From a mile off, you can spot where Quentin Tarantino is coming from with his shoot-‘em-up comic western The Hateful Eight. Snatch a bit of the classic Stagecoach, stir in ingredients from claustrophobic, single-location melodramas like The Petrified Forest and Key Largo, season with a liberal dash of John Carpenter’s take on The Thing and top with a heaping helping of Agatha Christie’s twisty And Then There Were None. Tarantino even samples liberally from a number of old TV Western series, but we won’t bother to name them. The movie’s setup is so familiar and straightforward, it ought to take off like a crack of the whip. So why does the director fuss and dawdle forever setting the damned thing in motion?
We’re in post Civil War America and a lawman (Kurt Russell trying for strong, silent John Wayne mode) is transporting by stagecoach a dangerous prisoner (Jennifer Jason Leigh, a snarly, foul-mouthed hoot) so that she can be hanged in the remote Wyoming town of Red Rock. En route through desolate snowy back country, the travelers encounter a wily former army major and bounty hunter (Samuel L. Jackson) and a wild-eyed dude who announces himself as Red Rock’s new sheriff-to-be (Walton Goggins, a scene-grabbing standout). When a blizzard forces a stopover at a general store/restaurant called, oddly, Minnie’s Haberdashery (you won’t see a button, bow or bolt of fabric), the chess pieces finally fall into place and Tarantino’s game reveals itself. Honestly, there’s a bit of an is-that-all-there-is? letdown, but once Tarantino starts weaving in elements of folk tales, Italian westerns and whodunits, The Hateful Eight becomes a whole lot of fun.
All the “suspects” can be found lurking around the snowbound outpost, and they’re a ragtag bunch of mysterious strangers, also apparently stranded. There’s an obsequious Mexican ranch hand (a wily and delightful Demian Bichir) supposedly holding down the fort for Minnie, whom, we’re told, is off to visit her mother. There’s a prissy Brit hangman (Tim Roth, having a ball as a bit of a stand-in for Donald Meek’s rabbity character in Stagecoach), a brooding bruiser (Michael Madsen), and a crusty Confederate ex-army general (Bruce Dern). While freezing cold and blinding snow threaten to bury the characters, they spar, form alliances, scheme, double-deal and launch into revelatory monologues that may not be true. The performances and dialogue are drenched in satire and meta, which is a good thing because too often the movie feels like an old-fashioned stage play.
As can be expected of Tarantino’s writing, the characters’ arias range from gripping, inventive and wickedly funny – Jackson, Leigh, and Goggins are spectacular when they tear into theirs – to much less so. The movie has plenty to say about racial politics but it never feels preachy and it certainly entertains. Tarantino also rates big cheers for presenting The Hateful Eight – which features an original Ennio Morricone score along with vintage pop tunes by Roy Orbison and Crystal Gale – as a 70mm widescreen roadshow attraction, one with an overture, intermission, longer running time and exit music. Many more of these, please.