The Civil War didn’t end at Appomattox, but still rages in the hearts and minds of Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight,” a salty hothouse whodunit that owes as much to Agatha Christie as it does to Anthony Mann. Though Tarantino toys with many of the lawless frontier genre’s classic tropes, it’s arguable whether this deliciously long-winded mystery — “molasses-like,” to use his own term — qualifies as a Western at all. It might more aptly be considered an ongoing North-vs.-Southern, seeing as how it crams hair-trigger racial tensions into an otherwise neutral outpost, where a mixed bag of gunslingers uneasily try to make nice during a blizzard. The gratuitous bloodletting and hefty running time (the 70mm “roadshow” version clocks a thrilling 187 minutes, including overture and intermission) should appeal primarily to cinephiles, building word of mouth in the week between Christmas Day and Dec. 31, when it makes a killing in wide release.
Inexplicably, the hateful head count fails to acknowledge John Ruth’s ostensibly benevolent driver O.B. (James Parks), who would otherwise be No. 9, or the elephant in the room: namely, the palpable disdain broiling between this handful of ex-Confederate racists and Jackson’s African-American former Union officer, who wields a letter from Abraham Lincoln as skillfully as he does his six-shooter. Warren’s motives are mysterious enough at first, though when others fail to respect the hard-fought spirit of emancipation and equality, he emerges as the still-seething embodiment of that old Ezekiel verse: “I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers.”
Jackson never gets a monologue of such awesome caliber here, although Tarantino does give him some of the best lines in a screenplay that audiences had the rare chance to read in advance of seeing the film — a peculiar situation owing to the fact that an early draft leaked online. But Tarantino writes dialogue that begs to be performed, and even a live reading in April 2014 couldn’t suggest what the magic ingredient of cinema would do for his vision. Underscoring his commitment to celluloid, the director dusted off the Ultra Panavision 70 format used on such Cinerama epics as “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and “How the West Was Won,” but put those vintage lenses to curious use, all but ignoring the outdoor vistas (a victim of Jackson’s scenery chewing, no doubt) in order to achieve a more claustrophobic cabin-fever dynamic.
Still, the film opens atmospherically enough, first with a striking pre-credits placeholder — an “Overture” card that depicts a six-horse stagecoach racing from right to left in silhouette against a bold red screen — before cutting to a long shot of the same vehicle riding into frame as a snow-covered cross looms in the foreground. Tarantino’s use of music, like his choice of shooting formats, marks a dramatic break from the rest of his oeuvre, in which the control-freak director has creatively recycled existing songs and score, while giving them such currency that they may as well have been written for him. Here, by contrast, he relies on Ennio Morricone to set the tone, and gets a stiff, synthesizer-driven horse kick of anticipation from it. While Tarantino excels at slow-build suspense (and word is out that a bloodbath awaits), Morricone’s eight-minute mood-setter indicates the violence is coiled and ready to strike.
The pleasure, at least for those who haven’t sampled the script in advance, comes in waiting. Tarantino has conjured a sense of the Old West — not unlike the unforgiving frontier of Alejandro G. Inarritu’s “The Revenant” — where it’s every man for himself, which means the only safe way to interact with a stranger is to assume that he’d kill you without a moment’s thought. We sense the wariness as Warren attempts to board Ruth’s private stage; the dynamic intensifies once they pick up “son of a gun” Mannix; and it’s anybody’s guess what could happen when these travelers arrive at Minnie’s to find no sign of either its owner (Dana Gourrier) or the inseparable Sweet Dave (Gene Jones).
Sly hints indicate what might have happened — from a stray jelly bean wedged between the floorboards to the broken “whore” of a door that won’t close unless it’s nailed firmly shut — though that shifty feeling that settles once all the characters are safely indoors arises less from anything that’s overtly said than from the actors’ body language and whatever menace lurks behind their words. Naturally, each of them knows more than he’s letting on, which puts “The Hateful Eight” squarely in parlor-mystery territory. It may take place somewhere outside Red Rock a few years after the Civil War, but the plot could conceivably work just as well in a dark, cobwebby castle somewhere in Eastern Europe.
Stretching the suspense as far as it can possibly go, as is his wont, Tarantino withholds the first bullet until roughly the 100-minute mark, breaking for intermission just after the first corpse hits the floor. The body count climbs much faster as soon as audiences have regained their seats, ultimately reaching a figure far higher than the title eight (a trick Tarantino pulls off by turning back the clock to earlier that morning). The director even insinuates himself just after the intermission, narrating what transpired during the break and introducing a twist, whereby someone poisoned the coffee while audiences were restocking on popcorn.
Everything in a Tarantino movie is done with a wink, and this touch practically tips it into parody, as in an episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” where our macabre host drops by to mock the dead. But then, this is precisely the level on which audiences have been enjoying the story thus far, suspended somewhere between the ultra-stylized faux-period parlance (in which the excessive use of the “N word” speaks more to Tarantino’s street cred than to any defensible sense of authenticity) and the self-awareness that every actor is sinking his (or her) tobacco-rotten teeth into what could potentially be the open-range beefiest roles of their careers.
Few helmers take greater satisfaction in reminding audiences that they are watching a movie, and though the material itself seems hardly substantial enough to suit an hour-long television episode (Delmer Daves told the superior — and superficially similar — “3:10 to Yuma” in a tight 92 minutes), Tarantino’s treatment makes it epic. That encompasses everything from the roadshow format, which insists upon a grand theatrical viewing experience, to the wider-than-widescreen aspect ratio. Tarantino and “Django” editor Fred Raskin have even relaxed the tempo so that we might scrutinize every frame of d.p. Robert Richardson’s luxurious work. It all looks like a set, though interiors are blocked in such a way that audiences have a choice where to look, while closeups register every facial twitch.
Some faces — and indeed, some performances — hold up better than others at that scale. Bug-eyed Goggins nearly always seems cartoonish in other roles, but rather astonishingly integrates into the ensemble here, whereas Roth’s wonderfully named Oswaldo Mobray doesn’t belong, an escapee from “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” or some entirely different movie. Bichir, Madsen and Dern get their moments, but find themselves overshadowed by Russell’s and Jackson’s far hammier performances. Popping up late in the game, a miscast Channing Tatum upsets the delicate chemistry, leaving audiences to debate whether he or character actor Craig Stark (as Dern’s son, who appears in an outrageous but only half-credible flashback) endures the more humiliating fate.
Of the eponymous eight, Leigh creates the most memorable new character — the one who stands to gain the most if the others lay each other low. Her bruised face and broken voice suggesting false docility, while her calm indicates something dangerous waiting around the corner. “Domergue’s Got a Secret” reads one chapter heading, though that could just as well be the movie’s title, considering all the crone’s got to hide. Daisy takes a beating over the course of three hours, and though some have already suggested that such brutality (often played for laughs) is no way to treat a lady, Tarantino treats her like one of the guys. Frankly, the movie’s gender dynamics aren’t nearly as rich as its racial politics, though the latter subtext is what makes this more than just a fresh stew of “Grindhouse” leftovers, but a deserving hateful eighth entry in one of American cinema’s most distinctive filmographies.