It could be said that Quentin Tarantino is a pervert. And not just in the “Wow, he sure likes long lingering shots of his actresses’ feet” kind of way (although that’s demonstrably true), but speaking cinematically, in a much deeper, possibly more unsettling way. His drive to remix standard movie conventions and turn them back on themselves borders on pathological. His career is built on the premise that B-grade content can, with some punchy dialogue, attentive camera work, and judicious editing, be elevated into Oscar-worthy art-house fare, and — this is important — vice-versa. He seems never to tire of showing audiences how well he can craft thoughtfully complex characters from the mud of low-budget grindhouse tropes, nor of the glee he finds in placing them in scenarios in which he may then shoot them in the face.
In “The Hateful Eight,” Tarantino’s sadistic, giggling inner 14-year-old hides so closely beneath the cabin’s floorboards you can see his breath coming up through the cracks. The opening shot of a six-horse stagecoach rumbling inexorably out of a blasted snowy wasteland from an impossible, glorious Wyoming distance tells us explicitly: Something is coming, but you’ll have to be patient. The original orchestral score (a Tarantino first, by none other than Ennio “Fist Full of Dollars” Morricone), cribbed liberally from, believe it or not, John Carpenter’s terrifying remake of “The Thing,” groans and wheezes under the weight of ill portents.
The proximity we’re forced to share
with these people is intimate enough to smell.
And they don’t smell good.
Despite being filmed in a conspicuously widescreen 70mm format, the first two reels of this movie are, peculiarly enough, confined almost completely between the doors of a tiny cramped stagecoach. The remaining action then shifts to the chilly claustrophobia of a single-room mountain trading post in which a motley group of ne’er-do-wells shelter against a raging blizzard outside. Once denied the sweeping mountain vistas the classically epic aspect ratio might have promised, the craggy, weather-worn faces of the cast members take on frightening prominence. Samuel L. Jackson often commands center stage among the bearskin-coated likes of Kurt Russell, Tim Roth, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and, in a nice nod to the film’s Ol’ West inspirations, a creaky old Bruce Dern as a dried up Confederate cracker. Nailed in together in an icy, darkening coffin of a room, the simmering pot-boiler plot is far more Agatha Christie than John Ford. The proximity we’re forced to share with these people is intimate enough to smell. And they don’t smell good.
As the players are revealed in the first half of the story, literally introducing themselves by name with long stretches of dialogue regarding their respectively violent and/or criminal backstories, we come to understand that there are no white hats in this western. Mercenaries, murderers, arsonists, slavers, and executioners to the last of them, all trapped together like a wild bunch of “Bonanza” guest stars with every trace of moral center hacked out. Escape is not an option. Trust is not an option. Their paranoia swells and presses against the drafty wooden walls until it has nowhere to go but into the audience.
The efficacy of Tarantino’s methods to ratchet up the suspense are undeniable, but exactly to what end he was hoping these tensions would lead remains something of a question. Perhaps he’s got messages boxed in here with all these despicable people, possibly about the persistence of racial inequity, or the law being handed over to cold-hearted killers, or the abomination of violence against women — all of which are on plain display. But whatever messages he intended are nearly all drowned in the second half in the profuse ropey gobbets of brains and blood that explode all over everything when his inner 14-year-old finally pops up from the basement to make sure you remember, in case the music wasn’t enough, that this whole venture is an homage to the similarly visceral snowbound whodunit, “The Thing.”
As artfully rendered as it is vulgar and cruel, it’s a little horrifying. It’s a little perverse. It’s a lot Quentin Tarantino.