Quentin Tarantino’s aptly titled The Hateful Eight is a Western without a hero. Its rogue’s gallery of characters consists of two sadistic bounty hunters, a leering murderess, a gormless would-be lawman, a retired Confederate general whose grandfatherly demeanor masks snarling bigotry, and various other varmints and louts. The film is a fabulously gory nightmare vision of a post-Civil-War America riven by differences of race, gender, and regional background in which every social interaction is a hair-trigger away from exploding into ultraviolence. Setting aside Robert Richardson’s cinematography (shot in 70mm and Ultra Panavision), which captures the crystalline grandeur of the Wyoming landscape, The Hateful Eight is an extraordinarily dark and punishing film—quite possibly the darkest and most punishing that Tarantino has yet made.
It’s also a welcome return to form for the filmmaker after the unevenness of 2012’s Django Unchained, which was marred by tonal and structural problems. The Hateful Eight has flaws of its own, but they’re less glaring than they were in Django; on the whole, Tarantino seems to have recovered his footing as a storyteller. Even though most of the three-hour film’s action is confined to the interior of a stagecoach stop called Minnie’s Haberdashery, the characters are so flamboyant, the dialogue so rich, and the performances so deliciously hammy that things never seem to drag. Ennio Morricone’s score chugs and churns menacingly. Tensions build throughout most of the first half of the film, culminating in an audacious monologue delivered by Samuel L. Jackson. And then the blood begins to flow, as the film’s second half veers into the realm of splatter horror.
Standouts among the cast include Jackson as Major Marquis Warren, a black man living in a “white hell”; the pencil-necked, pop-eyed Walton Goggins as dim-witted sheriff Chris Mannix, who supplies some of the film’s broader humor; and Jennifer Jason Leigh, playing notorious killer Daisy Domergue as a cackling demon reminiscent of Linda Blair in The Exorcist. The final scenes, in which Daisy and Warren compete with each other to win over the hapless Mannix, feel like an allegory for the race and gender conflicts that continue to inform American life in 2015. But even as he acknowledges America’s legacy of racism, misogyny, and violence, Tarantino refuses to make his minority characters into pariahs, nor does he comfortably invoke liberal platitudes. According to his cruel egalitarianism, all men—black, white, Mexican—are equally loathsome; women are no better; and our romantic myths about American integrity and honor are nothing more than jokes to be spat upon and thrown away.
As a portrait of America at its most irredeemably vicious, The Hateful Eight would make a good (if long) double bill with Lars von Trier’s Dogville. It’s a political film, but it’s hardly the type of lofty, ennobling political cinema that one expects from a major Hollywood release. The film’s budget notwithstanding, Tarantino’s approach remains as rooted as ever in the grittiness of pulp cinema, and he shares the lunatic energy of such termite artists as Samuel Fuller and Robert Aldrich. It’s down in the muck and the blood of genre filmmaking that he’s able to speak his mind most clearly. The Hateful Eight suggests, cynically and hilariously, that we’re all stuck there with him, and we couldn’t crawl out even if we wanted to.