"The Hateful Eight" (hereinafter H8fl8) is Quentin Tarantino's eighth film (depending on how you count, and depending on which Tarantino films in his oeuvre are counted). It's the tale of a blizzardy night in Wyoming during which a group of people, most on their way to the town of Red Rock, find themselves trapped inside a stagecoach lodge called Minnie's Haberdashery. The film stars Samuel Jackson as Major Marquis ("markwiss") Warren, Kurt Russell as John "The Hangman" Ruth, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Ruth's prisoner Daisy Domergue ("Dahmer-goo," not the French "do-mairg"), Walton Goggins as the putative Sheriff Chris Mannix, and Damián Bichir as Bob the cryptic Mexican. Tarantino regulars Tim Roth and Michael Madsen also appear, along with hoary legend Bruce Dern and blushing Tarantino-newbie Channing Tatum. Superpowered stuntwoman Zoë Bell, her Kiwi accent in full flower, has a minor role. 1980s heartthrob Lee Horsley—looking unrecognizably old—also has a part, as does James Parks, son of chameleonic actor Michael Parks, who played two roles in the "Kill Bill" movies—those of a sheriff and a Mexican drug lord.
A carriage is seen chugging through the snow, trying to stay ahead of an oncoming blizzard. Inside the carriage are bounty hunter John Ruth and his prisoner Daisy Domergue; OB (Parks) is driving. The carriage is forced to stop and eventually pick up Major Warren, another bounty hunter who is trying to take three frozen bodies into Red Rock to collect his massive $8,000 bounty.* It turns out that Warren and Ruth remember each other; Ruth cautiously invites Warren into the carriage, and the band heads to Minnie's Haberdashery, the closest place to hole up for the duration of the blizzard.
During the long ride, we quickly learn that Ruth and Warren were on the Northern side while Daisy was a Southern partisan who doesn't hesitate to call Warren a "nigger" every chance she gets. In return for these epithets, Daisy gets her face smashed in with brutal frequency by Ruth, and sometimes, evil creature that she is, she seems to enjoy the attention. Ruth also expresses curiosity about a letter that Warren possesses: it's correspondence from Abraham Lincoln himself. Warren and Lincoln were apparently pen pals, you see, and to Ruth, this letter is almost talismanic in nature (there's more about the letter further into the story). We also find out that Ruth is called "The Hangman" because, instead of killing his quarry, he always brings them in alive for hanging, and he always stays to witness the executions.
A bit farther along the path, another passenger is picked up: Chris Mannix, a militiaman who fought for the Southern "Lost Cause," now claiming to be the new sheriff of Red Rock, which ostensibly makes him the man who will pay both Ruth and Warren their bounties. Thus our first group of characters arrives at Minnie's Haberdashery, just ahead of the blizzard, and at the lodge itself we meet our other group. There's sullen, silent General Sanford "Sandy" Smithers (Dern), an old Confederate; Oswaldo Mobray (Roth), a cheerful British man claiming to be Red Rock's current hangman; John Gage (Madsen), a man claiming only to be a cowpoke writing his memoirs; and Bob, an unreadable Mexican who claims to be watching the place while Minnie is away.
That's the setup, and it takes a while to reach this point. I don't want to spoil the rest of the film, but suffice it to say that some of these folks know each other; some are secretly working together; and there are folks we don't initially see who play significant roles later on. For me, one of the central questions was whether Daisy was going to end up outsmarting everyone and getting away, escaping into the blizzard to a dubious fate. There are whodunit tropes at work here, too: coffee gets poisoned; plush armchairs are uncovered, revealing bloodstains and causing suspicions about who exactly is running Minnie's Haberdashery (and where the hell Minnie herself is); wounds from the recent North-South conflict (the movie takes place some time after the Civil War) are scratched hard and reopened.
All the Tarantino tropes are there: black humor, sudden and explosive violence, snatches of the French language, overuse of the N-word, nonlinear narrative, Mexican standoffs, and even Tim Roth on the ground, writhing in pain the way he did back in "Reservoir Dogs." (I wonder if Roth felt his career had come full circle.) To that extent, the movie felt instantly familiar. Plus, this effort followed hard on the heels of "Django Unchained," so we're still in Tarantino's version of a Western. We haven't left the genre. Yet.
The plot takes a long time to build, but once the momentum is there, the story picks up and gains interest, especially as the viewer finds himself morbidly trying to predict who's going to live and who's going to die—and how. The patterns of interaction between the characters is also fascinating: while there aren't any true friendships, there are alliances and associations that shift as erratically as the currents of trust and suspicion gusting randomly among the group members. By the time the cast's numbers are whittled down to only three, the two characters who are united against the third character are a most unlikely pair (with only two testicles between them).
Most of the movie feels like a stage play, mainly because most of it takes place inside the haberdashery. It's Sartre's Huis Clos, but with guns and knives and poison, and hell is definitely other people. This sort of ambiance makes everything a bit more intimate. Strangely enough, the stage design is capacious and intricate, and much of the haberdashery goes unused: the action is confined to just a few principal areas. That's not an insight I had during my viewing of the film; the intuition came to me only later. Not that I really mind all the wasted space; when you make a movie, a lot of ideas are thrown onto the screen, and only some of them get used with any measure of thoroughness.
I mentioned how familiar the movie felt, but it's important to note that H8fl8 differs from other recent Tarantino flicks in one major respect: it's not about revenge. Oh, no, Precious. If anything, it's a return to Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs" roots: it's not revenge, but rather money, mutual suspicion, and plans gone awry that dominate. Arguably at the center of it all, pulling strings without pulling strings, is Daisy Domergue, a little black hole of evil, an attractive force that drags everything into its sinister ambit.
So let's talk about the screenwriting and the acting. Tarantino is known for having an ear for dialogue, but I think he's at his best with modern repartee; his attempts at capturing various 1880s-era dialects aren't nearly as assured as what he can do in a modern urban setting. There are, of course, the usual orotund speeches (I think Tarantino would be a great choice for adapting Tom Robbins's novels: Robbins, too, likes to make his characters give sermons), including the most magnificent speech in the movie, delivered with triumphantly evil glee by Samuel Jackson's Marquis Warren as he describes a very, very bad thing he did to the son of one of the people in the lodge. Jackson isn't an actor with a lot of range: like Clint Eastwood and Gene Hackman, he tends to play himself no matter what film he's in. But like Eastwood and Hackman, Jackson is excellent within the narrow range he inhabits, and in this film—a film in which he finally gets top billing—he's marvelous, and he really should have been nominated for an Oscar. Jennifer Jason Leigh, who is Hollywood's go-to gal whenever they need an actress to play a weirdo or whacko, does her best possessed-Linda-Blair impression throughout the story. She's accused of being a murderess many times over, and we never get to see her massacring folks (although she does end up shooting one guy in self-defense), but she very effectively radiates evil, and it's nearly impossible to look away from her. I had more trouble with the spoken performances by Kurt Russell and Walton Goggins: their accents and cadence felt weird and exaggerated. Russell seemed to be doing a John Wayne impression, and Goggins's country-boy accent was obnoxiously in-your-face for most of the film before it resolved itself into something quieter by the final reel.
Unfortunately, I saw "The Hateful Eight" on my tiny laptop's monitor, which means that all the gorgeous retro-style Panavision cinematography (I think Colorado stood in for Wyoming) was lost on me. Ennio Morricone was persuaded to come back and score this film (he'd apparently had enough of Tarantino after "Django"), and he ended up winning both a Golden Globe and an Oscar for his work (some of which, ironically, was recycled from his old, unused sheet music for films like "The Thing"). Personally, I found Morricone's music obnoxious and intrusive at times; it was a relief when most of the lodge's interior shots were done without any music at all. Silence can sometimes be its own reward.
Overall, because the movie started slowly and built itself steadily up over time, I wasn't too thrilled about the beginning, but I did warm up to the plot as events rolled along. While "The Hateful Eight" lacks the intensity of films like "Pulp Fiction" or "Reservoir Dogs," it exudes its own miasma of morbid fascination, with JJ Leigh's Daisy Domergue as the gravitational center, the axis around which all the characters eventually turn. I recommend the movie; a bit like a cancer, it'll grow on you.
*The video's trivia notes remark that this sum is anachronistically high: it would be the equivalent of several hundred thousand dollars today.