I don’t see a lot of films in the theater, and I rarely review those I do–if for no other reason than that I tend to spend my big screen movie money on empty calorie treats like the latest Star Wars film–spectacles with running and jumping, superheroes and spacemen, things that go kaboom in the deep. By strange coincidence, while devoting some time to catching up with some of the many blogs I follow, after a lengthy period of real-world responsibilities pulling me away from you, my electric brethren, I stumbled into not one, nor two, but three different reviews of Quentin Tarantino’s Hateful Eight. I consider this as a calling to write my own. And while it seems a bit late for a film that premiered on Christmas Day, 7 weeks ago, I’ll say: so what. The film is going to come out on DVD and streaming soon enough, and the internet is forever.
The plot isn’t complex: Kurt Russell’s aging bounty hunter, escorting a prisoner played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and running hard to outdistance a looming Wyoming blizzard, first encounters an infamous colleague, Major Marquis Warren, to whom he grudgingly offers assistance. Soon, the two hardened men take shelter in a remote mountain outpost, in the company of an assortment of potentially dangerous men, one or more of whom is almost certainly not what he appears to be.
As the blizzard descends on the outpost, the perspective changes from sweeping, widescreen vistas of gray and white, granite and snow, icy rivers and stark forests beneath soaring peaks, to the warm, fire lit confines of the snowbound cabin. The sense of confinement, despite the rich, saturated glow, is threateningly claustrophobic, leaving one almost desperate to return to the harsh, howling storm outside.
From here, the concept is simple. A room full of strangers and their secrets, each of whom has some reason to distrust, or despise, at least one of the others, none of whom–even the men we suspect are the heroes in the tale–can be trusted. Who are these people? What are the agendas at play? When will pulsing tension break, and who will survive when it does?
Jackson and Russell deliver highly nuanced anti-heroes, reluctantly allied–at least in the short term–against the strangers around them. Leigh is nothing short of perfect as a filthy, rotten-toothed villain bound for the gallows, while veteran Tarantino players Tim Roth and Michael Madsen are subtle, hovering between menacing and virtuous. Bruce Dern is quietly powerful as a withered veteran confederate officer who serves as both mirror and foil to Jackson’s former Union soldier, but it is Walton Goggins, the least famous player in the main cast, who nearly steals the film as the morally indeterminate young Chris Mannix, who claims to be the new Sheriff of Red Rock, delayed on his trip to assume his duties.
Early in the film, I suspected the three hour running time of the extended roadshow version might be too much, given the palpable weight of tension that runs through virtually every word, action, and and moment of the film, but even with the old-fashioned intermission that further extended the showing, I was quickly draw into the action, where I lost fully lost myself. For all that time, the story never lags–even a prototypical Tarantino flashback deep into the heart of the film, which reveals a much more light-hearted back story for the owners of the mountain sanctuary, is fraught with promised doom and mayhem made all the worse by its sunny happiness and a charmingly bright performance by veteran stuntwoman and actress Zoë Bell (who played the scarred mystery woman in Django Unchained, took all those beatings as Uma Thurman’s stunt double in Kill Bill, and doubled leads in both Inglorious Basterds and the Grindhouse films–Mr. Tarantino, would you please make this woman a star already!)
For all of it’s lush visual appeal, Hateful Eight is an old school drama, with talented actors at their peak, inhabiting tightly written characters in conflict with each other. In an age of CGI gobbledygook and cynical pandering to corporate theaters and studios that foolhardily invested in the failure that is 3D technology, this is a big, gorgeous, exquisitely crafted masterpiece shot on rich, glorious film. Take away the performances, the sizzling dialogue, even the bile-churning, exquisitely tangible violence, and Hateful Eight would excel on the merits of it’s cinematography alone. It is beautiful and horrible, the best Tarantino has done since Pulp Fiction. It is nothing less than the work of a master at the top of his craft, and should not be missed.