As much as any mainstream film consumer has an opinion, positive or negative, about “Star Wars,” it is likely that they also have an opinion, positive or negative, about Quentin Tarantino, as big a brand as any working filmmaker. At this point in his career, he's the reason I go to the theater. I don't care what the subject matter is, who's in it, or when it's released. I will go see any movie Quentin makes, no matter what, because he's earned that at this point. When he makes a film, he does it with a voice and an attitude and a style that is clearly and unmistakably his, and by now, if you're even remotely interested in his movies, you have a pretty good idea what sort of thing you're in for when you go to see “The Hateful Eight.”
In what seems very fitting in a year where some of the most interesting films are very specific variations on and updates of other films, Quentin Tarantino has created a sort of spiritual remake of “Reservoir Dogs.” A whole bunch of very bad people get together in a locked-down situation and some bad things happen. It's really that simple, just like it was that simple in 1991, and of course, that doesn't remotely describe the experience of “The Hateful Eight.” It's sort of pointless for Tarantino to talk about staging this as live theater because what he's done here is created a piece of theater, featuring some fantastic actors who have been given raw red meat to dig into and enjoy. It's a terrific piece of entertainment, first and foremost, mean and ugly and did I mention mean?
Minnie's Haberdashery is a roadhouse in the mountains of the Old West. While I'm not throwing any shade at any of the remarkable artists who contributed to the period details or the costuming or the production design or any of it, this is Tarantino's Old West, just like we saw Tarantino's WWII, just like we saw his version of Austin or his impression of Los Angeles. These are Movie Movies, and they take place inside the head of this guy who was soaked in movies from an early age, who's been digesting all of it and who throws everything he's got at every movie he makes. Minnie's Haberdashery isn't a real place on a real mountain. It could be the moon, or it could be Macready's Antarctica. The point is that it's an isolated location where a group of people all end up, all of them with their own reasons, all of them terribly dangerous.
As the film opens, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) is on the side of a trail with a stack of dead bodies, and there's a stagecoach making its way up the trail, just ahead of a huge blizzard. O.B. (James Parks) sits at the reigns, and as he slows the coach to a halt, things are immediately tense. It's Jackson who gets the first line of the film, and it's fitting. After all, this is his sixth film with Tarantino if you count his narration in “Inglourious Basterds,” and it's only Tarantino's eighth film overall. If there is anyone on this planet who knows how to deliver a Quentin line of dialogue, it's Jackson. “Got room for one more?” he asks O.B., and the wheels of fate begin to turn.
Inside the coach, lawman John Ruth (Kurt Russell) rides with the bruised and bloodied Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). She's a bounty, and he's taking her to Red Rock to hang. Like Ruth, Major Warren is a bounty hunter. Warren prefers to kill his quarry before bringing them in, but Ruth is known as “the Hangman” because he always brings his bounties in alive. From that set-up, it sounds like he's going to be this towering heroic figure, but Kurt Russell has challenged the notion of what a movie hero is repeatedly over the course of his career with the choices he's made, and his first collaboration with Tarantino was a truly nasty bit of deconstruction of Russell's onscreen persona. The real John Ruth is a bastard who seems to take particular pleasure in beating the holy shit out of Daisy Domergue for any tiny little reason she might give him, and from the moment Ruth reluctantly agrees to let Warren hitch a ride with them because his horse died thanks to the weather, it's almost like Ruth is performing for Warren, showing off just how easy it is for him to batter this tiny woman, his prisoner. It's a despicable introduction, and I'd argue that Ruth never gets any better.
One of the strangest functions of modern drama and formula is that movie audiences are conditioned to expect that there's a hero in every story. Someone has to be the main character, the one we're rooting for, right? But do they? I can't tell you who the “hero” of “Hateful Eight” is, and I couldn't care any less. It's a movie where the perspective gradually, sneakily shifts from character to character. If Tarantino told you who to root for, he'd undercut his own plan. Once O.B. gets the coach to Minnie's Haberdashery, with yet another new passenger in tow in the form of Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who claims to be the new sheriff of Red Rock, things really start getting weird. There are things that seem off right away, things that John Ruth and Chris Mannix and Major Warren all start to notice. There's the broken front door that has to be nailed shut every time it opens. There's the lone jellybean on the floor. There's the marked lack of Minnie herself. And the place is packed, considering it's a roadhouse in a blizzard in the middle of nowhere.
In short order, we meet Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), and Bob (Demian Bichir), the Mexican who the Mexican-hating Minnie supposedly left in charge, and each new introduction, these actors just relish what they've got to do. Madsen and Roth are old hands are Tarantino's words, while Goggins and Dern are more recent recruits who have dropped right into the ensemble with ease. Not everyone is able to get their mouths around the pages of dialogue that Tarantino adores, but once you get the rhythm of it down, you're good to go, and this cast all seems game.
As the long storm rages on, old tensions surface in surprising ways, and the men all start testing one another. At the center of things, Daisy just sits, bleeding and bruised, biding her time, guarding her secrets, and I'm delighted to see Jennifer Jason Leigh in this and in “Anomalisa” this year. People forget (or never fully appreciated) just what a beast Leigh was in her golden years in the '90s, when she was getting great role after great role and ripping it up each and every time. There was a point where she was one of the most dynamic actors working, and filmmakers were lining up to offer her a chance to prove it. She's a weird little thing as Daisy Domergue, and the way she can't resist goading John Ruth, even when she knows she's going to pay for it, is pretty terrific.
The title is accurate, at least in terms of the “hateful” part. Tarantino's math may be a little fuzzy, but this is a group of people with rotten guts and rotten hearts, and there's at least one scene about how hard it is to hold in that much hatred, and just how dark the satisfaction is that one can gain from finally releasing it. It's near the end of Chapter Three, and it's the same moment that jumped out, ready to go, at the live-read I saw of the script in April of 2014. Bruce Dern and Samuel L. Jackson are so good individually, but bouncing off each other in a scene like this, they're positively electric, and when you hold this up next to the work he did in “Django Unchained,” it's a nice reminder of Jackson's range, because while Tarantino loves something that is essentially Sam, he also knows how to find some huge variations for his favorite actor to play.
This is not my favorite Tarantino film, but it might well be the most Tarantino film. It is dark and ugly, but not in the way many of the end-of-the-year Christmas movies are where it can feel like you, the viewer, are being punished. Beautifully photographed to take full advantage of the corners of a 2:76:1 aspect ratio, often hiding key character details in the background of shots in a way that demands a second viewing, this is a gorgeous piece of filmcraft all the way around. The main reason I give Tarantino that blank check to take me wherever he's interested in going as a filmmaker is because I've never seen him give less than everything to a movie, and I've only seen him improving over time. He is constantly pushing his collaborators, and vice versa, and I think he might have passed Oliver Stone as “the director who best utilizes Robert Richardson's skills” in my book. If you want a hit of pure joy at the cinema this holiday… well, “Star Wars” is your best bet. But if you like your movies jet black and mean as hell, “The Hateful Eight” is like unwrapping a beautiful box full of pissed-off cobras. Buckle up.
“The Hateful Eight” is in limited theaters on Christmas Day, then opens wider one week later.