Time and again, Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight contemplates the definition of surrender and the humiliation of defeat. It does so within a tightly wrapped black comedy/Western/thriller that feels like the genre equivalent of a Russian nesting doll.
In every scene, details of wordplay and gesture build upon each other to form a strong foundation of suspense. Even the shortest conversation becomes a standoff posing questions about ideology and identity that simmer under the surface before bursting through like a shotgun blast perforating wood flooring. It's horrific, uncomfortable, funny and diabolical, a singular examination of what happens when ugliness poses as reconciliation.
Taking place some years after the Civil War has ended, The Hateful Eight still bares the battle scars of a nation ripped apart by racism and profound sacrifice. Faces and bodies are continually defiled in stunning fashion, a theme made more unsettling after hearing Ennio Morricone's foreboding score that echoes through the big sky country. These musical notes might as well be rolling thunder.
Tarantino, the controversial director behind such brutal classics as Pulp Fiction, Inglorious Basterds, Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill, has flirted with human desecration before. But here the exaggerated carnage feels different. Gore isn't meant to shock or glamorize or entertain, but to confront and contextualize America's desperate need to wipe away past traumas through cyclical violence.
Unfolding primarily in a cramped general store high atop a snowy Wyoming mountain range, the film is shot in the rare Ultra Panavision 70mm format and features a cast of roughneck devils as ruthless as they are unredeemable and deceiving. The image is just as stretched as the characters' scruples.
Seasoned bounty hunter John "The Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell) escorts his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a venomous cipher whose crimes are withheld from the audience. While the pair travel by stagecoach through a frozen purgatory, they happen upon another mercenary, Union Army Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and the recently elected sheriff of Red Rock, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), both of whom are stranded in the cold.
Continuing his obsession with close contact assaults (both verbal and physical), Tarantino forces these characters together in a moving pine box. We immediately get a sense of The Hateful Eight's seething energy through their exchange. One cannot tell the difference between a threat and a promise. This is the slowest form of suffocation.
The four surly passengers eventually arrive at Minnie's Haberdashery ahead of a massive blizzard, forcing them to hole up with the other residents already sequestered. Immediately things feel off. Tarantino's merciless script builds relentless tension out of inconsistencies, leaving the audience under an oppressive cloud of doubt. To say any more about plot would threaten to spoil a film that works best for a viewer going in blind.
While Tarantino's writing is expectedly sharp, his stylistic choices stand out, too. Wide mountain range vistas and skylines provide an epic counterpoint to the dangerous interiors of the haberdashery. A slow motion rampaging carriage offers a lesson in warped depth perception. Most impressive are twin crane shots bookending the film, images that carry near-biblical thematic weight in their small, calculated movement.
The Hateful Eight, which starts shedding blood on Friday, Dec. 25, wouldn't be itself without the nervy performances of its diverse cast. Some are long-time Tarantino regulars (Tim Roth, Michael Madsen) and others fresh meat (Demian Bichir, Goggins). But all are up to the task of deconstructing the archetypes they've been tasked to play by grappling with performance as a nefarious occupational hazard. For them, trickery is a science.
Yet no matter how hard these characters try to separate themselves as individuals with opposing beliefs or motivations, everyone stays organically connected through a history of good olí fashion American violence. This is the winter of their discontent, and you can bury all those illusions of democracy and progress six feet under the snow.