Starring: Samuel L Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, Demian Bichir, James Parks, Channing Tatum
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Wyoming, some time after the Civil War. A coach and six races across a vast, snowbound, mountainous landscape, a furious black beetle scuttling across the wide, narrow, blindingly white screen. As the lurid, '60s-style credits roll, accompanied by a nerve-tinglingly thrilling Ennio Morricone score, you know you're in for something pretty special, a glorious return to the days of the classic Western – with a bloodthirsty Tarantino twist, of course.
The first of the titular eight we encounter are John Ruth (Kurt Russell), an old school bounty hunter, and his prey, phlegmatic murderess Daisy Domergue (a welcome, gutsy return to form for '90s psycho hose beast queen Jennifer Jason Leigh), Civil War veteran and fellow bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson) and southern renegade Chris Mannix (our favourite Justified/Sons of Anarchy anti-hero/heroine Walton Goggins). En route to the town of Red Rock, a blizzard forces them from the track and into Minnie's Haberdashery, the 19th century equivalent of a homely motorway service station (think Tebay with stables) nestled precariously in the mountain pass.
There they discover four further stranded passengers, garrulous Brit Oswaldo Mowbray (Tim Roth), taciturn cowboy Joe Gauge (Michael Madsen), mysterious Mexican Bob (Demian Bechir) and Confederate old timer General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern). The eight are assembled, and the stage is set for a pyrotechnic display of dynamite dialogue and explosive eruptions of gore (courtesy of Evil Dead/Walking Dead effects supremo Greg Nicotero).
There's definitely a touch of the And Then There Were Nones about this epic ensemble piece, as disparate, unlikeable characters are thrown into a claustrophobic melting pot to self-destruct (how many Hateful Eight plays will we see next year at the Edinburgh Fringe? Some, I'm betting). Each has his or her own agenda, and no-one can be trusted. Not for nothing (or simply to be awkward) is the movie filmed in Ben Hur-esque 70mm widescreen: the incredible depth of focus allows us simultaneously to see contrasting groups of characters in the fore, middle and background of the picture – and none of them are ever up to any good.
And just as Agatha Christie's classic tale mirrors class tensions in 1930s England, so the characters trapped in The Hateful Eight provide a microcosm for deep-seated North/South divisions and vicious racial discords. Which admittedly makes the film sound a wee bit dull and worthy, but trust me, it's not. Despite a bladder-bustingly lengthy running time of just over three hours (relax folks, there's an interval), the tension rarely lets up. As the web of secrets and lies unravels, no cuss-word is left unspoken nor body part left in tact – nor audience jaw undropped. And, this being a Tarantino film, nobody dies easily... or quickly.
The performances across the board are tremendous, but really this is Samuel L Jackson's film and he carries it like the grizzled veteran he is. If you can win an Oscar for being scary, witty, vicious, compelling and incredibly sweary all at once, then that statue's in the bag.
I'm knocking off half a star for Tarantino's self-indulgent insistence on casting his favourite Kiwi stuntwoman Zoë Bell, who, in a charming but utterly jarring appearance as a stagecoach driver, comes on like a teenage Calamity Jane in a school play, severely jolting the credibility of the story. Otherwise, however, The Hateful Eight really is something of a masterpiece, a breathtaking, intellectually daring, wilfully difficult, visually spectacular film.