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The Hateful Eight are wolves who don't bother with sheep's clothing

Easily the best movie of the holiday season

Easily the best movie of the holiday season

There are nine main characters in The Hateful Eight. Determining which one of them might be the odd man (or woman) out takes longer than you might expect, as do the potential implications of not being among the eponymous octet. Might this character not be long for this world, or is (s)he simply of little narrative consequence? Tension arcs between all parties from the earliest scenes of Quentin Tarantino's latest. And whatever loose allegiances we see being formed — between Kurt Russell's bounty hunter and Samuel L. Jackson's Civil War vet, say — rest on shaky ground at best.

Russell and Jackson are John Ruth and Major Marquis Warren, respectively, both of whom find themselves en route to the same snowy Wyoming town as a blizzard threatens to disrupt their itinerary. Warren hitches a ride on Ruth's stagecoach after the inclement weather claims his horse. That's what he tells him, at least — we never see it happen with our own eyes. Along with their driver (James Parks), Ruth's bounty (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and a man claiming to be the new sheriff of the town they're headed to (Walton Goggins), the frenemies are forced to take refuge in a roadside outpost after the horse-killing snowstorm grows more severe still.

We know how the stagecoach passengers came to find themselves at Minnie's Haberdashery, having seen them all arrive together ourselves, but the four men awaiting them (Michael Madsen, Tim Roth, Bruce Dern, and Demián Bichir) are on the honor system. Everyone's suspicious of everyone else, and you can feel the writer/director basking in our sense of doubt. These are wolves, and most of them don't even bother disguising themselves in sheep's clothing.

You know not everyone who walks into Minnie's is walking out, of course, and watching them cross-examine one another is like the claustrophobic guessing-game aspect of Clue and The Thing filtered through Tarantino's curatorial sensibility. "Who will survive," asks The Texas Chainsaw Massacre's poster, "and what will be left of them?" The same question applies to what happens to be Tarantino's eighth film — it's a literal process of elimination.

Not that we realize it, but we're not actually looking at the full picture for a good long while. Still, it doesn't feel as though Tarantino is deliberately withholding information just to frustrate — it's more like he's allowing his moving parts to fall into place before knocking them down in characteristically bloody fashion; the talky, slow-burning first act does far more than set up a later reveal. As the picture expands, it just gets richer — The Hateful Eight is a chamber drama in setting, but it feels vast nevertheless.

Opening with a glorious overture by Ennio Morricone and cut in two by a 15-minute intermission, this is a big-screen epic in a way that increasingly few movies are these days. Tarantino may not jump through time as often as he used to, but The Hateful Eight's one crucial temporal leap carries the revelatory force of a magician revealing his trick without lessening its effect. Even when the truth is laid bare, you'll clamor to know and see more.

Nothing against Death Proof, Inglourious Basterds, and Django Unchained, but this is Tarantino's most fully realized effort since Kill Bill. The fact that a filmmaker with such an instantly recognizable aesthetic is still able (and more than happy) to subvert viewer expectations shouldn't be taken for granted. Consider the fact that, for all his insistence on shooting on ultra-widescreen 70 mm film, much of The Hateful Eight is confined to a single indoor setting. Robert Richardson's arresting photography treats us to a few stunning vistas as our (anti)heroes make their way up the mountain, but the lion's share of the action takes place within the confines of Minnie's.

Tarantino has long had a reputation for rescuing once-prominent actors from the doldrums and reviving their career. It's a proud tradition dating back to John Travolta's turn in Pulp Fiction and continues with the show-stealing Leigh as Daisy Domergue, the high-profile bounty whom Russell's soldier of fortune is determined to deliver to the town hangman alive. Sporting a shiner that's never directly addressed, she alternates between bilious words to a disarmingly lovely song on the guitar. Daisy is gleefully vicious, her literal gallows humor a wellspring of sardonic levity.

As is now annual custom, we've been bombarded with stuffy prestige pictures and preordained awards contenders these last few months. The Hateful Eight is easily the best of them, and certainly the only one that warrants a second (or third, or fourth ... ) viewing. There probably isn't another filmmaker alive whose utter enthusiasm at making movies jumps off the screen the way Tarantino's does. It's a feeling to be shared and delighted in. 

THE HATEFUL EIGHT
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Area theaters, opens Friday