the Spaghetti Westerns of the ‘60s, a subgenre of which Tarantino is a big fan. The 87-year-old also composed the iconic whistle-y theme for Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy” and that talent is on full display here—undiluted 50 years later.
The movie opens with the trademark yellow-orange “Pulp Fiction” titles that impart the look of a 1970s exploitation movie. Then, like “Inglourious Basterds,” the action breaks into several different chapters, some filled with jump cuts, others with absurd out-of-place narration from Tarantino himself. And don’t you dare let a time period get in the way of a good soundtrack punctured with tunes by Roy Orbison and The White Stripes that surely did not exist in the Old West.
Tarantino uses alumni from his previous movies, “Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Death Proof” and “Django Unchained,” as well as some new faces. Kurt Russell and Samuel L. Jackson play pitiless bounty hunters John Ruth “The Hangman” and Major Marquis Warren respectively. As always, the director gives some kind of eccentricity or defining characteristic to make them more memorable (Walken had the butt watch and Aldo had the rope burn). Ruth always brings his bounties in alive so they can hang and Warren carries around a letter from the recently assassinated Abraham Lincoln.
Both Jackson and Russell give monumental performances with their distinguishing facial hair and animal furs, becoming the most interesting characters on screen. Jennifer Jason Leigh also stands out as Ruth’s prisoner Daisy Domergue, a psychopathic racist. And yes, Tarantino never wastes a chance to use the N-word as many times as he possibly can. While predictable, he still finds ways to surprise and entertain the audience despite all the vulgarity and gratuitous violence that has become his trademark. It makes him one of the most skilled directors alive, able to create something new and exhilarating from a well-worn style.
Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Walton Goggins, Bruce Dern, Demian Bichir, James Parks, and even pretty boy Channing Tatum play significant roles in the story and it’s easy to hate each and every one of them. Everyone is a representation of the bodily lawlessness and evil that infected the tail end of the 19th century: racism, theft, murder and greed to name a few. Tarantino is not a romantic man when it comes to the American frontier. He’d much rather expose its ugliness and vices that drove men to do terrible things. To turn a phrase coined by one Marcellus Wallace, he prefers to get medieval on its ass.