At this point a lot of things can probably go unsaid here, Quentin is back and he's brought plenty of familiar faces along with him. Along with Tim Roth and Michael Madsen, more than half the cast are returning actors in what is a pretty gnarly ensemble of crooks and nefarious characters. But even this is obvious from the title, this isn't going to be a cosy fireside get together. Ennio Morricone also makes a comeback on the score, despite words to the effect that he'd never do so again after being displeased with how his original work on Django Unchained was implemented. Being mixed into to this already potent blend are of course several other ingredients that have come to be expected, and the amounts of violence, depravity and strong language are all correct and present here. But what's new, what is all this talk about 70mm widescreen, and does all the Tarantino dialogue still have it's sharpness? Fortunately this is a mystery plot so there's plenty to discover.
Visually this a dark, cold film where the moody interior of a frontier store is contrasted against the stark frozen wasteland outside. Those super wide lenses may not be used to their full potential indoors where character drama takes centre stage, but it makes all the difference when set against snow covered vistas even without the scale of the intended roadshow projection format. It has a real sense of being set in a hostile environment cut off from the outside world. The soundtrack retains a few of the standard licensed tunes, but utilises a lot of ominous original music. Foreboding and unease are the big elements, and this is highlighted by the inclusion of pieces from John Carpenter's The Thing which were left unused in 1982. Even if the choice of Regan's theme from The Exorcist II provides an unexpected distraction by recalling far too much of that film it at least adds to the overall horror mood and is arguably put to better use here.
Beyond the dressing this mostly single location story is all about the intrigue. It's about finding out which of the cast are trustworthy, if any. Kurt Russell as John Ruth and Samuel L. Jackson as Major Warren seem to be the obvious choices as they are both introduced as bounty hunters, with the former taking his prisoner Daisy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in alive to face justice. Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) claims to be the sheriff in the town they're heading for, and Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) says he's the hangman who will put Daisy on the gallows. Even before things turn really sour there are tensions between those who fought on opposing sides during the American Civil War, and between Ruth and just about everyone because he has no trust. But everyone present is pretty shifty; a potential liar or a killer. Soon enough big problems surface when things start to unravel further. They can't all be stuck in a blizzard by chance, surely?
The suspense elements take up a substantial amount of the running time, which is excessive but has to deal with a lot of characters and plenty of forks in the road along the way. Chapter title cards break up the action as is standard with QT and while newer ideas like narration are introduced far too late in to provide any meaningful stage play flavour, the sense of variety is maintained even when flashbacks are fairly minimal. The number of players involved is at times unwieldy but the central anchors of Ruth and Warren keep things focused. For the most part this is Jackson's show, which provides a lot of the best moments as a man who may be a soldier who knew Lincoln, may be a murderer, or may have done things far worse than just killing for the Union. This guessing game applies to the whole cast as tall tales are spun and deception is uncovered, and when the blood begins to spill there are few with clean hands.
This will probably be a divisive picture even for those eager to see the next Tarantino feature. Many might even consider it to be mean spirited, as is often the case with Westerns. Things are particularly grotesque to comical extremes in a number of places whether it's the use of slow motion visuals and sound or the purely violent spectacle which erupts at times. Practical effects are always a pleasure to see from gun fights to gruesome moments of, shall we say bodily harm. It's a real slow burning whodunnit in places, with some rather explosive results when things reach full steam. There are no truly likeable characters here and little justice to be found during their exploits; the title isn't kidding around. Which doesn't mean it's any less well crafted of course. So if you don't mind a dark trek into engagingly unpleasant waters in a journey that takes the long way around, this delivers plenty of treats; even if they're often the sour kinds which sting your taste buds and make your eyes water.