Strip a man or woman of their weapons, their physical means of defense, and they’re left with words. Words to injure, to bear false witness, to prolong whatever time is left. Once their bluff is called, they’re empty and meaningless. Each in The Hateful Eight’s titular crew has constructed a verbose front, unraveling the advertised Agatha Christie mystery into a startling display of post-Lincoln America, harnessing Eugene O’Neill and Sam Peckinpah at once. A director known for depicting violent word and deed, Tarantino has stepped up in giving more purpose to his feverishly-written dialogue and outlandish barbarism, filling out three hours of mounting dread punctuated by blasts of bloodshed. If Tarantino is typically pop, Eight is a dirge (or, at least, a murder ballad). It is dark, relentless, and challenging, underlined by unwavering pomp. I left the theater numb and confused; for the first time ever, Tarantino made me feel truly uncomfortable.
Discomfort and Tarantino go hand-in-hand, if not for his personal antics, for his filmmaking decisions. Rape, racism, gratuitous violence, and coarse language have polarized many who weren’t already miffed by his appropriation (some would say stealing) of obscure cinema. But nobody is more aware of Tarantino than the man himself, and though Eight recalls various snowbound Westerns (including John Carpenter’s The Thing), it recalls Tarantino the most. It doesn’t just have Ennio Morricone’s cues; it features a wholly new score by him. It doesn’t have a lot of dialogue; it has the most dialogue of his oeuvre. There aren’t just many inclusions of food hinting at impending doom; food appears in just about every scene, creating an unnerving dread so overwhelming you’ll understand why there’s an intermission. That dread is no surprise; should you see it in 70mm, roadshow-style, you’ll be greeted by an overture that trickles rather than bursts. The illustrated overture card itself poses a single, roaring stagecoach, dwarfed by mountains frozen with blood.
In a title sequence recalling The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s first clear shot, Eight displays just why the Ultra Panavision 70 is ultra-hyped: Robert Richardson’s cinematography, the most beautiful of Tarantino’s career, captures the brisk Wyoming plains with grandness. See it on a smaller screen, and you’ll squint to see what’s in the background. What’s more remarkable is the wide lens used for more intimate, claustrophobic shots; you feel uncomfortable being in close, warm company with this brutish bunch. Eight’s biggest trick, the one that may polarize the most, is getting you to spend so much time with so many unlikeable people, making the Christmas release date a sick joke itself. Arguably, even the most likable Tarantino protagonists are cruel and ruthless, but at least with a moral compass. Such a compass does not exist in Eight.
There’s grizzled Kurt Russell’s masochistic bounty hunter (marked “The Hangman”), Tim Roth’s alleged hangman, Walton Goggin’s gee-golly racist sheriff, Bruce Dern’s aged Confederate, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s wild murderess, Michael Madsen’s cool cowboy, and Samuel L. Jackson’s own bounty hunter. But there’s more, and the path to the truth is torturous. Once each truth is revealed, the boarding house holding these and other snowbound stock-character revisions becomes the waiting room for Hell. Slurs and insults are flung like fists, but the action in Eight is singular for Tarantino in that none of it should inspire glee. It’s gratuitous to prove a point about its ugliness. There’s nothing bold or heroic about shooting a man’s groin, and using the N-world isn’t funny. My initial confusion was corrected by Tarantino’s conversation with LA Weekly; the violence is cynical, not a cartoon. There’s no triumph. Dressed in the garish robes of bombastic theatricality, Eight is politically-driven arthouse. The winter of Tarantino’s career has arrived. He’s got a big mouth, and he’s finally taking it upon himself to say attempt something meaningful. Is it all agreeable? No. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.