It’s easy to feel conflicted about Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight,” a gleefully nasty movie that attempts to confront the viewer at all times and succeeds in this aim, arguably far too often. It’s a molasses-paced murder mystery that luxuriates in itself, punctuated by comical violence and long-winded garrulousness. Sometimes, the enmity spills over into genuinely odious bloodshed. But once the powder keg wick is finally lit, Tarantino’s chamber drama of mistrust suddenly sparks to life, compelling viewers to find twisted humor in some hideous acts of cruelty. For better or worse, Tarantino’s latest schema is a narrative designed to have no moral center, no character to root for, and features an array of personalities you want to see meet their maker. This in and of itself creates an interesting experiment in watching where audience sympathies lie and how they eventually shift.
A kind of B-side companion piece to “Django Unchained,” it’s arguably Tarantino’s ugliest and most political film, but not his best by some distance. However, even mid-level delivery from the brazen filmmaker is generally more engaging than the average piece of cinema. The definition of conflict and strife lies at the Mason-Dixon line of the movie that is set in the Western United States with the embers of Civil War flames still smoldering in the background with malice. There’s lots of spiteful bitterness to spare with an icy shriek of baleful weather always howling outside.
Broken into five acts and clocking in at just over three-hours-long with a vintage musical prologue and an orchestral overture intermission a la epic westerns like “Once Upon A Time In The West,” Tarantino’s eighth movie is incredibly self-indulgent, gratuitously long, and often needlessly violent, but it features deliciously good performances and excels in suspense when it finally deigns to buck into gear. For all its homages — Sergio Leone-helmed Westerns starring lowlifes like Lee Van Cleef, claustrophobic chamber dramas with a dash of Agatha Christie whodunnits, plus hints of “The Thing”-esque winter horrors — Tarantino’s mash-up of genre makes for a wholly original work.
But it’s a maddeningly longwinded road to the meat of the movie. “The Hateful Eight” opens in the mountains of Wyoming during the late 1800s, a dozen or so years after the Civil War. A blizzard nips at the heels of a six-horse drawn stagecoach carrying a ruthless bounty hunter, John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) and the murderous prisoner he intends to see hung, Daisy Dormegue (an outstanding, bilious Jennifer Jason Leigh in full blown viper mode). The coach, driven by O.B. (James Parks), eventually encounters, with great coincidence two travelers: a black former Union soldier turned infamous bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren (a terrific Samuel L. Jackson), and a Southern renegade turned supposed Sheriff of Red Rock (which just happens to be Ruth’s final destination), Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins).
After two long-in-the-tooth acts that run maybe an hour — which would be another filmmaker’s opening twenty-five minutes — the storm overtakes the coach and the party is forced to seek refuge at a way station, the familiar and friendly Minnie’s Haberdashery. However, upon arrival, nothing is as it should be. Minnie and her husband are gone, and in their place are four unfamiliar men, one of whom claims to be looking after Minnie’s place while she’s away visiting family.
There is the Mexican outpost caretaker Bob (Demian Bichir), the Red Rock hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), roughneck taciturn cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), and the grizzled Confederate General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern). As the deceitful, bastard travelers are forced to try and get cozy in this confined space, race, political ideologies, and beliefs begin to chafe and then inflame. After its exorbitant intro, this is where “The Hateful Eight” — which has long simmered with the threat of violence — begins to finally bubble with its truest colors of antipathy. Eventually, when it becomes clear that not everyone is who they claim to be, as Major Warren goes into Hercule Poirot detective mode, the boil of Tarantino’s drama spills over into bloody rancor.
Aesthetically, “The Hateful Eight” is top-notch. Shot by longtime Tarantino collaborator Robert Richardson, the lensing of the movie in “glorious 70mm” in such close quarters seems counter-intuitive on the surface. But like Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” there are deceptive insights to be found by shooting with such lenses in cramped interiors. It’s also extremely well-staged and beautiful to look at. Composer Ennio Morricone‘s terrific music adds another dimension to the movie, not only with a grand and vintage symphonic score, but one that also underscores the threat of violence coming in like a storm over the mountains. Plus, tense elements of horror work wonders too (it’s no wonder Tarantino utilizes unused musical cues, written by Morricone, from John Carpenter’s “The Thing”).
However, just as “The Hateful Eight” really starts to cook, Tarantino’s bravura confidence leads him to miscalculate. A fourth act that works as visual, mystery-revealing flashback is unnecessary, deflates the tension, and goes on for too long (and that’s not to mention the jarring narration by Tarantino himself, which comes out of nowhere). And when the fifth and final act resumes the regular narrative, the movie crosses the line, going from enjoyably twisted to unpleasantly noxious and the final moments of the film will surely be a deal breaker for the more squeamish or easily-outraged viewer.
But its in this final act where the vague thoughtfulness and political texture of the movie begins to coalesce. Tarantino movies are often subtext free and not really about much, but the ugliness at the heart of the movie begins to form resonant echoes of the racial divide and violence that has left a black eye on America in the last few years. Through a framing device of a letter from President Lincoln to Sam Jackson’s Major Warren, the hint of a fantasy begins to form. While not quite the Jewish revisionism of “Inglourious Basterds” on the Nazis, ‘Hateful Eight’ has its own wishful-thinking qualities about a nation that still yet could find harmony amidst its animus and discord. Despite a queasy finish, “The Hateful Eight” floats a notion only a filmmaker like Tarantino would think of: perhaps our collective prejudices and intolerances can be united and overcome by our mutual hostility for someone even more loathsome. [B-]