By Matt FlemingNow that we can look back on 2015, especially after watching Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, it would seem that the digital revolution in cinema has become nothing more than a mere afterthought. Sure, Jurassic World resurrected old (and imagined new) dinosaurs, Star Wars: The Force Awakens took viewers on a galactic thrill ride, and Avengers: Age Of Ultron turned James Spader into a disgruntled flying robot. But in an age of fantasy and lens flares, Mr. Tarantino’s  The Hateful Eight kindly reminds moviegoers of the majesty that comes with raw, large-format film, how it can utterly encapsulate all people, places and things. 

While most movies this year have attempted to shake, rattle and otherwise roll audiences into submission, Tarantino relies on his keen eye for nature, a cast that can handle their task, and a story that keeps audiences on the edge of their (somewhat uncomfortable) seats.

The Hateful Eight is a chilly spaghetti-whodunit, citing influence to the westerns of John Ford and Sam Peckinpah as much as it does to Agatha Christie or Raymond Chandler. The story boils down to the transport of a fugitive by a bounty hunter, nine people seeking refuge from a blizzard, and a group of scoundrels set on deceiving one another. However, Tarantino manages to peel back some of the heady (and proportionately ham-fisted) morality of his two previous detours into revisionist history, replacing it with a slightly less fantastical summary of America’s failed Reconstruction.

Of course, this is Quentin Tarantino, so subtlety need not apply. Rather, in its brief examination of America in the late 1800s, Eight manages to effectively illustrate the complexities about the country (and to some extent, humanity itself) in brazen fashion. There are no heroes, only different kinds of villains, and it’s up to the whole lot of ‘em to suss (or shoot) the others out.

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The film’s first act splits its time between the cold, beautiful landscape of the American West and a cramped stagecoach that can barely stay ahead of the brutal blizzard nipping at its heels. The claustrophobic cabin and the sprawling unknown that surrounds it sets the tone of unease early on, as the passengers jockey for strength and survival on pins and needles. Kurt Russell’s John “The Hangman” Ruth struggles to maintain control of an already precarious transport as he allows passage to fellow bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and Rebel-turned-lawman Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins). Bloodied prisoner Daisy Domergue (the incredible Jennifer Jason Leigh) can barely contain disdain both her captor and his new charges, despite Ruth’s numerous violent outburst. From the get-go, Eight establishes itself as anything but gentle.

When the party arrives at Minnie’s Haberdashery, the calm within the cabin is unsettling compared to the fully-realized harshness engulfing the exterior (it’s the first tip-off that things ought to be heading south any time now). While the film’s first half slowly simmers in suspicion and an unpleasant quietude, the second half explodes into signature Tarantino chaos, leaving only a few precious moments for the audience to piece together the all-too brief mystery at play. Each successive revelation begets more havoc (and gore); the film practically whizzes past you in a mad dash towards its bloody finale. When the dust (and entrails) settle, all that remains is a quiet moment for reflection, uncommon for most QT pictures. The story, in all its sound and fury, is complete.

The Hateful Eight is not unlike the director himself these days: a bit bloated in some parts, prone to distracting asides, and only too happy to spark controversy. Tarantino’s knack for making just about anybody (whether audiences or interviewers) a bit uneasy is certainly present. However, his visual scope and skillful storytelling are undeniably strong with his eighth standalone offering. Kurt Russell’s John Wayne-impression is just enjoyable enough to avoid being hammy, and Walton Goggins shows his strongest performance in the film’s third act. But it’s Samuel L. Jackson and Jennifer Jason Leigh who outshine the whole lot.

Leigh’s Daisy perseveres with a snake-like intensity throughout her countless abuses, only nearly concealing her true capacity for wickedness. Conversely, Jackson maintains a veneer of stoicism that is only interrupted by the film’s most disturbing aside. The rest of the titular eight are used to varying effect: Michael Madsen spends most of the movie sitting or lying down, Tim Roth delivers a jolly-good upper-crust Englishman, Bruce Dern grumbles, and Demian Bechir makes stew. While the film suffers from a few excesses, they can be forgiven for the moments that Tarantino holds back just enough. Thankfully, Tarantino changed his mind about scrapping this one: if he never makes another film, The Hateful Eight would make a fine bookend to a highly graphic career.

7.5 out of 10