One of the initial images in The Hateful Eight — held for many a minute as a stagecoach approaches in the background — is a concrete statue of Jesus hung on the cross. It’s driven into as godforsaken a patch of middle-of-nowhere ground as you could imagine. Despite its sturdy craftsmanship, it seems to sag under the weight of relentless, driving snow — an implication that not even Jesus’s compassionate teachings could survive the harsh elements of nature … or harsher-still elements of human nature.

On one hand, this is Quentin Tarantino impishly inverting sacred iconography as a predictable provocation; happy holidays, everybody! On the other, it’s a fitting introduction to what, after three hours, emerges as Tarantino’s bleakest vision yet, but also his most angrily, wearily ambitious — for good and for ill — in terms of scope and theme. Tarantino finds visual splendor, moral reprehension and somber irony in the film’s setting of Reconstruction-era America: How much reconciliation really happened then … or has in the 150 years since? Were Pride and Prejudice not already taken, it would’ve made a fine title indeed.

In this tale about eight strangers — each with likely dubious and duplicitous motives — stranded during a Wyoming snowstorm at a way station called Minnie’s Haberdashery, Tarantino persists in his playful, perverse prerequisites: split-second eruptions of graphic violence, florid dialogue, esoteric cinema references and musical anachronisms. But Hateful easily represents the most serious, mature level at which he’s considered … well, maybe anything other than his own cineaste’s knowledge.

Although wonderful, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained played into giddy bits of graphic-novel schadenfreude about sticking it to the villains of Nazi Germany and the Confederate South (and the suggestion that both groups were not dissimilar). Each promised a satisfying comeuppance for the bad guys from the start. That’s hardly the case in “Hateful,” which plays like a long, mournful murder ballad for the soul and spirit of America. Like Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, it looks to the past to try and better understand the roiling rancor of today.

Here, it’s a fixed gaze on institutionalized racism and, in its second half, the abandonment of morals as they pertain to justice. Even more so than in Django, the weight of the word “nigger” hits with a wallop — repeatedly, powerfully and never to a numbing point. It is not empty. It is not posturing. It is not pointless. A moment when Samuel L. Jackson’s character enters a room and feels hate on all sides feels ever more melancholy because it could just as easily happen in a contemporary Tarantino film. Ditto the line “When niggers are scared, white folks are safe.” The title of the film’s final chapter horrifyingly hammers home the point for those whom it may have eluded. Tarantino is engaging the effect of epithets in a way we’ve never quite seen from him.

And while plentiful surface-level, locked-room mysteries abound between the characters, their alliances and anxieties assume the shape of our nation’s ideological divisions — each side accusatory and assertive that their way is the right way. Within the expansive space of Minnie’s Haberdashery, these actions divide and conquer them from within … just as has happened, it could be argued, in our nation. There’s also a moment, just before the first bullet flies, in which Tarantino addresses how stories that play into our stereotypical fears distract from the real issues at hand. This flamboyant, graphic interlude — whose veracity is certainly suspect among a group of liars and thieves — is one that, among American filmmakers, only Tarantino or Spike Lee would even dare indulge. (For all their public beefs, The Hateful Eight and Lee’s Chi-Raq arrived from similarly sobering places of dismay and disappointment this year.)

While Hateful is Tarantino’s enraged fireside chat, it’s also a tremendously entertaining, caustically humorous Western. There’s a fantastic, unexpected bit of physical comedy during a prologue scene set in a stagecoach, an amusing running joke about the problematic front door at Minnie’s Haberdashery, and a just-clever-enough insertion of Tarantino into the film himself. Plus, legendary composer Ennio Morricone wrote the score, his first for a Western in decades, without seeing the film but it fits perfectly. He splashes several ladles of giallo red sauce splattered atop the spaghetti Western rumble for which he’s a master. (In a tip of the cap, Tarantino spikes the soundtrack volume as Morricone’s credit appears.)

Although he neither resurrects nor reconstructs any careers this time around, Tarantino has assembled a terrific cast for this band of misfits:

  • Jennifer Jason Leigh is Daisy Domergue, a murderous fugitive with a penchant for farmer blows and racial slurs. She resembles a witch from Macbeth and will fill these men’s minds with scorpions (and lead, should she get the chance). Leigh adds feral energy and firebrand comedy, but also enriches Tarantino’s lament for language that tears us asunder; it rankles when Daisy is called a bitch as well.
  • Kurt Russell is John “The Hangman” Ruth, a bounty hunter bringing Daisy to hang in Red Rock for a $10,000 payout. Russell smothers the John Wayne twang on thick and, with this and Bone Tomahawk, becomes the poster child for excellent 2015 Westerns about more than just bullets in bodies.
  • Jackson is Major Marquis Warren, a Civil War veteran turned bounty hunter who clings to the cred of a commendatory letter from President Abraham Lincoln. You expect, and enjoy, Jackson’s rapscallion provocations. What you get is the actor’s most well rounded Tarantino character to date. And yes, he’s named after a Gunsmoke producer. Point: Tarantino.
  • Walton Goggins is Chris Mannix, a former Confederate renegade claiming to be the incoming sheriff of Red Rock. Nobody — I mean, nobody — emits hollers of hillbilly surprise these days quite like Goggins. But he becomes the unexpected MVP of the film’s second half (more on that in a moment).
  • Demián Bechir plays Bob, the Mexican caretaker of Minnie’s Haberdashery. In more of a bit part, Bechir displays amusing dedication to keeping his eyes at half-mast … and, like Leigh, becomes a secondary symbol of racial and social hierarchy at play.
  • Tim Roth is Oswaldo Mobray, the British-born hangman hired to pull the lever on Daisy. Reunited with Tarantino for the first time in two decades, Roth takes a part you may presume was written for Christoph Waltz … until you realize Waltz may not have pulled off the Peter Sellers-esque chameleonism. Plus, Roth’s monologue about dispassionate justice is a Tarantino all-timer.
  • Michael Madsen plays Joe Gage, a wayward “cow puncher” trying to get home to his mother. Madsen is fine in his usual Madsen ways, if mostly functionary within the plot’s twists.
  • Lastly, Bruce Dern is General Sanford “Sandy” Smithers, a former Confederate general who desperately clings to his title as time marches on, and serves as a fine symbol of the institutionalism at which Tarantino is taking aim.

Hateful’s back half gets a bit too bogged down in gross-out gore and the deconstruction and dissection of diabolical motives. After its most surprising twist, Tarantino digresses for a long flashback that, while indulging another big-name actor, largely concerns details we could cobble together. It’s like interrupting a three-star main course to explain the table setting.

However, the second act also evolves in a way that tests supposed Sheriff Mannix’s sense of justice and the difficulty of remaining dispassionate amid such persuasive fervor on all sides. Goggins transforms Mannix into more than just a hillbilly rube: Here is a man reminded time and again of the lost, fruitless causes for which he and his family have fought. His ideals and ideologies are slowly whittled away, and then assailed just as he’s building them back up into something positive. It’s an odd mix of delivery from evil, and sublimation to it, and Goggins nails those tectonic shifts. His work won’t factor into any awards consideration, but it should, and it helps Tarantino assert that any racial harmony achieved will be played in an ominously minor key.

The Hateful Eight is to Django Unchained (Tarantino’s biggest commercial success) what Jackie Brown was to Pulp Fiction — an unexpected leap to something much more downbeat. After Jackie’s meager box-office returns, Tarantino mostly beat a hasty retreat back to B-movie frivolity. Here’s hoping the same fate doesn’t befall him after this purposefully off-putting, but outstanding opus that’s unruly and untidy and — regardless of your appreciation or loathing — truly unforgettable.

(A note: The roadshow version crafted specifically for 70mm-equipped movie palaces, and the version reviewed here, albeit at a digital-projection screening, runs 187 minutes. Robert Richardson’s enveloping cinematography is sure to offer a sumptuous treat in the 70mm format — especially in the many vistas of hellish tundras and macro images of snow flung up under horse hooves. The 167-minute version coming to most multiplexes this week omits a three-minute overture, a 12-minute intermission and five more minutes. I’m curious to see how much, if any, of its infuriated howl has been hacked away for mass consumption.)