The Hateful Eight ✮✮✮1/2

Once Upon a Time in Wyoming

by Glenn Lovell

“The Hateful Eight,” Quentin Tarantino’s latest exercise in comedic nihilism, may not be his best movie — “Pulp Fiction” still holds that distinction — but it rates an A- for audacity. Full of the director’s signature tropes, including lying flashbacks and a narrative that loops back on itself, this blood-gushing, typically overplayed oater owes equal debts to the revisionist Westerns of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, and — here’s a fun twist — Agatha Christie’s “Tejason.leigh_n Little Indians” whodunit.

Time: Christmas season, 1870s. Place: a snowbound trail and way-station leading to the town of Red Rock, Wyoming. The wounds of the Civil War still fester: there’s a lot of profanity-laced talk of Lincoln, slavery and battlefield atrocities. (Once again in Tarantino’s world the n-word is plied with alacrity — I stopped counting at 45 utterances.)

We open in spectacular fashion with panoramas of the silky, snow-driven Rockies. Caught in extreme long shot is a Butterfield stagecoach pulled by six horses. It bucks and rocks to beat the band. On board are legendary bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell, sporting walrus whiskers) and his prisoner, a cagey, “lowdown murdering bitch” who goes by the unlikely moniker Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Part coyote, part feral woman, Daisy runs off at the mouth a lot, and her warder rewards such sass with an elbow to the face. Daisy smiles, winks and lacks the (purple) blood hungrily from her chops.

Daisy knows Ruth stands for ruthless. If there’s any doubt, the three frozen corpses strapped to the stagecoach easily quells it.

As it plows through the snow, the stage is hailed first by Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a Civil War hero turned bounty hunter, and then by Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who introduces himself as Red Rock’s new sheriff. Both men lost their mounts in the blizzard, or so they say.

Ruth doesn’t buy either story. He pegs them for a pair of no-account varmints who aim to have his prisoner and pocket the $10,000 reward.

With a blizzard heading their way, the party of four, including driver O.B. (James Parks), takes shelter at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a large log cabin that doubles as provisions store and saloon. After they kick in the busted front door — a running joke that runs too long — they’re greeted by Mexican Bob (Demian Bichir), who says he’s watching things for the vacationing Minnie, and three others — a mama’s boy cowpuncher (a typically sullen Michael Madsen), an old Confederate general (a sedentary Bruce Dern), and a gentleman hangman (Tim Roth) who says he has an appointment with Daisy.

Yes, you’re right — the Wild Wild West as re-imagined by Tarantino is a mighty cramped place. Everybody seems to know everybody in this remote stretch of Wyoming.

Told in five chapters and backed by a rich, blaring score by the legendary Ennio Morricone (“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”), in structure “The Hateful Eight” plays out like a cross between Tarantino’s first feature, “Reservoir Dogs,” and John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” complete with howling wind, rope path to privy, and mounting paranoia.

Originally performed as a stage reading in a Los Angeles theater, this opened-up version still feels stagy, claustrophobic — an extended game of cat-and-mouse. Who’s on the level, who’s lying through his/her rotten, tobacco-stained teeth? Does someone in the party want to steal Daisy for the reward, or rescue her? Ruth being Ruth, he lets it be known from the get-go that everyone’s on his shit list, except maybe the driver.

Though like all Tarantino’s films wildly uneven in its scripting, “TH8” boasts a number of memorably anachronistic exchanges. The opening back-and-forths between Russell, Jackson and the scene-stealing Leigh are especially amusing. Russell, who seems single-handedly bent on reviving the Western (see him in this year’s earlier “Bone Tomahawk”), punctuates his best rejoinder with an exaggerated swipe of his lavish mustache. Later, as they stable the horses, a suspicious Jackson and an easily offended Bichir as Senõr Bob size each other up. It’s an edgy, slowly escalating bit, on a par with Jackson and Travolta’s 3rd degree of the double-crossing drug dealers in “Pulp Fiction.” I’ll leave you to make up your own mind about Jackson’s tale of the general’s son. Is it true, or vivid whopper meant to bait an old adversary?

Jackson, Russell, Goggins and Leigh are all standouts, especially Leigh, who, because her battered prisoner is kept on a short leash, must mug and bray her way through the proceedings. It’s a shocking-to-hilarious turn and definitely deserves an Oscar nod. It’s good to have Madsen and Dern back on screen, but they have too little to do and soon fade into the background. Roth is “jolly good” as the gentleman hangman, but I couldn’t help thinking that the role was originally meant for Tarantino regular Christoph Waltz.

The cinematography, especially for its John Ford-inspired proscenium-arch compositions and panoramic exteriors, is breathtakingly beautiful. Credit three-time Academy Award winner Robert Richardson for this. The rustic interior, complete with bar, fireplace and haberdashery, is by set designer Yohei Taneda (“Kill Bill: Vol. 1”). Both are Oscar-worthy.

I saw “The Hateful Eight” in one of its road-show venues, with all the holiday trimmings — overture, intermission, souvenir program, cobra-stripped Ultra Panavision 70 aspect ratio. Tarantino says he’s rolling out the film this way because he’s nostalgic for Hollywood’s old reserved-seat engagements, aka “event bookings.” The real reason of course is to build momentum for a tough-sell Western that has Oscar potential. Regardless of the motive, the Tarantino faithful will want to add this one to their year-end must-sees. It’s as startlingly revelatory as it is flawed, another notch on the viewfinder for the gunslinger-arrogant auteur.

THE HATEFUL EIGHT ✮✮✮1/2 With Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Demian Bichir, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern. Written, directed by Quentin Tarantino. 187 min. Rated R (for profanity, gun violence, projectile bloodletting, liberal use of n-word)

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