The Hateful Eight is and is not what you’d expect from master storyteller and director Quentin Tarantino. Most of Tarantino’s films are social commentary dressed in buckets of blood, with horrible people doing horrible things to other horrible people. With a title like Hateful Eight, you know you are not going to be sitting down to tea with Mary Poppins, but just who you are battening down with remains a mystery until the last 45 minutes of the movie.
The film takes place post Civil War, in the dead of winter, in the middle of nowhere, Wyoming. The endless backdrop of white, quite literally mountains of snow, is so predominant it is almost a character itself. A coach, carrying a bounty hunter, John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and Daisy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the woman he claims is a vicious killer, is on its way to a town called Red Rock, when it’s flagged down by Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), standing beside a pile of bodies. Turns out he is a bounty hunter too, also heading for Red Rock, and the inclement weather is proving to be too difficult to drag his haul (he prefers his bounty dead) by foot. He strikes a deal with Ruth to tag along and straps his three kills to the top of the coach.
What follows is talking. Lots and lots of talking. Tarantino is famous for his creative use of violence and gore but throughout the first part of the movie the only violence is Ruth’s abysmal treatment of Daisy. She already has a black eye, and during the coach ride she takes a pistol butt to the temple, and an elbow to the nose, clearly breaking it. While Ruth has said that she is a murderer, he never says who she has killed, so it’s quite possible she killed an abusive lover or husband. Ruth is obsessed with seeing her hang, something Warren just can’t understand (it’s easier to deal with the dead, who don’t talk.)
Along the way, it turns out Ruth knows Warren, and not only by reputation; to escape a notorious Confederate prison camp Warren burned the place down, not only killing rebels, but Yankees, too – including fellow Yanks of color. It’s also widely known that Warren carries a letter from Abraham Lincoln, whom he considers a friend.
Dialog is eventually broken by another freezing traveler, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), claiming to be the new Sheriff of…Red Rock. His horse has died, and he needs a way into town. After a bit of convincing – since he will be the Sheriff, he would be signing the document for Daisy’s hanging – he is allowed to join the by now crowded coach.
More dialogs ensue, and other than seeing Tarantino’s stable of actors and the use of chapter headings to break up the film, you begin to wonder where Tarantino is going with this film. It is definitely a slow burn, and the viewer needs a great deal of patience. The pace picks up a little when the travelers pull up at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a general goods way station. Warren has been there before, and knows Minnie, but the current occupants of the shelter claim Minnie and her family have gone north. Warren is suspicious, but as yet can’t find fault with the other occupants –a suave British hangman(Tim Roth), an old retired Confederate general (Bruce Dern), and the seemingly hapless Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), going home to see his mama for Christmas.
If you’re starting to smell a rat, it’s because you’re looking at eight people who aren’t called hateful for nothing. The slow burn explodes when the first body hits the floor. What follows is a tiny bit Agatha Christie (“And Then There Were None”) with a dash of Jean Paul Sartre (“Hell is Other People”) and finally, the creatively violent and gruesome Tarantino we’ve all come to know and love.
It is a long movie, clocking in at 187 minutes in the 70 millimeter Road Show version, and 167 minutes in wide release. It’s a film that, like many Tarantino films, plays with your head, and leaves you pondering and discussing and debating what truth was and what was not. All of the performances are excellent, including the few minutes that Zoe Bell is on-screen as Six Horse Judy, Dana Gourrier as Minnie, Lee Horsley as Ed, and a cameo by Channing Tatum that will make you completely forget about Magic Mike.
The Hateful Eight is, like most of Tarantino’s work, a matter of taste. Some will be disappointed, and some will want to see it again, and if you didn’t see the 70 mm Road Show cut (the Ultra Panavision 70mm presentation is an experience that hasn’t been done in movie theaters in over fifty years), you’ll want to find out what those additional twenty minutes contain. In any case, bring a sweater, because it is definitely stone cold in the middle of nowhere, Wyoming.