It’s a strange thing, liking a movie this much when, at the halfway mark — which includes an intermission; related: I kind of like intermissions! — I was that unsure. Even stranger: After watching the second half of The Hateful Eight, I now like the first half just as much as the second. Each half has a very different tone, but the second half perfectly contextualizes what we saw in the first half. (Yes, I suppose we can kind of say that with a lot of movies, but director Quentin Tarantino has a special knack for this.) And even though 90 percent of this film takes place in pretty much one room, Tarantino makes a run for his bloodiest film yet. And, perhaps, even with a three-hour running time, his tightest.
Set a few years after the Civil War, The Hateful Eight stars Kurt Russell as John “The Hangman” Ruth, a bounty hunter who likes to bring in his prisoners alive, even when “dead” is a acceptable and probably more reasonable alternative. He’s in the process of delivering Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) – a woman who committed Lord knows what atrocity – to justice. Trying to outrun a blizzard, they meet Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) — two men who are most definitely not friends — along the way, and eventually Ruth agrees to give both of them a ride in his stagecoach. The movie is already tense! None of these four people particularly like each other and they all suspect each other of ill will. The Hateful Eight only gets more and more anxious from this point on.
The foursome (plus their driver) take shelter in a Wyoming honky tonk of some sort called Minnie’s Haberdashery. Minnie is not there (we are told she’s visiting family), but there are a few ornery cusses holding court: a man who says he’s a traveling executioner (Tim Roth), a Confederate general (Bruce Dern), a Hispanic man who claims he works for Minnie (Demián Bichir), and a writer (Michael Madsen). As a viewer, we don’t know what any of these people are up to. Maybe they are telling the truth? Maybe some are telling the truth? Maybe all of these people are liars? What happens next is basically a cinematic chess match with Tarantino making all the moves. Again: tense!
The film opens with luscious shots of mountain-backed landscape that, yes, looked beautiful on the 70mm projection that I saw. It’s funny, for the first 15 minutes or so, I was acutely aware that this was a screening presented in 70mm film because the movie is not afraid to keep reminding you of that fact. And it’s nice! But, I swear, I soon forgot about the whole thing – instead becoming wrapped up in Tarantino’s at times subtle, at times gory-as-all-out tale of desperation and revenge. (I don’t disparage anyone who truly loves the 70mm experience, but if I was just sitting there thinking about it the whole movie, I suspect that would mean I’m just not that interested in the plot. This was the opposite.)
Since 2010’s Greenberg (and not counting the wonderful, but animated Anomalisa), Jennifer Jason Leigh has played a lot of smaller, supporting roles. This is why it’s so important to have someone like Tarantino making movies: He wrote an insanely meaty role for a woman in her fifties. Tarantino has a knack for casting the actors who he wants and not actors who might appease a certain demographic. (This isn’t a knock on directors who don’t, because it’s a fact there are very few directors who have the autonomy to do what they’d like to do as Tarantino has.) Then, good grief, Jennifer Jason Leigh turns in a dynamite performance that is accompanied by a lot of, let’s say, pantomiming.
(I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Channing Tatum is in this movie for probably a little longer than you think he will be and is really great. I hope we see him pop up in more Tarantino films in the future.)
It’s weird to use the phrase “less is more” with The Hateful Eight, a movie that is three hours long – but I’m going to go ahead and use it here. It’s so barebones. There’s not a lot of fat. Often, a person can walk out of a movie this long and boast to their friends, “Well, I would cut out this scene and that scene. (I’m sometimes guilty of this, and often these kind of declarations are wrong, but I digress.) Looking back, almost every line of dialogue, no matter how insignificant it seemed at the time, drives the story forward. There’s no dumb subplot about a character we don’t care about. It all takes place right there and, up until the last shot, we still don’t know quite for sure who might betray whom.
This isn’t a Tarantino movie that opens with a bang. It’s a slooooowwwwwww fuse. But, man, when this movie ignites, it goes off in a big way. The Hateful Eight is Tarantino’s eighth film, as the opening credits emphasize, and it’s one of his best — a tense, suspenseful and bloody experience. (Did I mention it’s tense?)
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.