It’s a shame that writer-director Quentin Tarantino has recently announced his intention to quit film-making after his tenth film (although, frankly, we’ll believe it when we see it), because his eighth – making a welcome return to the Western genre after Django Unchained – shows the writer-director at the top of his game.
Set in post-Civil War Wyoming, the film stars Kurt Russell as John ‘The Hangman’ Ruth, a grizzled bounty hunter transporting feral outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the town of Red Rock to be hanged. As their stagecoach ploughs through the snowy wastelands, Ruth reluctantly takes on two further passengers: former Union soldier Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), who has since turned bounty hunter and is transporting bodies of his own; and ex-Confederate Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who’s travelling to Red Rock in order to become their new Sheriff.
However, when a blizzard forces the party to seek shelter at Minnie’s Haberdashery, they find Minnie herself mysteriously absent and are welcomed instead by four suspicious-looking strangers: whiskery Southern General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), loquacious Englishman Oswaldo Mowbray (Tim Roth), taciturn, physically imposing cowboy Joe Cage (Michael Madsen) and Mexican Bob (Demian Bichir), a supposed friend of Minnie’s, who says she’s been called away. But what’s really going on? And why is there a single jellybean on the floor?
Given that Tarantino insisted on shooting the film on the epic-landscape-favouring 70mm format, it seems odd that, a few lovely snowy exterior shots aside, the film mostly unfolds on a single set (indeed, it would make a great play). To that end, the film feels like an Agatha Christie mystery blended with a Sam Peckinpah movie, only with Tarantino teasingly holding back the violence and bloodshed for as long as possible – you know it’s coming, but the waiting is wonderfully tense.
Tarantino’s love of playing around with structure and chronology is well documented and he puts his story-telling tricks to good use here, telling the tale chronologically up until the intermission at around the 100 minute mark (the film itself runs to around three hours), and then using various rewinds, perspective shifts and flashback sequences in the second half. Thankfully, he’s opted to ditch his cameo this time round (just as well, as they’re almost always terrible), opting instead for a brief spot of cleverly placed narration during a key sequence, which ends up being a fairly rare example of a director talking to his own audience during a film.
Needless to say, the script is stuffed to the gills with Tarantino’s delicious dialogue, with Jackson particularly well served in the memorable speech department. However, the dialogue also serves as an effective device for building tension, as it becomes increasingly clear that all is not quite what it seems, with the various speeches either being used as a deliberate distraction or, in one brilliantly orchestrated scene, as a provocative, expertly wielded weapon.
The performances are superb across the board – Russell and Jackson (both clearly enjoying themselves) are exactly as good as you’d expect them to be, while Leigh almost steals the film as Daisy, despite having hardly any dialogue.
Similarly, character actor Goggins is superb as Mannix, in an intriguingly written part that feels like a supporting player being violently elbowed into centre stage.
This a thrillingly directed and superbly acted Western that rewards every second of its arse-challenging running time. Is a Western trilogy too much to hope for?