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 70 mm 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, growling with cellos, 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 as honest a movie as there's ever been 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 all over beautifully appointed period film sets. As in Django Unchained, Tarantino invests his attention in snowy vistas, rafters and floorboards, whiskers and stagecoaches, risible anachronisms and speech after speech, some sleepy but many of them cruel marvels. Like Christoph Waltz in Inglorious Basterds, Russell is playing a man called "The Hangman"; this time, for good measure, Tim Roth's character takes the nickname, too. Maybe his next flick will be all hangmen.
But this isn't Django II. The Hateful Eight is Tarantino's smallest-scaled effort since Reservoir Dogs, another movie that could work on the stage. It has a traditional play's pacing and structure, with the power forever shifting among its principals, and members of the ensemble left to sit there looking on while the others have their big scenes. (The Hateful Eight disproves the idea that Martin McDonagh plays are Tarantino shaped for the theater). 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 idea 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 Samuel L. 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 a 2012 LA Weekly interview, Tarantino told Karina Longworth that some of Django's inspiration comes from the legend of Jody the Organ Grinder, an "uber-masculine black male figure of folklore" — those are Tarantino's words — celebrated for having "the biggest dick." The story goes that Jody, a slave, was killed by his master after turning up in bed with the master's wife. Then, as Tarantino has it, "He met the devil, fucked the devil, and the devil sent him back to Earth, with a curse to walk the Earth for eternity, fucking white women."
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 Tarantino goes further still, writing Jackson a monologue on the subject that builds like a profane aria. Imagining the Oscar telecast trying to excerpt it is reason enough to hope for a nomination for Jackson, who is terrifying and hilarious here with material that dares you to walk out.
Joke's on us, though. By that point, the movie's been on so long nobody can get their money back.
Jackson also talks some of that ol' black-dick magic in Chi-Raq, a film that likewise features a son of the Confederacy undone by black sexual power. That should throw some heat off Tarantino from the left. The right, though, will howl, because in his historical fantasies Tarantino presents the ancestors of wite America 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, dialogue that's a lifetime removed from the glib use of "nigger" in Pulp Fiction. 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. Jackson's bounty hunter bookends that later with an explanation about why, as he travels white America, he maintains an ingratiating manner and at least one impressive lie: "The only time black folks are safe is when white folks is disarmed." He's not talking about guns. 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, and he's committed to bringing her in alive. For most of the film, she's his silent shadow, a black-eyed joker in the margins of the frame. (Tarantino seems to find the sight of her getting coldcocked funnier than you might.)
Eventually, Leigh, her face covered in gore, seizes The Hateful Eight and makes it her own. Her Domergue wheezes a lot, like Leonardo DiCaprio's fur trapper in The Revenant, a luckless fellow who shares her glee for catching snowflakes on the tongue. (Other correspondences: a nude man dying in the snow and a dedication to chasing Academy voters out of the theater.) 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.
The Hateful Eight
Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Walton Goggins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, and Demian Bichir. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Opens Friday, December 25.