Here’s to Quentin Tarantino’s cussed perversity. The Hateful Eight, his intimate suspenseful Western splatter-horror comedy, has been shot at great expense in the long-gone 70mm format, but the movie itself is set almost entirely in cramped interiors. He’s hired Ennio Morricone to score the thing, but don’t expect rousing new Western themes — the music is tense and looping, tinkling with chimes. And the first time a white character has a chance to speak that slur that is to Tarantino movies what “breakin’ my balls” is to Scorsese’s, that white guy — a walrus-mustachioed bounty hunter embodied by Kurt Russell — politely opts for “black fella” instead.
Tarantino seems determined to upend your every expectation. Here’s an engaging drawing-room outlaw mystery that devotes much of its generous run time to what my aunt calls “visiting.” Here’s an octet of gun-toting bastards sitting out a blizzard and striving for politeness despite detesting each other on grounds of race, region and politics. In that way, it’s an honest movie about America during the holidays.
But don’t think Tarantino is changing on us. Soon everyone is expectorating “nigger” at each other, and after several reels of diverting 1870s tough-guy dialogue comedy, with bounty hunters of uncertain allegiance holed up in a Wyoming frontier way station, the movie twists into nastiness beyond anything you might anticipate.
There are new elements: Samuel L. Jackson aces some Miss Marple sleuth work, and there’s a moving ballad sung by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who plays a high-bounty prisoner chained to Russell. But the writer/director’s hallmarks abound. Here again are chatty killers and the pretzeled-history pleasure of seeing minorities kaboom the brains of their oppressors.
But this isn’t Django II. This is Tarantino’s smallest-scaled effort since Reservoir Dogs, his first film since then that could easily work on the stage. It’s a slow-burn of a movie, one that tracks in real time how long it takes coffee to brew.
The Hateful Eight also marks the end of its author’s run of heroic fantasies: Unlike in Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds, you won’t feel pressured to cheer the inevitable deaths. The slapstick butchery of the final reels is plenty nasty, of course, and satisfying in its sick pointlessness. It’s unshackled from that queasy Django/Basterds sense that we’re meant to believe that over-the-top movie violence might right history. Too many people buy that already, so it’s a relief that this bloodbath is ugly and contained, a well-shot, bad-luck circle-jerk. The film’s chatty, ingratiating and then howlingly mean.
But all those familiar Tarantino elements are side dishes arranged around a main course that might gag in audiences’ throats. The centerpiece is a taboo-flouting monologue from Jackson that stands as the writer/director’s most lurid and sustained expression of one of his great preoccupations: the reputed sexual might of black men.
In his recent films, Tarantino has worked the idea of the black penis as the white whale of Johnny Reb types: They fear it, admire it and ache to bring one down. Witness Walton Goggins, prepping to geld Jamie Foxx in Django, awed before God’s handiwork. Now, in The Hateful Eight, Tarantino goes further still, writing Jackson a monologue on the subject that builds like a profane aria.
Jackson also talks some of that ol’ black-dick magic in Chi-Raq. That should throw some heat off Tarantino — at least from the left. The right, though, will howl, because as always, in his historical fantasies, Tarantino presents our ancestors as pitiably small-minded on the subject of race.
The script isn’t always shrewdly judged on these matters, but in all its shock-talk, The Hateful Eight airs a couple painful truths about race in America. Early on, Goggins, playing a sing-songy rebel raider, snaps this bald statement of purpose at Jackson’s Confederate-killing bounty hunter: “When niggers are scared, that’s when white folks are safe.” Nobody points out the irony that in that statement it’s white folks who are scared. Even more surprising is that after all that The Hateful Eight turns, like Django, on an affecting cross-racial friendship.
Jackson and Russell dominate the picture — Jackson slyly, his character putting together clues before it’s clear that there’s a mystery, and Russell brusquely, swinging his way around the way station John Wayne-style. Jennifer Jason Leigh is handcuffed to Russell; her Daisy Domergue is an outlaw Russell’s John Ruth has captured. For most of the film, she’s his silent shadow, a black-eyed joker in the margins. (Tarantino seems to find the sight of her getting coldcocked in the face funnier than you might.)
Eventually, Leigh, her face covered in gore, seizes The Hateful Eight and makes it her own. To say more about Leigh’s haunting, demented turn would involve spoiling Tarantino’s plotting, so let’s leave it at this: She’s the most compelling monster in a film teeming with them.