What’s he done this time? As a filmmaker who creates experiences that aren’t remotely like anything else out there, Quentin Tarantino has earned the curiosity. Like ’em or loathe ’em, Tarantino’s movies exist in their own distinctive, vacuum-packed world, strange missives from an unfettered imagination. He’s unfettered because his movies keep making money, but I wonder what the faithful will think of The Hateful Eight, a typically outrageous but even-chattier-than-usual extravaganza. Most of the film’s 187 minutes (with an intermission) take place inside a snowed-in frontier trading post, although the scenes outside Minnie’s Haberdashery are just as talkative and—despite the Western vistas in the background—claustrophobic.
Bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell, as attached to fur coats as Cate Blanchett is in Carol ) is transporting a valuable prisoner, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), so she can be properly hanged. Ruth’s stagecoach reluctantly picks up a colleague, Marquise Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), and a small-town sheriff, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins, the film’s secret weapon), before the blizzard sets in and Minnie’s provides shelter. But not much comfort: A bedraggled group of strangers waits there, and something seems wrong from the start—where’s Minnie? Is somebody in cahoots with Daisy, waiting to get the drop on Ruth? And why is the coffee so bad? (This being a Tarantino movie, the coffee thing has multiple ramifications we can’t possibly predict at first.)
Tarantino bounces these disreputable varmints off one another like the puppetmaster at a blood-soaked Punch and Judy show. The abuse heaped on Daisy gets less funny every time somebody clobbers her, and I had the nagging feeling that the usual Tarantino soliloquies were not quite as soaring as usual, not quite as precisely sculpted to find mad poetry in the profane. (Granted, Marquise has one monologue that vies with Christopher Walken’s Pulp Fiction pocket-watch speech for sheer cuckoo-bird craziness.)
The other members of the unsavory octet are a lustily racist Confederate general (Bruce Dern), a Mexican ranch hand (Demian Bichir), an English hangman (Tim Roth), and a brooding cowboy (Michael Madsen). Strewn throughout the movie are pointed references to race and Manifest Destiny, but Tarantino is too confident to need to lecture us about it. This is a slyly anti-romantic Western by a filmmaker who loves Westerns; it makes you remember how the world’s most famous movie geek has actually been a debunker this whole time. What redeems the sourness of The Hateful Eight is its pleasure in yarn-spinning (and -tangling); the director himself is heard halfway through as an offscreen narrator, as though unable to resist horning in to relish the ways the plot details are beginning to pay off. Incorrigible.