By the director’s eighth feature film, Tarantino aficionados are well aware of the filmmaker’s clever, often repetitive but nonetheless stylistically conversational, brand of dialogue. Fans have become so revered by it, in fact, that a live cast reading of The Hateful 8 script last year seemingly confirmed Tarantino’s penmanship alone could sustain audiences’ attention during a 3-hour, western whodunit, taking place almost exclusively in an all but cozy Wyoming cabin. The isolated, Broadway-viable setting was something Tarantino dabbled in with an abandoned warehouse in his debut hit, Reservoir Dogs, yet compared to seven films ago, the director’s second western boasts a running time nearly twice as long and with half as many flashbacks providing scenic variety. It’s a decision only a filmmaker as celebrated as Tarantino can get a way with – admittedly the claustrophobic setting does pay off once tensions start to flare – but until well past the 100-minute mark of this 167-minute investment, cabin fever has unfortunately already began to set in.
During those 167 minutes, or 187 for the 70mm Roadshow version, The Hateful 8 sees eight post-Civil War strangers crammed into a haberdashery, Minnie’s to be precise, while braving a blinding blizzard howling away outside. Only one of these strangers, however, posses a $10,000 bounty chained to his wrist; an outlaw named Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who he, John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), intends to bring in alive in the name of true justice. Henceforth, John is suspicious of just about everyone, including the passengers he picked up along the way: Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a fellow bounty hunter, and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a man who claims to be the new Sheriff of Red Rock, and one John’s forced to believe if it means a hefty payday.
Questions begin to rise almost immediately upon arriving at the haberdashery, where a Mexican, by the name Señor Bob (Demian Bichir), has been entrusted with Minnie’s, while neither Minnie herself (Dana Gourrier, revealed in a flashback) nor her husband ‘Sweet’ Dave (Gene Jones) are anywhere to be seen. Occupying the cabin, rather, are Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth doing a poor man’s Christoph Waltz), who’s an actual hangman, Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a quiet gun, and former Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern). Despite suspicion, the evening progresses smoothly, though Warren’s nifty letter from Abraham Lincoln does little to diffuse the possibility of an in-house Civil War part 2 against the so-called Sheriff and the respected general he was fighting on the battlefield no more than a few years ago. But all is nearly forgotten when the stagecoach driver O.B. (James Parks) dies from a poisoned cup of coffee, suddenly turning everyone into a suspect. Who’s trying to steal Daisy? And who’s walking out alive?
It’s these questions that create an omnipresent atmosphere of bluffs and tall tales—heightened by, but not limited to, the slow-simmering, closed environment—where the door is literally nailed shut, and we’re stuck with these characters just as much as they’re stuck with each other. Unfortunately, the majority of this Western ensemble aren’t terribly interesting or memorable, with even less being particularly likeable. Who says you can’t be hateful and decent? That said, “The Hangman” was still the most compelling and important player in regards to his unemotional sense of justice, which comes back around in one of Tarantino’s bloodiest climaxes yet whilst pronouncing the film’s already caffeinated screwball elements. None of that final act, however, or the film for that matter, would have been as erratic without Leigh’s surprisingly delectable performance. Initially mum and marred, the actress still manages to convey a distinct arrogance whether she’s spitting on Warren’s letter or silently miming her own hanging. Yet, it’s that aforementioned three-fourths point, aptly titled “Domergue’s Got a Secret,” where the film and Leigh’s performance really begin to sizzle. Picking up an acoustic guitar, an unexpected, though cynically-motivated tenderness emits during a brief tune, before the actress finally unveils the latent insanity–erupting in full and foul form, and, in my books, takes the cake for best supporting actress of 2015.
Naturally, being Tarantino’s second Western and directly following the film, comparisons to 2012’s Django Unchained, will be difficult to stifle—especially when considering a likely significant box office drop from audiences expecting another ‘Candyland’ shootout. In that respect, and many others, The Hateful 8 is adamant in distancing itself from its predecessor. The “molasses-like” pace and unnecessarily lengthy run time are constantly referenced, no more apparent when Warren sits at a table with the bullets laid out and his gun unloaded, exclaims, “lets slow it way down.” Speed aside, Tarantino uses the post-Civil War setting to explore different perspectives, such as prejudices against Mexicans and Natives; cross-race relationships, a highlight being a playfully crude scene where Minnie and Sweet Dave talk about how fat her ass is; and trading the southern heat for a raging white-out of Wyoming blizzard—put to ghastly use in a The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly torture walk reference, except with the director’s explicitly provocative touch that would feel sacrilege in the hands of any other than Tarantino’s.