"The Hateful Eight" Is A Brilliant, Blood-Spattered Ode To Fatalism

Quentin Tarantino doesn’t make movies. Quentin Tarantino is movies; a sentient, promenading encyclopedia of film history who’s made himself into a sizable slice of that same text. In a quarter century of moviemaking he’s yet to commit his name to a bad one, a feat not even the Scorseses of the world can lay claim to.

There’s no consensus when it comes to Tarantino’s best work because, second half of “Death Proof” notwithstanding, his films are all towering markers of confidence, inspiration, and confidence in those inspirations, doing for pop culture specificity what Mark Twain did for witticisms. It’s easy to argue for “Pulp Fiction” as a cultural kindling point, but “Inglourious Basterds” is the movie where Tarantino the director became the equal (it not the better) of Tarantino the writer. Alternatively, “Jackie Brown” just might just be his underprized masterpiece.

“The Hateful Eight” marks the filmmaker’s first work since the 90s to not function as a straight revenge yarn, and it’s a more-than-welcome respite from the vengeful bloodlust that had begun to define his chronology. No, “The Hateful Eight” is just plain, old bloodlust, equal parts spaghetti and western, indiscriminately spraying post-Civil War Wyoming with brain matter as often as neat morsels of dialogue.

The picture’s roots as a veritable stage play (Tarantino intended to exorcise the project as a one-off live read after his screenplay leaked in early 2014) are essential to its riches. The cast is so in tune with the material and each other that they’re afforded laser-like focus on the moment, whether amidst picturesque snow-covered foothills or the movie’s main setting: a cozy, mountainside haberdashery. Minnie’s, to be precise.

As the titular ne’er-do-wells slowly assemble inside Minnie’s to wait out a nasty blizzard (emphasis on slowly), Tarantino builds up his characters’ devotion to their own worst instincts to the point of near hysteria. Each engenders reason for suspicion; each marks the auteur’s ever-tricky balance beam act between patience and self-indulgence; no one does this better than Samuel L. Jackson.

Jackson is the picture’s de facto lead as former Union Major Marquis Warren – an antihero for the ages – and it’s simply the actor’s finest hour(s). He’s so good in the role that it downgrades his past work to “good, but not ‘Hateful Eight’ good,” shattering all preconceptions of his talent and what a film protagonist can be.

Jennifer Jason Leigh is every bit Jackson’s equal as Daisy Domergue, the mysterious captive at the heart of the story. To give away the character’s arc would be treasonous, but she begins the film as a battered prisoner of brutish bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and ends up something else entirely. It’s a devilish, dynamic turn that hits on comedy, physicality, and musicality all, and if not for a show-stopping monologue from Jackson, her tune on an acoustic guitar would steal the show.

Walton Goggins lends the film its third dynamite performance as Sheriff Chris Mannix, a racist scumbucket whose prejudices ultimately frame the narrative. As the action rises and the grotesquerie of all involved balloons into a murder-mystery, Mannix necessarily serves as the needle. His isn’t a story of redemption, but redemption’s inbred, sociopathic cousin, making for one of Tarantino’s most memorable characters to date.

That’s not to mention fine performances from Kurt Russell (doing his best bizarro John Wayne), Bruce Dern (as a grizzled Confederate General), Tim Roth (finally reuniting with Tarantino after twenty years), Demian Bichir, and Michael Madsen. There are other actors on hand – including a thirty-something superstar who turns in a fun extended cameo – but they’re inherently tangential to the central octet.

The way Tarantino finds unlikely foes and unlikelier allies among his leads is nothing short of hypnotizing, underlined by Ennio Morricone’s ominous score. In fact, the pic’s external music cues (a poorly placed White Stripes song is a prime offender) beg us to imagine a world where “Basterds” and “Django Unchained” were made with original Morricone scores. Tarantino’s taste for pop songs is one of the few weak links here, but the Roy Orbison track that accompanies the end credits is a nice recovery.

The first act’s geriatric pace will be a hurdle for some viewers, as will the unrelenting tide of crimson that comes in acts two and three. And the script is cynical, fatalistic in a way that will make others squirm in their seats. But these are all reasons why the movie comes together so well, why it steps over so many of its creator’s previous works on its way to the near-top of his filmography.

It’s a tonal wonder, juggling lightness and darkness with the grace of a prima ballerina, perfecting what the frequently uneven “Django Unchained” couldn’t. Where that film stumbled back and forth between brutality and irreverence, this one dead-eyes the center of its target, doling out sharp social commentary that’s at once playful and deviant.

“The Hateful Eight” is what people mean by the word “visionary.” It’s as compelling an example of an artist bringing his or her complete vision to the screen as any this year and it simply demands to be seen – preferably in its 70mm Roadshow format, complete with overture, intermission, and too-cool souvenir program.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: December 25, 2015 (Limited)
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Demian Bichir, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern
MPAA Rating: R (for strong bloody violence, a scene of violent sexual content, language and some graphic nudity)