This almost didn’t happen. In January 2014, Quentin Tarantino’s script for The Hateful Eight—a tense, bloody Western, conceived in the style of Sergio Leone—was leaked to the Internet. Tarantino, livid, decided to shelf the film, blamed his friends for the leak and even sued Gawker Media for linking to the pirated script from one of its websites. But a live reading of the script prompted him to reconsider, and as a result of that whole mess, we get to see the writer-director’s best film since 1997’s Jackie Brown.
The Hateful Eight runs nearly three hours. (A “roadshow version,” which I’ll address momentarily, is slightly longer.) It has an overture and an intermission—a goddamn intermission, in an era when we can’t even get through an episode of The Big Bang Theory without checking our phones. And while bigger hasn’t necessarily spelled better for Tarantino in recent years (both Grindhouse and the Kill Bill films were noticeably overlong), Hateful never drags its feet or steps back to admire its own works. It is a tautly plotted, frankly gorgeous film that not only pays homage to the Westerns that inspired it, but adds a new chapter to any accounting of the genre.
The setup is as simple as they come. There are eight strangers—a former Union soldier (Samuel L. Jackson), a former Confederate general (Bruce Dern), a soft-spoken Latino (Demián Bichir), a British dandy (Tim Roth), an enigmatic cowhand (Michael Madsen), a simpering racist (Walton Goggins) and a bounty hunter (Kurt Russell) who’s handcuffed to a prisoner bound for the noose (Jennifer Jason Leigh). They all find themselves confined to a cabin in the wilds of Wyoming, trapped by a violent blizzard. And soon enough, words are exchanged—many, many exquisitely chosen words, in Tarantino’s inimitable style—and a lethal strain of cabin fever sets in.
To reveal more than that would be unfair to Tarantino’s work, which—like the new Star Wars film—deserves to be experienced without presuppositions. But it can be said that The Hateful Eight is an actor’s film, and in these eight actors (plus a surprise guest star who shows up in the film’s second half), Tarantino has one of the best ensembles he’s ever employed. There’s no stunt casting here (hello, Eli Roth), and the heavy lifting isn’t left to just one actor (hello, Christoph Waltz). Nearly everyone concerned adds an equal measure to the mayhem.
Put another way, Imagine if Inglourious Basterds’ Hans Landa, Pulp Fiction’s Marcellus Wallace and Kill Bill’s Elle Driver were all in the same room. Which of these indomitable personalities would come out alive? And should anyone live through that meeting? The Hateful Eight is what happens when Tarantino considers all the traits that make someone dangerous, assigns faces and names to those traits, and locks the door behind him. Not since Fiction has Tarantino’s dialogue crackled like this; not since Reservoir Dogs has he embraced this kind of quiet, close-quarters tension. And this film belongs in that distinguished company.
A word on format: Tarantino shot The Hateful Eight on 70 millimeter stock, a giant film format that hasn’t been in widespread use since the late 1960s. (2001: A Space Odyssey was shot in 70mm; also Lawrence of Arabia.) Even though much of Hateful Eight is set indoors, you should see the 70mm “roadshow version” of the film, which is screening only at AMC Town Square. It’s six minutes longer than the regular version, and it’s worth every extra second of runtime and every extra inch of screen. Early on, Tarantino gifts us with a slow-motion shot of horses trudging through snow while Ennio Morricone’s score swells underneath—and in that moment, you’re never more glad that this director’s ego fuels his ambitions. Had that script never leaked, The Hateful Eight might not have grown into an epic.
The Hateful Eight (R): ★★★★★