Kurt Russell, left, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bruce Dern in “The Hateful Eight.” (IMDB)

With its roadshow grandiosity, its 187-minute running time and its epic Ultra 70 millimeter aspect ratio, Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” shows us a confident filmmaker approaching something like middle age, flexing all the muscle and power he’s acquired in his two decades-plus partnership with the Weinstein brothers. His running time is recklessly bloated, tempting mass departures come intermission (at the 1 hour, 40 minutes mark), although returning to the theater after a grouchy smoke break really does pay off in spades—and in gallons of blood and viscera discharged, and in all the things one most wants from Tarantino. The decision to revive the epic, not to mention near-obsolete Ultra Panavision 70 mm format, last used on “Khartoum” in 1966 and on a relatively small number of epics of the early ’60s (“It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” “Mutiny on the Bounty,” “Battle of the Bulge”), seems almost perverse when you note that a good four-fifths of the action in “The Hateful Eight” unfolds indoors, in the single large common space, part bar, store and eatery, of a snowed-in stagecoach stopover call Minnie’s Haberdashery. After 23 years, have we come full circle to that single white-walled warehouse set for “Reservoir Dogs”? Yes and no. The similarities are striking, except that here all the white is on the outside: a mostly male, mutually suspicious, highly paranoid, heroically foul-mouthed cast confined in a small space, feeling each other out for signs of ill intent, dark motives or potential deceit, and steadily reducing their numbers in “And Then There Were None”-style through escalating instances of murder and massacre. The color-coded black suits of yesteryear are here replaced by eight distinct, dandyishly dressed, emblematic Western archetypes: The Hangman, The Sheriff, The Bounty Hunter, The Prisoner, The Confederate, and so on. Verbal dexterity and splenetic speechifying are once again the order of the day, with actors merrily dining on their richly profane, whiplash dialogue and squaring off against one another like the large hyper-macho casts of yore that Tarantino loves—think of all the killers, rapists, thieves and mercenaries of “The Dirty Dozen,” “The Professionals,” “The Wild Bunch” or any number of Sam Fuller platoon pictures, locked in one room, armed to the teeth, yelling. The Eight are in fact two Fours. The first quartet is made up of bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell); his valuable bounty, a spitting, snarling dervish named Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh); and two travelers picked up by their stagecoach: Maj. Marquis Warren, an ex-Union soldier who likes killing white folks (Samuel L. Jackson); and sneeringly racist ex-Confederate Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who claims to be the newly appointed, not yet sworn-in sheriff of their destination, the town of Red Rock. Forced to seek shelter from a raging blizzard, they put up at Minnie’s, where they are met not by Minnie but by four others: Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), a dapper little Brit who says he is Red Rock’s hangman; Bob the Mexican (Demian Bechir); cowpuncher Joe Gage (Michael Madsen); and Bruce Dern as the elderly and malevolent Confederate Gen. Sanford Smithers. Which I think we can all agree amounts to a dose of testosterone and unzipped machismo that Tarantino can really go to town on. Certainly his casting is evocative of dozens of other movies, including his own (Roth and Madsen were both in “Reservoir Dogs,” Jackson is the public face of the QT brand, so to speak, and Kurt Russell was in “Death Proof” eight years ago). Tarantino has added a spaghetti Western seasoning with his commissioned Ennio Morricone score and the general over-the-topness of the proceedings, while Robert Richardson’s cinematography—at least in the plein-air sequences—partakes of Anthony Mann’s great landscape-heavy psychological Westerns of the ’50s. But the main wellspring, Tarantino has stressed, is the TV Westerns he grew up on—“Bonanza,” “The High Chaparral,” “Gunsmoke,” “Rawhide,” “The Virginian”—all of which had one or two single-room hostage-situation episodes, guest-starring suspicious out-of-towners and malign saddle tramps whose motivations were only gradually revealed. Chances are that one of those twitchy strangers might have been the young Bruce Dern, who made a good living guest-starring in such shows while they lasted. And if there was a kid or a teenager in the cast, chances are he might have been played by that busy child star Kurt Russell. It doesn’t hurt that Dern, in “The Cowboys” (1972), was the only man ever to shoot John Wayne dead—and in the back (characteristically for that era, and in tune with the reactionary politics of the Duke, Dern’s vile character was named “Long Hair”). Russell drew on his John Carpenter-era hero Snake Plissken (“Escape From New York”) in “Death Proof,” while here he mashes together any number of his past roles, particularly his Wyatt Earp from “Tombstone” — and adds an insane Yosemite Sam mustache — that anywhere else but a Tarantino movie might be counted a hostage to ridicule or contempt. With these eight here forgathered, in an atmosphere of wariness and maximum suspicion, the movie begins to resemble another Kurt Russell movie set in a complete whiteout—1982’s “The Thing”—in its profound paranoia and its ever more extreme violence. It also, and less promisingly, begins to resemble something out of Agatha Christie (my notebook here contains the exasperated question, “What is this? Death on the f- – – – -g Nile?”).
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