“The Hateful Eight” is Quentin Tarantino’s second Western in a row, and while it’s not as audacious or as provocative or as brutally violent as “Django Unchained,” it’s still an exhilarating movie-going experience, filled with wickedly dark humor, nomination-worthy performances and a jigsaw-puzzle plot that keeps us guessing until the bloody, brilliant end.
With touches of Sam Peckinpah and John Ford, John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and even a bit of Agatha Christie, “The Hateful Eight” is a movie that loves other movies. Of course, Ennio Morricone (“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” “Once Upon a Time in the West”) does the perfect score. Who else would Tarantino select?
“The Hateful Eight” begins with some breathtaking shots of post-Civil War Wyoming, with Kurt Russell as a bounty hunter named John “The Hangman” Ruth transporting the notorious killer and gang leader Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock, the town where she’ll be hanged for her crimes.
Along the way, John picks up a couple of passengers: Maj. Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a former Union soldier who’s now also a bounty hunter, and Red Rock’s new sheriff, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a cocky, loud-mouthed racist who fought for the South in the Civil War.
With a blizzard fast approaching, the quartet seeks shelter in a stagecoach stopping point called Minnie’s Haberdashery, and that’s where we meet the other half of the Hateful Eight:
A cowhand named Bob “The Mexican” (Demian Bichir), who says he’s in charge because Minnie and her husband are off visiting family.
Gen. Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a nasty old cuss with a fondness for the n-word.
Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), Red Rock’s new hangman.
A rough-edged cowpuncher named Joe Gage (Michael Madsen).
Once everyone is inside, we settle in for a slow build, filled with classic Tarantino-esque dialogue, with every one of the eight main characters getting more than one turn in the spotlight. The performances are uniformly excellent, most notably Leigh’s disturbingly batty work as the sociopathic Daisy, Goggins as the hilariously twisted Sheriff Mannix, Jackson as the strutting war hero who waves around a handwritten letter he received from Abraham Lincoln, and Russell as the chest-puffing bounty hunter who prides himself on always bringing in his prisoners alive, so they can be properly hanged.
This is a clever, sadistic wild bunch. Whenever a character sheds blood – and it’s hardly a spoiler alert to say there’s bloodshed in a Tarantino movie – others take great delight in watching someone suffer.
Save for a few flashbacks and brief forays into the blizzard, “The Hateful Eight” is anchored in that one big room. (The set design is almost a character unto itself, offering a few key clues to the unfolding mystery.)
The screenplay deserves co-star billing. As Tarantino peels back the layers of deceit and we learn the truth about everyone in the room, it’s just a bloody good time.
This is one of the best movies of the year.