Put your hand in your pocket, real slow-like, and get out your wallet. You'll want to buy a ticket for The Hateful Eight, the Western that Quentin Tarantino was born to make.
Long, taut and never boring, Hateful has all the ingredients we've come to expect from Tarantino: Profane belly laughs, explosive violence, sadistic flourishes, and expertly drawn-out tension. But this winter's tale finds the cinema-savvy filmmaker stretching his legs out and relaxing a little, taking a load off by the fire and savoring the power dynamics he's constructed, much as his actors savor every word that rolls from their tongues.
The film rides one of those easily summarized premises that offer room for infinite elasticity: Eight unsavory characters trapped by a blizzard in a post-Civil War Wyoming saloon, with suspicion and murder on their minds. It all plays out like a cross between The Petrified Forest and Ten Little Indians, with some Once Upon a Time in the West widescreen splendor to make it pop. (The Hateful Eight opens in 70 millimeter this week in select theaters, before going wide next week in standard digital format).
I've heard directors laugh at the idea of coaxing great performances from gifted actors, insisting that the performers are fully responsible. But The Hateful Eight reminds us that all great actors raise their game for a Tarantino epic. The Hateful octet, which indeed riffs and melds like a seasoned jazz ensemble, includes Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Demian Bichir and Bruce Dern. They are Union and Confederate, young and old, black, white and Mexican, ornery, mean and hilarious.
It's hard to pick a standout. Leigh burrows deep for the wanted outlaw Daisy Domergue, a nearly feral slice of trashy, snarling disregard. Russell puts a modern gloss on John Wayne as the bounty hunter taking her to hang. Jackson carries long sections as a Union veteran-turned-bounty hunter with an air of rugged dignity. There are no subpar performances here.
But for my money it's Goggins, the patron saint of hillbillies, who steals the show. Anyone who watched Justified knows Goggins' gift for mixing menace and comic timing, his expressive eyes and mouth that breaks into a maniacal grin at a moment's notice. He has more fun with Tarantino's dialogue than anyone else here as a former Confederate raider, twisting off each word with a moonshine twang.
Alliances form, dissolve and and re-assemble; grudges are sustained; feelings are hurt. As much as any other Tarantino movie, The Hateful Eight moves about in its own vivid universe. That universe is comprised largely of older filmic conventions; Tarantino is ever the cinema savant. But the frequent complaint that all of his reference points go back to the big screen, rather than any common humanity, is starting to ring hollow. The hateful eight may be nasty, but they're mighty fun to hang out with. (Robert Wilonsky disagrees; you can watch us fight it out on Reel Genius below).
Then there's this: Tarantino's grasp of film craft has never been stronger, and he always surrounds himself with an all-star team of technicians. The two below-the-line stars of Hateful are cinematographer Robert Richardson and composer Ennio Morricone. Richardson brings poetry to the mountainous outdoor sequences, including a trail of blood in the snow that looks like drizzled chocolate syrup, and he navigates the space of the saloon with lyrical precision. Morricone conjures a persistent mood of impending, melodic dread.
If you dig a little deeper, you'll find a tale of Civil War reconciliation that only a fiendish mind could conceive. Tarantino, as has been his wont in recent years, is gleefully messing with history, and with movie genre (at one point The Hateful Eight unfolds like a horror Western). If he can keep doing it with this kind of panache he can tinker as long as he wants.