This is a fine piece of storytelling - a mystery, western, and political drama - all artfully melded together by a seasoned crew and talented actors.
The action is set in antebellum Wyoming, in the heart of a raging blizzard, in a frontier bar. Setting is very important here.
The period is meaningful for the political currents that flow in nearly all the characters. Feelings about the American civil war are very up-front, with complicit atrocity present in nearly all the characters. The war brought out horrible things in these people, and we see how they deal with that shared knowledge, both personally and to each other.
The blizzard provides the necessary isolation to the story. These characters are stuck with each other, and this forced closeness is central to the story - they're all Hateful, and that hate reverberates among them, destroying peace and hope. Hate is what brings them together and hate is what tears them apart. The blizzard also provides some interesting incidental elements that are fascinating to watch, like the hardship of a simple task like preparing guidelines, or going to the outhouse, and the cold hell explodes inward at times (when the door is opened) with punctuating effect, providing some breaks to the narrative, and even some needed laughs.
And the bar... This film's action takes place primarily in one large room. It feels very much like a stage play (as another reviewer mentioned), allowing greater intimacy with the characters and their interactions, while providing us with an opportunity to witness multiple scenarios unfolding at the same time. This density of action is very cool. We are afforded third person omniscience without losing connection with the motives and perspectives of the players.
And the stage setting meshes very integrally with the acting. We see the principal actors doing top-notch with not only their primary motivational actions, but nearly every choice in blocking and busy action. The director and production team make a very wise choice in showing the small little details of what's going on here. Attention is paid to realistic procedural actions, and reactions, for these details. The result is that we see characters behaving in reasonable ways to their environments, pausing to disarm a stranger, or undo a shackle, not simply because the plot calls for it, but because it's a reasonable choice that they would make at the time. Very refreshing to see, actually.
On the negative side, Tarrantino's choice to use narration was weakly executed. I don't know if there would have been a way to do this without narration, but the actual usage detracted from the ongoing story. Also, there were a few points in the action where the characters seemed to be a little too accepting of the events that transpire around them. This is purely a fault of direction/writing.
But overall, a very watchable film, that is notably unafraid to portray some very dirty and uncomfortable bits of the human psyche. Some folks seem to have an issue with this last part. My advice to them is to loosen up a bit and accept art that hurts a little. That's one of the things good art can do.
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