Quentin Tarantino’s justifiably cocky new film The Hateful Eight unfolds on a wide, wide canvas — enormously wide, epically wide. Yet most of the action plays out either inside a moving stagecoach or inside a tavern during a blizzard, and most of that action is talk — ruminations about who can be trusted, or disquisitions on such topics as the ignominious last moments of a hapless bounty hunter or the taste of stew relative to its maker. This stew certainly tastes like Tarantino cooked it, and viewers whose palates have adjusted to the loquacious maestro’s style will sigh with pleasure. The hellfire-in-mahogany images (shot in 70mm Ultra Panavision by Robert Richardson) and knife-edge sound design ground us in a stark reality that Tarantino eventually gleefully stomps on.
The people onscreen may be hateful but the movie, like all Tarantino’s films, is a work of love, a grindhouse-deluxe act of devotion. The timbre of a seasoned actor’s growl, the authoritative clunk of a gun hitting a wooden floor, the creak of a heavy boot on a stagecoach step — all of these elements get such lavish attention that The Hateful Eight could almost be a radio play. But the sounds consort beautifully with the Jackson Pollock blood spatters and the white hell of snow-torn Wyoming and the chafing left on a woman’s wrist by handcuffs. The woman, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is being taken to the town of Red Rock by bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell), called “the Hangman” because he sees that all his prisoners dangle. Ruth wants to deliver Daisy alive, but he isn’t above bashing her with a gun butt or an elbow.
Misogynist? Not the movie — Tarantino hands the film to Jennifer Jason Leigh, who hungrily bites into the patented Tarantino Comeback Role, nasally drawing out the syllables of her trashy dialogue like a razor across a strop. Daisy is as much a cackling agent of chaos as the Joker was, and in a way the harsh treatment of her is anti-sexist. I was reminded of the mobster in Ghost Dog who shoots a female cop; when his partner blurts “You just shot a broad,” the mobster ripostes, “I shot a cop. They wanna be equal, I made her equal,” and so Daisy, who can take as well as mastermind hard punishment, is equal.
The same can’t be said for black people, not in the movie’s timeline some years after the Civil War, and not now, either, Tarantino is saying. Samuel L. Jackson’s Major Marquis Warren (probably a nod to western writer/director Charles Marquis Warren) is a former Union soldier turned bounty hunter, a complicated and perhaps not very noble man, someone possibly as deformed by the racism of his time as Jackson’s character Stephen was in Django Unchained. The “N-word” is, as in that prior racially charged Tarantino western, said maliciously or casually or merely descriptively, even by a Union veteran like John Ruth. The people in this movie aren’t yet over the Civil War. Tarantino doesn’t think we in the 21st century are, either.
Warren is brought into Ruth and Daisy’s sphere by the weather, and together Ruth and Warren must figure out who in Minnie’s Haberdashery — everyone’s stopover destination to ride the storm out — has conspired with Daisy to free her and leave however many corpses to harden in the snow. This aspect of the story has been likened to Agatha Christie, but it’s less a whodunit than a who’s-gonna-do-it. Among the many ironies is that the most innocent one in this situation may be a foul old Confederate general, although his past is far from innocent. Whose is? Nobody’s, says Tarantino. Yet The Hateful Eight, for all its heavy negativity, is not a nihilist work. There’s too much life in the execution, too much irrepressible affection for the snowy milieu, which, like Kurt Russell’s slyly distrustful performance and Ennio Morricone’s score, harks back to John Carpenter’s The Thing.
Jackson’s bitter gaiety in the face of white hypocrisy holds this long, strange trip together right up to the end, when heads are blown off, an arm hacked off, blood gushing and puddling on the floor. He’s eventually matched by the great character actor Walton Goggins, whose Chris Mannix claims he’s to be the new sheriff in Red Rock. We never find out for sure; perhaps Mannix is using his position to fuel his hatred the way Warren fuels his. The other actors — including Tim Roth, Demián Bichir, Bruce Dern, and Michael Madsen, who’s aging to look and sound like Nick Nolte — are more two-dimensional, and give somewhat one-note performances, but their characters are conceived as pieces on a chessboard. Ruth, Daisy, Warren and Mannix take turns believing they can win the game, but in the end two opposite numbers on either side of the racial divide are united over shared contempt for lies — life-saving ones as well as death-dealing ones. I don’t know if The Hateful Eight has much to offer the uninitiated, but for me the worst news about Tarantino’s gorgeous and gory “8th film” is that there are only, according to him, two more to go. I hope not.