Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to bury a plea for interracial brotherhood way, way down inside a bloody, nearly three-hour revenge western.
But this director has long been American cinema’s imp of the perverse, hasn’t he? Like Scorsese’s bratty kid brother, he has veins made of pure celluloid, and he spreads his geek-boy movie love across the screen in wild, anarchic daubs of action-painting. His enthusiasm would come to little if Tarantino weren’t a born filmmaker. But it also means he can concoct a massive widescreen homage to the 70mm roadshow prestige movies of the 1950s and ’60s — and use it to film eight people talking in a room.
Well, also cussing, shooting, stabbing, double-crossing, double-double-crossing, and dying, all in ways you’d never quite considered before. This is Tarantino. And it’s very entertaining, even when it’s entertainingly vile, which happens a lot in this overlong movie’s extended third act. (Or fifth chapter. Or something.) A Tarantino movie remains a happy occasion for fans of our less respected film genres, of creative ultra-violence and creative argument, and of underappreciated performers allowed to flower anew under Master Quentin’s sanguine care.
So, while longtime Tarantino co-conspirator Samuel L. Jackson is his fine old self at the center of this tilt-a-whirl as Major Marquis Warren, a bounty hunter in wintry 1870s Wyoming, “The Hateful Eight” may — may, I say — be most pleasurable for reintroducing us (again) to Kurt Russell as rival bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth, resplendent under major muttonchops and wearing John Wayne’s borrowed swagger. Or Jennifer Jason Leigh as the Hangman’s prisoner Daisy Domergue (pronounced “Dommer-goo”), an unspecified felon as mean as she is wily as she is dumb. Leigh has always been a fearless performer, but she’s practically this movie’s Gollum — no special effects necessary — and she’s wonderful.
Or Walton Goggins, a versatile character actor best known as the (mostly) villainous Boyd Crowder on TV’s “Justified,” who in “The Hateful Eight” plays an incoming sheriff who we think we have pegged as a no-neck cracker from the Civil War South. Which he is, but he’s possibly more, and Goggins slowly fills in the blanks of his character until he’s as rich as a Bruce Dern supporting nutjob back in the day.
Speaking of which, Dern himself is here as a vicious old Rebel general seeking his son. And Tim Roth plays an actual hangman with the orotund name of Oswaldo Mobray. And Michael Madsen, another old QT hand, turns up as an enigmatic cowpoke named Gage. And Demian Bichir (“A Better Life”) is Señor Bob, temporary proprietor of Minnie’s Haberdashery, the high mountain hostelry where these eight unpleasant people are holed up during a blizzard. One of the minor mysteries that needs solving is whatever happened to Minnie.
Tarantino settles into the western genre as if it were a hot bath, slowly and with great relish. Insistent on releasing “The Hateful Eight” to theaters on 70mm celluloid prints — the images have a fine-grained warmth and as many gradations of tone as the characters — he also opens the movie with a five-minute overture of the score by the legendary film composer Ennio Morricone. The screen’s as long and narrow as a coffin (the aspect ratio, tech nerds, is 2.76:1 or Ultra Panavision 70 — it doesn’t get more widescreen) and whenever “The Hateful Eight” ventures outdoors you’re smacked breathless by the immensity of nature. It’s a pretty decent joke that most of the movie takes place indoors.
But Tarantino has fish to fry, and they’re not entirely unrelated to recent comments of his that have made him the target of police unions across the country. Not that “The Hateful Eight” is a lecture — please — but about 45 minutes in you may realize that every one of these characters is, in part, defined by how they respond to Jackson’s Major Warren, a powerful and gleefully unrepentant black man. And the Major’s cleanly contained rage and clear-sightedness is in direct proportion to the desire of most of the other characters to kill him. We’re in the early 1870s, but the Civil War is still being fought. It may dawn on you that, as far as this filmmaker is concerned, it continues to be fought. It may dawn on you that he may be right.
Again, all this is buried under the usual Tarantino orders of business: lazily sharp arias of dialogue that go nowhere beautifully, flashbacks that curl playfully in on themselves, a narrator who arrives two-thirds of the way in, after the intermission, and is clearly the director horning in on his own movie. Illiberal use of the “n”-word: Double-edged, historically accurate, designed to provoke you into taking sides, it remains a mark of this filmmaker’s immaturity. Little in-jokes like stuntwoman Zoe Bell, who at this point is Tarantino’s mascot, and rediscovered character actors like Lee Horsley; a closing song, Roy Orbison’s “There Won’t be Many Coming Home” (he’s right), which only a true film freak would know comes from the soundtrack of the singer’s only starring role, 1967’s “The Fastest Gun Alive.”
What’s the point? The movie’s the point — Tarantino’s enjoyment in making it, ours in watching it. He lays it on thick, too thick this time, and while the tensions simmer neatly for the first two hours of “The Hateful Eight,” the film explodes in bursts of violence and plot furtherance that steadily diminish it, as though the director were mostly interested in the set-up and the build-up and least of all in the resolution — even with the appearance of a special extra double-secret guest star who shall go unnamed here. This is a movie that’s 168 minutes only because Quentin Tarantino is an uncontainable Rabelasian. He believes that more is more. And sometimes it is. But a truly great craftsman knows where to locate the line.
One other thought. Many Tarantino movies end with a monologue or a moment that unexpectedly roots the mayhem in a larger moral universe. Jules’s Ezekiel speech at the end of “Pulp Fiction” is the classic example, and Jackson is indirectly responsible for the one that closes out “The Hateful Eight.” But it says something about this filmmaker’s discontent with the real world — the one outside the theater; the one that supposedly holds no interest for him — that the sentiments ostensibly come from one of the great moral men of American history, reminding us once again of the better angels of our natures. That — how else to put this? — black lives matter.
THE HATEFUL EIGHT
Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Bruce Dern, Demian Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen. At Boston Common. 168 minutes. R (strong bloody violence, a scene of violent sexual content, language, and some graphic nudity).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.