After creating two loaded, sweeping films that revolved around historical atrocities, Quentin Tarantino circled back to his humble beginnings with “The Hateful Eight” — putting a group of degenerate strangers in a room together, and letting them rip each other apart like starving piranhas. Well, that is, after they’ve had a chance to lie, plot, manipulate and tell each other drawn-out stories that sometimes end with brain matter hitting the wall.
The film opens in Wyoming, not too long after the Civil War, as a snowstorm is about to hit. An aging bounty hunter, John Ruth (Kurt Russell), is transporting fugitive Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock. They stumble across former Union Officer turned bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and rebel bushwhacker supposedly turned sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins). Ruth reluctantly agrees to give them both a ride to Minnie’s Haberdashery, a lodge where they can wait out the weather. When they get there, a man claiming to be in charge tells them Minnie has rode to see her mother. From there, it becomes a long, tense game of who’s who and who wants what.
“The Hateful Eight” is like a roided-out version of “Reservoir Dogs.” Tarantino’s eighth film is bigger, bolder and more full-of-itself than his 1992 debut, although its muscular approach never quite moves with the agility of his classic. The plot sometimes drunkingly wobbles around, bouncing from idea to idea, and only filling in parts of stories, but that’s also the point — the narrative is working off the memories and perspectives of the characters, who are all all deeply flawed, unreliable, volatile and opportunistic people. And the selective memory, obliviousness and mythology gives the story a really human heartbeat.
“The Hateful Eight” definitely isn’t Tarantino’s best movie, but it’s still a good one. While its ambition often renders it slow and clunky, it also delivers some of the director’s most rewarding singular moments, a haunting score from Ennio Morricone, sharp cinematography from Robert Richardson, plus a magnetic performance from Leigh. She’s satanic and ominous as Domergue. Cracking fucked-up jokes and spouting death promises while being used as a punching bag by Ruth, Domergue has presence. Her plan of action is bubbling just beneath the surface, ready to find a weak spot in the situation.
The Lincoln letter is also a fantastic plot device, washed in contemporary social commentary. Major Warren carries a letter in his pocket, claiming that Abraham Lincoln sent it to him during the war. Ruth adores it. And he seems to respect Warren. But, when it comes out that the letter was forged, Ruth starts to mirror the racist sentiments of the other characters.
“I know, I’m the only black son of a bitch that you’ve ever conversed with, so I’m going to cut you some slack, but you got no idea what it’s like being a black man facing down America,” Warren says, as he tells Ruth that the letter is something that keeps him safe, because it disarms (some) racist aggression. Ruth doesn’t understand, because he can’t understand his own privilege.
Something that beautifully drives “The Hateful Eight” is that nobody has a hero arc. It’s actually quite the opposite: the more we learn about each character, the more morally corrupt we learn they are. Everyone has a dark past and sketchy motives, and they all have a killer instinct. Meaning there’s only one way it can end.
Everyone dies. Everyone’s story ends. The only open-ended aspect is who will find them when the snow melts.