The Hateful Eight, sure enough, is about hate. I can't recall the last movie so explicitly about how all of its characters, and by extension the society that they are a part of, are irredeemably evil, and I certainly can't recall the last one that has such a jolly mood about it. This movie, if I were to start at the end, takes as its theme the idea that the United States of America has racism, misogyny, and violence (both racist/misogynist violence and otherwise) so inherently baked into its soul that there's no salvaging it, and the best thing is to burn it all to the ground and hope that something better takes its place. I happen to think that's a perfectly reasonable attitude, given most of the country's history and especially its very recent history, but that is the territory we're living in: utter, unyielding nihilism. And if you're going to be that utterly nihilistic, might as well laugh about it, right?

At least, Quentin Tarantino certainly thinks so. Calling The Hateful Eight a "comedy" is pushing it, but the film wrings a fair share of laughs out of its bleak material: both from the flippant delivery of Tarantino's customarily stylised dialogue by a characteristically excellent ensemble cast, as well as from sheer visceral shock - this is a film that thrives on horrible acts of violence perpetrated by awful people that comes along so casually and out of no particular rhythm that it's perfectly absurd. I will not do the whole "reviewing the reviewers" thing, which is gross and lazy, but I do think that a lot of nervous laughter at the gonzo weirdness on display is getting mistakenly labeled as "misogynists laughing at a woman being beaten up" by people who for whatever reason didn't choose to meet the film on its own terms.

Anyway, the script for the film, which followed a bizarre path of leaks and staged readings and possible theatrical adaptations before winding up as a movie, is the most classical piece of drama Tarantino has turned out since Reservoir Dogs. Or ever, depending on how strictly you want to use the word "classical" the film subscribes (with one exception) to Aristotelian unity of time, and (with one arguable exception) to unity of place, which is something you don't really see in any movies, let alone those by a filmmaker whose literal most well-known trick is that he likes to shuffle up chronology to make films that evolve along an experiential rather than a narrative arc. The Hateful Eight is none of that - it's downright stately in its steady march, I think to its benefit. Though it's at this point that I need to make it very clear that I watched the film in its super-special 70mm roadshow edition, which is exciting for lots of reasons (the eye-searing clarity of a pristine 70mm film print being not least of those reasons), but the best thing it does for the film is insert an intermission. And I cannot speak to anything about how the film works if that intermission is taken away - almost everything I like best about the film (and I like it a lot: it's not as unusual, complex, or well-made as Inglourious Basterds, but it grabbed my attention more resoundingly; and it's across-the-board better than Django Unchained) springs out of the way the intermission suddenly and definitively re-writes the film's tone, themes, and even its genre.

The intermission is quite a ways from where we should have started, though. The Hateful Eight, more than it is anything, is a Very Long Film, and its first half is Very Slow-Moving, To Boot. More than half of the film (187 minutes in the roadshow version, which includes an overture and other assorted music, along with a few extensions to scenes; I do not actually know what is specifically different in the 167-minute intermission-free cut) is a long, steady crawl: first through a miserable snowstorm in the Rocky Mountains of the late 1800s, with several lost souls gathering in the same stagecoach. The driver, who is not one of the eight of the title and is for a very long time the only non-hateful person we see, is O.B. (James Parks); the passengers are John "Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell), a bounty hunter who paid for the ride to have a private trip with his latest quarry, the feral Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). As the weather worsens, Ruth reluctantly opens his doors for Maj. Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a fellow bounty hunter with a stack of frozen corpses he's trying to transport, and later Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who at least claims to be the new sheriff of the town everybody is trying to get to; but really, all we learn about him for sure is that his daddy was a Confederate hero, who led Mannix's Maurader's - the name recall's Merrill's Marauders of WWII and movie buff Tarantino surely knows the Samuel Fuller film about that unit, but the historical reference is undoubtedly to Quantrill's Raiders, a bloody paramilitary group during the Civil War. Which is the first point at which the film nods to America's limitless history of violence and by no means the last.

Between Domergue's self-indulgent venom-spitting and Mannix's ideologically-motivated racism, things are already awful by the time the stage arrives at its destination for the rest of the movie, an inn and way station called Minnie's Haberdashery. Here, we meet the rest of our title characters: Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), a plummy Englishman who turns out to be a traveling hangman, Bob (Demian Bichir), an ebullient Mexican who has been left in charge while Minnie is away, the creepily taciturn cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), and Gen. Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a Confederate legend in his own right, which makes him both Mannix's immediate idol and Warren's immediate nemesis. And once the pieces are all in place-

-we grind to a virtual standstill. It's the boldest and probably the least-successful of Tarantino's aesthetic gestures that he lets The Hateful Eight simmer so long. The film's first half suffers to a lesser degree to the same unsolvable problem that hampered Django Unchained: editor Sally Menke is dead, and so Tarantino has lost the irreplaceable colleague who kept all of his films crackling with tension during even their slowest narrative passages. Fred Raskin has definitely tightened his game since Django but there are scenes that go on too long (especially inside the stagecoach), and the pacing is often a little bit too stretchy, even given the explicit goal of a steady thrum of slow-boil tension. Certainly, the cutaways between the inside of Minnie's and the fussing about outside are handled with no grace.

For the first half, The Hateful Eight functions primarily as a series of psychological games between individuals who briefly rise to prominence out of the overall ensemble. It's here that the film lingers over the toxicity of its characters and the worldviews they represent, stripping away the illusion of heroism and decency that we want and expect from our protagonists. It's a process that starts from the first time Ruth belts Domergue, a swift and terrifying moment that gets a frightfully loud sound effect; it culminates in the potentially false story that ends the first act, in which our last potential hero reveals himself as either a rapist or a liar who just wants to make an old man suffer. And then, in the form with an intermission, the film tosses us out to regroup and process, and by the time we return, it's suddenly a full-throated Tarantino film, with zippy narration provided by the director himself (his all-time best use of his limited acting skills in one of his movies), manic amounts of blood, and a collision of genre - suddenly, this menacing chamber drama explodes into a contrived murder mystery. I can't name anything quite like it, but it's phenomenally interesting: having let us marinate in moral ugliness for so long, the film starts flinging death and cruelty at us at a clip that would almost be farcical if it weren't so grotesque. And before we can get accustomed to that, it drops into an extended flashback that changes things around entirely for a second time: it's the first time in the movie we see a whole lot of actively nice, likable people, and we know enough by that point to be aware that every single one of them is going to die horribly. It's the film's best sequence, by far: confident thriller filmmaking on par with anything in Inglourious Basterds, with Tarantino stretching the joyful, pleasant banter as far as it can go, and Raskin almost matching the ruthless precision of Menke's cutting in Basterds's farmhouse and basement sequences.

For myself, these twists in energy keep The Hateful Eight always exciting and unpredictable even though there's nothing actually unpredictable about it, and very little that's legitimate exciting; they also have the more pertinent effect of keeping the film's violence and nihilism always right near the forefront, in new and fresh forms so we can never get inured to it. Westerns, by their nature, have always served as referendums on the state of the American national character, and The Hateful Eight finds us deeply lacking as a people. It flags this explicitly: the plot of the first half is all about how the stench of slavery and the Civil War hovers over every interaction between the solitary black character and the variously contemptuous and fearful white characters; the climax is about how the only thing that unites American men of various backgrounds is perpetrating violence against women, and moreover the film's most appalling, disturbingly-framed act of violence as well. A major recurring motif is a letter from President Abraham Lincoln, whose name is invoked as a spectre of Americana at its noblest; this letter is revealed well before the halfway point to be a lie, and the film's final beats use this letter to demonstrate how even with nothing but evidence to the contrary, peole like to believe in the lie of American idealism.

So you know, cheery stuff all around. But it gets the job done. There's a literary quality to its use of symbols and iconography (there's not a single human being anywhere prior to the flashback who counts as a "real person" - they're all different kinds of metaphors) that sets it apart from everything else Tarantino has written, and not always to good effect; he's naturally possessed of a certain bullishness that's an uncomfortable fit with the delicacy otherwise demanded by this material.

Even if the meat of the film is simply too unpleasant to deal with, and that's a legitimate response to it, I think, the film is a great piece of craftsmanship. The world of Minnie's Haberdashery is appointed within an inch of its life by the production design and art direction team, and shot with vivid clarity by Robert Richardson with vastly wide-screen Ultra Panavision lenses on 70mm cameras. Neither Tarantino nor Richardson is constantly clear on how to fill up the frame, but I find the widespread grousing about using this indulgent format primarily on a single interior to be bafflingly misplaced: the clarity and depth provided by the technology (along with Richardson's snazzy use of split diopters to shift the focus within the frame in impossible ways) makes Minnie's Haberdashery stretch out with all the cinematic potential of the snowy landscape that opens the film, with its reduction of the stagecoach to a little blip of movement against an apocalypse of frozen wilderness, with a mournful wooden crucifix looming over. It is, I think it's fair to say, the most striking opening image of 2015, all the more because of Ennio Morricone's savage, droning music underneath - his first Western in decades, and his best score for an English-language production The Mission.

The film is, all in all, opulent and overwhelming; and I think it would remain so even in a smaller scale than I saw it. The yawning void of the room's far walls and the moaning of the music would see to that. Everything about it, from the violent content to the busy deep focus that demands our eyes keep moving around the frame, seems designed to wear us down; it is not, unlike every other Tarantino movie, a fun film, even if it is, in a very dark and bitter way, funny. It is a reckoning. The director's instincts towards showboating work against it building to the fully operatic crescendo it palpably seeks, as does the all-over-the-place acting: Jackson is astoundingly good, cranked down from his usual persona several notches to a threatening stare and rumbling voice, and Leigh's electric performance of a woman who returns male violence with even more savage violence of her own is the best and nerviest works she's done since her career high-water mark, Georgia. But then there are things like Roth's misjudged comedy (justified in the script, but still distracting), or Madsen's perplexingly toneless drifter. Still, even its obvious weaknesses have the courage of their convictions, and the strengths are terrific. For good and bad, this is one of the most distinctive films of the year.