For a time there, director Quentin Tarantino claimed he was going to shelve his latest film The Hateful Eight because an early version of the script had been leaked. Given that the movie holds the kinds of reveals and unexpected twists of an Agatha Christie whodunit, the threat makes sense. But having sat through this 168-minute amble, which pretty much takes place in a single cramped setting, one can only wonder if that earlier pass was leaner and to the point. What's ultimately served up in The Hateful Eight is Tarantino channeling Tarantino, with men of swagger waxing about the universe in pulpy poetic verse.
The Hateful Eight is held down by its lack of nuance, overindulgent nature, and the fact the director has been to every corner of this room before. From Kill Bill, Volume I on, Tarantino has been offering variations of the revenge flick, while paying homage to an array of genres and zeitgeists. His latest is more or less a restaging of Reservoir Dogs crossed with Django Unchained.
This western begins on a snowy pass in Wyoming as a coach makes a beeline for shelter before the mother of all blizzards sweeps through. On board and under furs and sporting a wide handlebar mustache looms gruff bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell, splitting the distance between John Wayne and Sam Elliott). He's shackled wrist-to-wrist to his charge, Daisy Domergue (the nothing short of excellent Jennifer Jason Leigh), a resilient woman who is able to take a punch and respond with sass despite the trickle of blood or dangling tooth. They're en route to the town of Red Rock and the gallows, but they pick up two others, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a fellow bounty hunter with three stiffs he's looking to collect on, and the newly appointed sheriff of Red Rock, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins, bug-eyed and in the endearingly effusive mold of Bill Paxton). The problem is this is the nascent days of Reconstruction and Mannix harbors strong Confederate sentiment (and resentment), which clearly doesn't jive well with Warren, a man who carries with him a letter written by Abraham Lincoln.
When those four arrive at Minnie's Haberdashery, a general store and a cantina, they meet four more men, Bruce Dern's cantankerous Confederate general; Bob "The Mexican" (Demain Bichir), the fella running the place while Minnie's away; a Red-Rock bound hangman (Tim Roth, channeling both fop and psychopath effortlessly); and a diary-penning gunslinger in black (Michael Madsen). This is a Tarantino alumni gathering of sorts. Anyhow, the coffee's bad, the front door blows open in the wind, and the lingering tensions between North and South rise up quicker than the door can be nailed shut.
Tarantino takes a long, slow time with Jackson's Warren, who is keen on evening the score with those from the slave-loving South. The ever affable Jackson gets to chew on some juicy diatribes (not Pulp Fiction good, but in the ballpark) as the racial tensions reach their breaking point, all while suspicions arise that one of the men isn't who he says he is. And it's those twin forces that hold the film tight until the first body falls — and plenty more after that.
Whether it's in tight rustic quarters of the haberdashery or in the vast snowy white outside, Robert Richardson's cinematography boxes the action in rich, deep, artistically textured layers, while the score is provided by the legendary Ennio Morricone. The spaghetti western maestro and Tarantino's film are an odd fit at times — the beat and mood are often out of sync — but when they're on, the combination elevates the collective effort with resonance and poetry.