“Looks can be deceiving,” says Michael Madsen to Kurt Russell upon first introduction in The Hateful Eight. No four words could be more appropriate to the moment, or to the movie: Russell’s character, a bounty hunter named John Wayne Ruth, is distrusting by nature, even more so because he has a prisoner named Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh)—who wears a black eye and a busted nose along with a bucket-sized fur hat—cuffed to his wrist. When Madsen’s character, cattle wrangler Joe Gage, claims that he’s on his way to spend Christmas with his mother, Ruth doesn’t buy it. Neither do we.
Ruth infuses The Hateful Eight with a sneering cynicism that defines the timbre of the film. Whoever Joe is or isn’t, he probably isn’t good news. Odds favor that the rest of the motley crew lying low at the trading post isn’t, either. Fortunately, Quentin Tarantino is happy to entertain our suspicions. The Hateful Eight takes place in Wyoming, some years after the Civil War. Ruth is making for Red Rock with Domergue as a blizzard nips at his carriage’s heels; along the road he runs into Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a bounty hunter like Ruth and a distant associate from the war, as well as Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a one-time Southern renegade who alleges to be the new, to-be-sworn-in sheriff of Red Rock. After testily trading what pass as pleasantries, Ruth’s twosome becomes a quartet, and they ride to Minnie’s Haberdashery, which is already occupied by a handful of strangers: Gage, as well as Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern) and Bob (Demián Bichir), the Haberdashery’s caretaker in its proprietor’s absence.
But something at Minnie’s smells off, so our unofficially elected protagonists, Ruth and Warren, each begin to scope out the place and its guests. Everyone knows the basics of Tarantino’s latest by now, of course: That it’s his eighth film, that police unions threatened to boycott it (and chickened out), that it’s another Western following 2012’s Django Unchained, and that it’s an intersection between Agatha Christie, Sergio Leone, John Carpenter, and Tarantino himself, who by now has enough clout to make casual nods to his own pictures. (The film’s snowbound backdrop recalls fringe Westerns like Lucio Fulci’s Four of the Apocalypse, too; it’s ending has a dash of Tales from the Crypt.) It’s also incredibly violent when it wants to be (which is rare), and talky the rest of the time, which is more often than not.
Critics with a dislike for viscera have already railed against the film’s indulgent sensationalism, and objectively speaking, they’re not wrong. As Tarantino films go, this one doesn’t push the envelope so much as it burns the envelope in a wood stove. But when you pay the price of admission to a QT joint, you know what you’re buying, and complaining about Tarantino’s movies being long in the tooth or gleefully bloody is like reprimanding snow for being cold. Dexterous dialogue and splattery violence are the things of which Tarantino movies are made, as are more than plenty of homages to other movies, even if this three-hour beast could have been cut down to two without much trouble. The question there is what to leave out.
The Hateful Eight is a sprawling film with an intimate core and too much necessary material to trim. More so than most marquee movies and tentpoles claiming to be “epic,” The Hateful Eight actually lives up to the word. There’s a pomp and grandiosity to the weight of the film, and to Tarantino’s ambition in making it his way, that’s hard not to admire: Select U.S. cities will be able to experience The Hateful Eight in a 70mm roadshow format, complete with overture and intermission. (Which raises a slew of questions before the movie even begins. Why include an overture, anyways? Is it essential to the viewing experience? Is it required for establishing tone and atmosphere?)
Tarantino is recalling an era when films were events unto themselves in a climate where event movies are Marvel flicks, Jurassic World or Star Wars: The Force Awakens, productions that stir pop frenzies among moviegoers through brand recognition and nostalgia. But where those movies are big thanks to commercial appeal, The Hateful Eight is big because of its intentions and its ideas. (Note: See the film in 70mm if you can to best appreciate Robert Richardson’s incredible cinematography and Yohei Tandea’s production design—and if you can but you don’t, shame, shame on you.) Saying too much about the plot would spoil the film’s numerous pleasures—the cast is stupendous, the dialogue dazzles, disgusts, and delights in equal measure, and the craftsmanship is peerless—but watching Tarantino unfold Minnie’s various mysteries is close to pure rapture following his nearly decade-long obsession with revenge films. The Hateful Eight is not a revenge film.
Instead, The Hateful Eight is a whodunit—or a who’s-gonna-doit. Tarantino is chiefly interested in the exchanging of barbs and threats more than he is in action, though he abides by the law of Anton Chekhov, and so permits bullets to fly as occasion demands. Make no mistake, The Hateful Eight is insanely violent, but it’s fixated around violent talk and violent reverie before physical violence. Take, for instance, a scene near the movie’s halfway mark, where Warren explains, in the sort of focused ramble Tarantino is so good at writing, what it means to be a black man in a country populated by people who despise you without rhyme or reason. Racial epithets fly left and right throughout The Hateful Eight, as became the norm in Django, but this moment may be the moment in Tarantino’s career that best encapsulates the damage that words can inflict in all their loaded meaning. Through all of this, it helps immensely that Warren is our de facto hero, and that Jackson is so fully invested in his role. He’s startlingly good here, which is saying something in a cast this stacked. (How nice to see Jackson play a full-fledged character instead of a plot device in a trenchcoat.) In his own odd, pulpy way, Tarantino cares about the precariousness of white sympathy, and about abuse carried out in the name of the law.
Tarantino may lay his timely allegory on thick, but The Hateful Eight bears it out in subtle ways, too: With distrust as the film’s prevailing manner, the notion that you cannot truly know the people with whom you’re having dinner takes on increased gravity and meaning, particularly in the climactic showdown, when all is revealed and we see the film’s various humans for who they truly are. Frontier justice does quench our thirst, but the themes of social justice that drive the film are more satiating by far. It all adds up to a towering work, as profound as it is profane.
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demián Bichir, Bruce Dern, Michael Madsen, Channing Tatum, Zoë Bell, Michael Parks
Release Date: December 25, 2015
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has contributed to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.