Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” arrives strutting and fretting with cinematic significance: Now playing in its big-screen “roadshow” version, it’s been lovingly photographed on archaic 7omm film stock, its presentation preceded by a breathtaking overture by spaghetti-Western maestro Ennio Morricone and interrupted midway through by an intermission.
Tarantino, an outspoken champion for preserving endangered genres and platforms, wears his passions so earnestly that it’s all the more disappointing when the actual movie turns out to be so puny. He’s thrown everything he has in scale, style, scope and self-importance at what amounts to a cramped, if initially colorful, parlor game. “The Hateful Eight” never lives up to its intriguing opening minutes and provocative premise, its wide-screen canvas wasted on a talky, claustrophobic chamber piece that descends, in due Tarantino fashion, into a mean-spirited slough of bloodshed and mayhem.
This is not to suggest that “The Hateful Eight” doesn’t have its promising moments. The film, which takes place in the Wyoming hills in the late 19th century, has been marvelously shot by the great Robert Richardson, whose vast snowscapes and unerring eye for grandeur anticipate “The Revenant,” opening in a week or two. After some magnificent shots of the surrounding vistas, however, the film finds its true focus, starting with a motley crew traveling by carriage to a town called Red Rock, and ending at a lonely cabin called Minnie’s Haberdashery, where the titular cast of characters embarks on a profane chamber piece of shaggy-dog soliloquies as windy as the landscape outside.
The players in this wordy roundelay include the bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell); his latest quarry, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh); a legendary Union veteran named Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson); and a former confederate soldier played by Walton Goggins. When the foursome takes shelter at Minnie’s to ride out a blizzard, they find their mirror image in a group already ensconced, including an aged Confederate general (Bruce Dern); a prim, British-accented gentleman played by Tim Roth; a taciturn loner (Michael Madsen); and a mustached figure known only as Mexican Bob (Demian Bichir).
For those keeping score at home, more than the nominal number of characters come and go in “The Hateful Eight,” which evokes the hermetic atmosphere and taut psychological underpinnings of such classics as “Stagecoach” and “The Petrified Forest,” but eventually winds up feeling more like a hysterically pitched live-action version of “Clue.” Casting immediate suspicion on who’s in cahoots with whom, and trying mightily to sustain interest as red herrings blow in through the cabin’s busted door (an amusing bit of recurring business), Tarantino arranges and rearranges his characters, the better to speechify, spout racist and sexist epithets and spin yarns — especially Warren, whose jeremiads Jackson infuses with booming, basso-profundo force.
For its theatrical staging and verbal arias alone, “The Hateful Eight” possesses some degree of enjoyment, even if Tarantino’s meditations on post-Civil War race relations feel more opportunistic than observant. What’s more, the links he makes between the commodified bodies of bounty hunting and enslavement feel warmed over from “Django Unchained.” In that 2012 movie, the filmmaker’s analogies felt audacious and improbably on-point. Here, they’re no more than convenient scaffolding for the violent excesses that, when you get to the down and dirty essence of most Tarantino films, have always interested him most.
Even in the midst of what amounts to a Wild West death trip, a few performances in “The Hateful Eight” stand out, especially Dern’s quietly wild-eyed depiction of an embittered Lost Causer; Goggins’s note-perfect, very funny rendition of a slow-witted cowpoke; and Russell’s simultaneous channeling of John Wayne and Yosemite Sam. Although nearly everyone gets it in the neck eventually (one more graphically than the others), it’s the cackling, spitting Leigh who comes in for the most abuse in a story that has her chained to her captor for much of the running time. Cracked on the head, elbowed in the nose, burned, vomited on and ultimately relieved of her two front teeth, she’s also the first character to utter the racial slur that’s as recurrent as the random punches and socks to the jaw.
The climactic bloodletting may make for merry times for fanboys and fetishists, but it’s difficult to reconcile Tarantino’s infectious joie de vivre with the scorched-earth nihilism he uses it to celebrate. He’s compared “The Hateful Eight” to an Agatha Christie mystery, suggesting a cozy world being temporarily upended but finally set to rights. No such reassurance is forthcoming in what is finally a tiresome, self-indulgent burlesque of grindhouse gore-mongering, albeit one festooned with pseudo-deep ideas about America’s toxic racial legacy. Even Professor Plum, with an entire armamentarium of candlesticks and lead pipes at his disposal, couldn’t dream up a game this airless, there-less and, finally, clueless.
R. At area theaters. Contains strong bloody violence, a scene of violent sexual content, crude language and some graphic nudity. The 187-minute “roadshow” version of the film opens, in 70mm, on Christmas day; a digital version of the film opens Dec. 31, at 167 minutes.