(The following review is free of spoilers.)
Tarantino fans expecting to see a full-blown Western from him that resembles something like his own Django Unchained or any of the Sergio Leone films should think twice before watching his latest because that’s not what you are going to get. What he has made here is a classic “traitors-among-us” locked room mystery drama populated with characters that you would normally expect to see in Westerns and if it weren’t for his verbose characters or novelistic storytelling, I could’ve easily mistook it for a film made by some other director. The haunting Ennio Morricone score that accompanies the film’s opening sequence brings with it an eerie sense of foreboding and as with any Tarantino film, you can expect things to go very,very wrong in the end and it’s all delivered in a manner that I hadn’t seen before. Tarantino has cited John Carpenter’s The Thing and Agatha Christie stories as some of his primary influences on the film and it’s clearly evident here right from the opening sequence.
A stagecoach strives it’s way through the cold, desolate-looking snowy landscape of Wyoming. A strong blizzard is about to hit and everyone is in a hurry to find a safe and warm shelter somewhere nearby. The two occupants inside the coach are John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) and Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Domergue is a murder convict who is being escorted by Ruth to a place called Red Rock so that he can ensure that she is hung for her crimes. On the way, they pick up a Major Marquis Warren (Samuel Jackson) an African-American Union soldier-turned-bounty hunter. An initially suspicious Ruth recognizes Warren from before and agrees to give him a lift. They then come across another lost man on the way, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) who tells them that he is going to be the new Sheriff of Red Rock. Again, initial suspicion gives way to recognition and they soon find themselves travelling together to Red Rock. They arrive at Minnie’s Haberdashery where they are met with a few unsavory characters who may or may not be who they say they are.
Racial tensions, nasty backstories, poisoned coffee and a murder are slowly uncovered and all these bring forth a simmering resentment between the main characters. Rest assured, blood will be shed and it wouldn’t be a Tarantino film without a customary Mexican stand-off scene. Dialogues, tropes and props from some of his previous films show up here as well (a character mentions Red Apples tobacco and another character “bleeds like a stuck pig”). The Hateful Eight is a small-scale story given the epic treatment. Do I think it’s a good film? Yes. Do I think it’s one of Tarantino’s best? Definitely not and I’ll give you my reasons. The running time could’ve been a bit shorter as some of the characters’ presence doesn’t make any sense, for example, Michael Madsen’s. His character could’ve been completely omitted and the story wouldn’t lose anything. I felt that Tarantino simply chose to cast him just to give people the feeling that this is going to be another Reservoir Dogs. But that film this is not. Madsen’s role is not as memorable as the one in RD (and now that I’ve brought up RD, I have to say that this film suffers from some of the same problems that RD does). Some parts of the narrative work well while others don’t.
Some of the other characters don’t make a strong impression either but at least they are not as insubstantial as Madsen’s. The only exception is Walton Goggins who is the stand out performer among them all. Samuel Jackson is good as usual and so is Jennifer Jason Leigh. As always, Tarantino isn’t in a hurry and takes his own sweet time unraveling the plot. It’s only from Chapter 4 that things really start to get heated up and this is where Tarantino himself appears in the form of a voice-over but it’s not overdone though. The director’s trademark ultra-violence is on full display here but it’s nothing that you haven’t seen before in any of his previous films. Also present is the usual Tarantino-esque dark humor that has now become one of the defining characteristics of every film of his. However, I still am having a hard time figuring out why he chose to shoot a film like this in 70mm, a format that is usually preferred by filmmakers for shooting large scale epics. Director Nicholas Ray famously shot his suburban family drama Bigger Than Life in Cinemascope and there is a reason why he did that but the use of the anamorphic format here doesn’t quite make sense to me.