‘The Hateful Eight’: Quentin Tarantino’s exhilarating Western keeps us guessing

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Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to give us a three-hour, 70mm, roadshow Western, complete with overture and intermission — with much of the movie set indoors, in one spacious room, as if we’re watching a filmed stage play.

“The Hateful Eight” is Tarantino’s second Western in a row, and while it’s not as audacious or as provocative or as brutally violent as “Django Unchained,” it’s still an exhilarating moviegoing experience, filled with wickedly dark humor, nomination-worthy performances and a jigsaw puzzle plot that keeps us guessing until the bloody, brilliant end.

With touches of Sam Peckinpah and John Ford and John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and even a bit of Agatha Christie, “The Hateful Eight” is, like most Tarantino films, a movie that loves other movies. Of course Ennio Morricone (“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” “Once Upon a Time in the West”) does the absolutely perfect score. Who else would Tarantino select?

The gorgeous 70mm version of “The Hateful Eight” begins with some breathtaking shots of post-Civil War Wyoming, with Kurt Russell as a bounty hunter named John “The Hangman” Ruth transporting the notorious killer and gang leader Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock, the town where she’ll be hanged for her crimes.

Along the way, John picks up a couple of passengers: Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a former Union soldier who’s now also a bounty hunter, and Red Rock’s new sheriff, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a cocky, loud-mouthed racist who fought for the South in the Civil War.

With a blizzard fast approaching, the quartet seeks shelter in a stagecoach stopping point called Minnie’s Haberdashery, and that’s where we meet the other half of the Hateful Eight:

• A cowhand named Bob “The Mexican” (Demian Bichir), who says he’s in charge because Minnie and her husband are off visiting family.

• Gen. Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a nasty old cuss with a fondness for the n-word.

• Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), Red Rock’s new hangman.

• A rough-edged cowpuncher by the name of Joe Gage (Michael Madsen).

Once everyone is inside, we settle in for a slow build, filled with classic Tarantino-esque dialogue, with every one of the eight main characters getting more than one turn in the spotlight. The performances are uniformly excellent, most notably Jennifer Jason Leigh’s disturbingly batty work as the sociopathic Daisy, Walton Goggins as the hilariously twisted Sheriff Mannix, Samuel L. Jackson as the strutting war hero who waves around a handwritten letter he received from Abraham Lincoln and Kurt Russell as the chest-puffing bounty hunter who prides himself on always bringing in his prisoners alive, so they can be properly hanged.

Everybody in the room has a deep distrust of everybody else in the room. (Even though many of them have never met until the snowstorm brought them together, most of them have heard of each other.) They warily circle each other as if a gunfight might break out at any moment. Mobray the Hangman suggests dividing the room between former Union soldiers and former Rebels, the better to avoid someone getting killed.

This is a clever, sadistic wild bunch. Major Warren delights in horrifying the hateful general with a story (that may or may not be true) about the fate of the general’s beloved son. John the Hangman takes the handcuffs off Daisy so she can play the guitar and sing a little ditty, which turns out to be a hilarious slam at the Hangman. Whenever a character sheds blood — and it’s hardly a spoiler alert to say there’s bloodshed in a Tarantino movie —others take great delight in watching someone suffer.

Save for a few flashbacks and brief forays into the blizzard, “The Hateful Eight” is anchored in that one big room. (The set design is almost a character unto itself, offering a few key clues to the unfolding mystery.) A la “Reservoir Dogs,” Tarantino places a group of colorful, violent characters in a confined space, and not everyone is who they appear to be.

It takes a long time for the truth to be revealed, and no doubt some viewers will grow impatient with a three-hour movie that’s about 90 percent dialogue and 10 percent action, but Tarantino’s screenplay is rich with obscenity-laced, often deeply funny and occasionally even inspirational and patriotic dialogue. What a treat to see an eclectic cast featuring the 79-year-old Bruce Dern, whose career spans all the way back to 1960s TV shows such as “Route 66” and “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,” and Walton Goggins, best known for roles on the TV series “Justified” and “Sons of Anarchy.”

Jennifer Jason Leigh is handed a plum role and she knocks it out of the park. Tarantino favorites Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Madsen and Tim Roth are outstanding. (The 64-year-old Russell, who has never been nominated for an Oscar, could nab a best supporting actor nod.) Bichir is terrific comedic relief as Bob the Mexican.

The screenplay deserves co-star billing. As Tarantino peels back the layers of deceit and we learn the truth about everyone in the room, it’s just a bloody good time.

This is one of the best movies of the year.

[s3r star=4/4]

The Weinstein Co. presents a film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Running time: 187 minutes. Rated R (for strong bloody violence, a scene of violent sexual content, language and some graphic nudity). Opens Friday at local theaters.

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