Movie Review: “The Hateful Eight”

Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, Demian Bichir, Jeff Parks
Quentin Tarantino

It’s crazy to think that “The Hateful Eight” almost never happened, but after Quentin Tarantino furiously shelved the project following the leak of his unfinished script, cooler heads eventually prevailed. Though the writer/director’s first crack at making a Western resulted in the slightly disappointing “Django Unchained,” Tarantino’s second attempt is a much-improved genre piece that represents his most accomplished work behind the camera to date. “The Hateful Eight” is filled with the same self-indulgent tendencies that fans have come to expect from his movies, but while it doesn’t exactly earn its three-hour runtime, this Agatha Christie-styled whodunit is a lot of fun thanks to a smartly crafted script and riotous performances from its ensemble cast.

Set in post-Civil War Wyoming, the film stars Kurt Russell as John “The Hangman” Ruth, a well-known bounty hunter who earned his nickname as the only one in his trade who actually bothers bringing fugitives in alive to be hanged for their crimes. John is in the process of transporting wanted murderer Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock to collect the $10,000 bounty on her head when a blizzard forces them to take shelter at Minnie’s Haberdashery in the mountains, where he finds himself trapped in a room with six other strangers he doesn’t trust. In fact, John is confident that at least one of them is in cahoots with Daisy, and he’s determined to figure out who it is before they make their move.

In addition to the two stranded men he comes across on his way to Minnie’s – Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a Union soldier turned fellow bounty hunter, and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a Southern rebel who claims that he’s the new sheriff of Red Rock – John’s list of suspects includes local hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), mysterious cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), Confederate general Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern) and a Mexican named Bob (Demian Bichir) who’s looking after the trading post while its owners are away. Confined to the cabin until the storm passes, paranoia begins to set in among the eight strangers as identities and motivations are questioned, secrets are revealed and blood is spilled.

Russell may serve as the audience’s entry point into the story, but Jackson is the clear standout among the cast. Not only is he given top billing, but the Tarantino regular has been presented with one of the best roles of his career. Major Marquis Warren is right up there with Jules Winnfield and Ordell Robbie as some of Tarantino’s most memorable characters, and Jackson doesn’t waste a single second, chewing up scenery with every juicy monologue and sly look. If anyone threatens to steal the spotlight from him, it’s veteran character actor Goggins, who builds on his small role in “Django Unchained” with a firecracker performance that perfectly complements Jackson’s cool customer.

Russell and Leigh are also really good in less flashy roles, especially the latter. Though the actress doesn’t get much to do before the final act (she spends the first two hours getting hit in the face and having insults hurled at her), Leigh quietly bides her time until she’s finally let loose like a rabid dog who’s been tied up for too long. Bichir and Jeff Parks, the uncredited ninth member in the story, add some nice moments of humor to the tense proceedings, while Roth, Madsen and Dern (the three actors implicated in the leak, curiously enough) have the least developed characters of the bunch. But that was bound to happen in a movie with nine characters fighting for screen time, and Tarantino at least manages to give each one their moment to shine.

This might be his most dialogue-heavy film yet, filled with plenty of grandstanding and lengthy monologues that make it feel even more like a stage play. Though it’s not as suspenseful as the cabin or tavern scene from “Inglorious Basterds” (that kind of tension would be impossible to maintain), Tarantino does a good job of instilling a sense of paranoia among the characters. The first half moves like molasses as he gets all of his pieces on the board, but the pacing is intentional, slowly building to a boil that spills out into a flurry of blood and violence in the final hour. Surprisingly, you don’t feel the three-hour runtime nearly as much as you’d expect, and that’s to the credit of Tarantino’s script.

What really sets “The Hateful Eight” apart from Tarantino’s previous movies, however, is just how good it looks. “Django Unchained” featured its share of gorgeous landscapes, but this time around, it extends to the interior scenes as well. That’s largely due to the decision to shoot the film on 65mm, which basically doubles the width of the image, not only resulting in more sprawling exterior shots, but also enhancing the performances and production design. Unlike most 3D movies, this is something that actually improves the storytelling, and it will hopefully lead to more filmmakers utilizing the format in the future.

It’s too bad that Tarantino didn’t save “The Hateful Eight” for his last film, because there’s definitely a feeling of coming full circle from his debut feature “Reservoir Dogs,” which has a similar, one-room premise. Of course, the movie also works as a companion piece of sorts to “Django Unchained” in the way that it deals with race relations during that period in American history, and it has some very interesting things to say on the matter. The film is by no means perfect – it could have been shorter and the narration that appears midway through is a little disruptive – but most of its flaws are niggling problems that don’t affect the overall experience. Though some people will discard the movie as just another bloody Tarantino talkfest, “The Hateful Eight” has enough additional layers that it will likely get better with each successive viewing.