No one writes so beautifully for the unique bravado of Samuel L. Jackson as Quentin Tarantino. You might say the former owes his career to the latter, or vice versa. That's how integral this collaboration -- seven films to date -- has become. But with "The Hateful Eight," Tarantino finally may have delivered his friend the Oscar win that's eluded him for 30 years, since Jackson earned a supporting nod for "Pulp Fiction."
Like Tarantino's other films, "The Hateful Eight" plays as an ardent fan letter to genre, in this case mashing up Western iconography and characters with whodunnit tropes and an explosive splash of exploitation-style carnage. But really, it's a showcase for Jackson, who's given scenes of sharp comedy, outlandish action, tense political commentary and one big, fat show-stopping monologue sure to make drama students drool for decades.
Yet "The Hateful Eight" is an ensemble. Set in post-Civil War Wyoming, the Western sees a misfit band of folks trapped by a blizzard in a humble shelter. But tensions run high once bounty hunter John "The Hangman" Ruth (a lively Kurt Russell) turns up with the doomed Daisy Domergue (an electric Jennifer Jason Leigh), who's set to hang as soon as they reach their destination. The price on her head is so high that Ruth is beyond paranoid, needling each stranger about what brought them to this fateful point. Meanwhile, racial tensions brew between a black bounty hunter (Jackson) and a pair of Confederates (Walton Goggins and Bruce Dern) still spitting mad about the war's outcome. So, as the storm rages outside, conflict builds within. And as we've come to expect from a Tarantino movie, there will be blood, and plenty of it.
At 168 minutes, "The Hateful Eight" relishes in its run time, indulging in dubious yarns, furious rants and lie-laced banter. As the eight collide in assorted conversations, the audience gets to play detective, picking out clues as Tarantino rolls into his big finale.
The filmmaker has always had a keen eye for casting, and this ensemble is marvelous, cooking a stew of suspense, lunacy and star power that's downright delicious. Russell, accompanied by an epic beard, stomps onto the scene with the command of a storied general, and makes for one shocking son of a bitch as he bullies shelter mates and brutally and frequently pummels his captive, Domergue. Leigh brings plenty of grit to the sloppy, often blood-splattered woman, making her a perfect match for the macho men who surround her. However, the actress' real triumph is in the sly smirks and stealthy glances she shoots with better precision than these gunslingers manage.
Goggins is a surprising delight, dropping his intimidation shtick to play a dopey, racist, yet strangely affable, sheriff. Michael Madsen mutely exudes menace, and Demian Bichir grumbles comically, while Dern wields his eyebrows as a dramatic weapon. James Park offers a charismatic turn as a thankless stage coach driver, and Channing Tatum pops in as a wildly fun yet dissonant presence, which might well be the point. Resigned to the posh, eccentric foreigner role that was clearly written for "Django Unchained's" Christoph Waltz, Tim Roth gamely does his best impression, which is so dead-on I had to keep reminding myself Waltz was not in this movie. Then there's Jackson.
The first act would have you believe his Major Marquis Warren is merely a supporting character, as Jackson has been in nearly every Tarantino outing. But the film begins on his stark figure amid the big snow-covered world; his coat, lined with an eye-catching stripe of yellow, marks him as a standout from the get-go. By the completion of the aforementioned monologue, audiences realize this is an ensemble piece, sure, but it's Jackson's big moment. He channels his badass persona into an epic speech, cracking out a charismatic yet crooked smile with restraint, accenting his most sinister barbs. "A black man in white hell" -- as one chapter heading proclaims him -- Marquis may sit silent during parts of the film, but Jacksons presence is never forgotten, his eyes so alive that they pull focus from his co-stars without trying. And then, in a big and bloody finale, he laces in comedy, pathos and exasperation with wild-eyed stares, howls and biting one-liners.
So, all in all, the performances are fantastic. However, the movie itself left me unsatisfied. Why? First off, a minor complaint I have is its waste of 70mm film. Filmmakers often employ this aspect ratio -- twice as wide as a standard movie -- to establish massive landscapes, underlying the horrible peril of the small human lost in its clutches. (Think "Lawrence of Arabia" or "2001: A Space Odyssey.") Or, it's used as a means to allow for grander action spectacle, be it the dance numbers of "West Side Story" or the chariot races of "Ben Hur." Yet most of "The Hateful Eight" takes place in a one-room shack with no action sequences that make memorable use of the luxurious frame. Sure, there's an execution scene among outstretched hills thick with snow that's positively striking in this format, but overall, I was disappointed after so much hubbub over Tarantino's use of 70mm. More vexing, Tarantino's lust for language, coarse whimsy and sensational violence is crudely integrated into his ambitious thriller.
I saw the film complete with an intermission that lasted 12 minutes. Tarantino set sup a darkly comic and dangerous mystery, then punctuates the act break with a gruesome plot point. During this intermission, I reveled in Ennio Morricone acclaimed score, and counted the minutes before "The Hateful Eight's" sure-to-be fantastic second half. But when Tarantino dives back in, he does so with a bizarre flourish. Out of nowhere, here's a narrator, jaunty in tone, informing us we may have missed something in that last scene. So his voiceover takes us back, talking us through a key development.
It feels like Tarantino does Wes Anderson, which is jarring to say the least. And this off-kilter sensation is only enhanced by the abrupt spiral into midnight movie-style violence. Basically, these two halves are painfully disjointed, which left me considering at the closing credits whether I actually liked "The Hateful Eight." I mean, the first half is stupendous, funny and intense, but the second half made me feel like I'd walked back into the wrong theater.
All the same, Tarantino devotees have reason to rejoice. "The Hateful Eight" is dizzyingly uneven, yet still so full of style, spectacle and superb performances it's well worth its journey.
"The Hateful Eight" opens Dec. 25 in limited release, and wider on Jan. 1.