“The Hateful Eight” calls itself Quentin Tarantino’s eighth movie, but that’s only true if you count the two “Kill Bills” as one or don’t count “Death Proof” at all (either method is acceptable). Fudging the truth to make the story better is second nature to a raconteur like QT, and his populates his movies with people who reflect that. It’s especially true of “Hateful Eight” — which really has nine characters (“Hateful Nine” doesn’t have the same ring to it) — almost all of whom are fabulists, exaggerators, or flat-out liars. They’re Tarantino’s kind of people, and not just because they love the N-word.
Our setting, filmed in glorious 70mm widescreen Cinerama®, is rural Wyoming several years after the end of the Civil War. Trying to outrun an impending blizzard, a black Union officer, Maj. Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), now a bounty hunter, catches a ride with a colleague, John Ruth (Kurt Russell), who’s heading to town with a prisoner to see her hanged. Yes, her: she’s Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a murderous, spiteful, slightly insane Southern woman who we are led to understand deserves every inch of the noose that awaits her. Still, we cringe every time John Ruth punches her, which is often, and usually at her own provoking.
These three, along with stalwart stagecoach driver O.B. (James Parks), are joined by Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a proud Rebel racist who says he’s actually the new sheriff of the town they’re headed for. They end up snowed in at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a way station in the mountains. Minnie is nowhere to be found; she seems to have left the place in the care of Mexican Bob (Demian Bichir). Three other travelers are already there when we arrive: English chap Oswaldo Mobrey (Tim Roth), the very hangman Daisy is destined to meet; taciturn cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen); and Gen. Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), an old Confederate coot who has come to Wyoming in search of his missing son.
Well, the war may be over, but the issues between North and South have not yet been sorted. Gen. Smithers and Sheriff Mannix have plenty to talk about, and neither wants anything to do with Maj. Warren — not just because of his race (though that’s 80 percent of it), but because of certain anti-Confederate deeds he committed during the war. John Ruth doesn’t care about any of that and just wants to keep tabs on his prisoner until the weather clears.
The rest of the men’s attitudes and loyalties vary between the two extremes represented by Samuel L. Jackson’s Marquis (pronounced “Mark-wes”) Warren and Walton Goggins’ Chris Mannix — and it really is these two who emerge as the main characters of the story, not Warren and John Ruth like you’d think. Warren and Mannix are opposites with a lot of parallels, soldiers turned lawmen(-ish) who have killed more men than they had to, war or no war, and who are convinced of their righteousness. Jackson and Goggins give boisterous, energetic performances, both keyed up in a way that’s contrasted by Russell’s more cool-headed (and delightful) turn as John Ruth. And don’t overlook Daisy, chained to John Ruth yet some how lurking in the background, biding her time. Jennifer Jason Leigh is an electric mix of scary and crazy.
The closed-room scenario is reminiscent of Tarantino’s first film, “Reservoir Dogs,” especially after things go awry and it becomes clear that somewhere between one and nine of these people are not who they say they are. There are also echoes of “Django Unchained,” of course — though unlike that film, this one is actually about racism (at least in part), and doesn’t just use the topic as the jumping-off point for a revenge fantasia. The lies that the characters tell — to themselves and to others — reflect America’s ongoing effort to come to terms with (or to cover up) its history. I won’t say who it is, but I was surprised when I realized which of the Hateful Eight is never revealed to have lied about anything.
Like most QT productions, however, the main thing “The Hateful Eight” is “about” is fun. It means to be a rowdy story, entertainingly told — a bit of pulp fiction, if you will. In this it is largely successful, with colorful characters, cutely phrased dialogue, outrageous sudden violence, flashbacks, narration, and a few perfectly executed surprises. And a murder mystery! And hey, didn’t I see Channing Tatum’s name in the opening credits? Where’s he? The film’s length is indulgent, but man, nobody does indulgent better than Tarantino.
B+ (3 hrs., 7 min.; )