Quentin Tarantino, the only contemporary director of a blaxploitation film, a samurai movie and a Nazi revenge fantasy, baptizes his audiences in blood, rebirthing them through vengeance. But what’s most fascinating about Tarantino’s latest three films – Inglorious Bastards, Django Unchained and now The Hateful Eight – is an awareness of the brutality, an underlying sting for every fetishized spurt of blood.
The Hateful Eight might be Tarantino’s most conservative film in terms of genre and form, yet it is also one of his most observant. The film is like Reservoir Dogs in the world of Django Unchained, or the bar scene of Inglorious Bastards extended to nearly three hours. It might be Tarantino’s most stagey, talky and literary film, but it also feels like one of his most epic. The film was shot on Panavision 70mm, and every nuanced gesture at the edges of the frame, whether deep in the background or tight in the foreground, is clearly visible. The format that has mostly been used to capture stunning landscapes and colossal sights, turns a tight room drama into an epic film of minuscule moments.
Five, six or seven years after the Civil War, John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) is transporting his bounty, the very dangerous Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), when he crosses paths with Major Marquis West (Samuel L. Jackson) on a snowy trail into Red Rock, Wyoming. West, a black man constantly in danger on the frontier, carries a legendary reputation along with a hand-written letter from Abraham Lincoln – apparently they were practically pen pals during the war.
As a blizzard quickly approaches, before settling in at Minnie’s Haberdashery for the storm to pass over the next couple of days, The Hangman’s stagecoach picks up another dubious fellow, Chris Mannix, who is supposedly Red Rock’s new sheriff. But when they arrive, subtle things are off: Minnie is away, the front door’s lock is broken and the coffee sucks. Underneath everything that is supposed to be inviting is an unease.
One of the four men already in the Haberdashery – Señor Bob (Demian Bachir), a Mexican that claims Minie left the place under his watch, Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), the new hangman in Red Rock, Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a cowboy on the way to visit his mother for Christmas and General Smithers (Bruce Dern), a racist that led a regiment for the South during the civil war – is likely working to free Daisy from execution.
Tensions between characters rise, and past allegiances threaten to break the unity of the country. Conflicts between North and South, black and white, law and frontier, come to a head with the entire nation’s prejudices, history and tension in a single room. As constructed narratives of legendary pasts, ideal justice and civility collapse, the characters descend into an anarchic and Hobbesian state of nature. The Hateful Eight is layered with stories within stories, narratives that lie behind the ones we are immediately presented and characters that feel like they’ve lived in four other movies before this one. The labyrinthine deception and the ideals of justice keep things momentarily intact.
(Mild Spoiler Ahead)
When Major West reveals that the letter from Lincoln was a fake, a ploy to disarm white folks, and another way to build his legendary status on the frontier, he becomes demystified, just another expendable black man. Lincoln unites the country; even those from the South drool at the thought of reading the letter.With a heavenly beam of light, Tarantino depicts the letter like a holy relic: untouchable, important and sacred. In the carriage, John Ruth holds and reads the Lincoln letter with glee as he prepares to bring Daisy to justice at the gallows. Indifferent to the letter, Daisy spits on it before falling out of the carriage with John Ruth fettered to her by the wrist. West quickly jumps out of the carriage and brushes snow off the delicate paper. He is frantic to salvage the idea the letter represents, the power it has to unite and disarm, and not its value as a personal memento, because after all, it’s just a fake.
One of The Hateful Eight’s masterstrokes is how it undercuts these facades with comedy: subtle payoffs, a running gag about the mythic histories of each character and also one of the funniest monologues that Tarantino has ever written and that Samuel L. Jackson has ever spoken. QT dialogue comes with a choking hazard, but the cast of Tarantino veterans like Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson and even the newcomers Walton Goggins and Jennifer Jason Leigh, nail every understated punchline. Jokes in The Hateful Eight mean something. They speak to hatred and prejudice. They reveal the falsehoods in the meta-narratives that guide us while showing how essential they are for harmony.
The last shot of the film is the most heartbreaking, moving and relevant of Quentin Tarantino’s career, a moment that speaks to contemporary race relations and more broadly, the collapse of what the film calls “civilized justice” into “frontier justice.” When guts have splatted out all over the floor, when civilization breaks out into primal brutality, and when the meta-narratives that have guided us are shriveled up in a folded piece of paper, there is little to hold us together. As we leave the theater, after the revenge has taken place, what should feel like cleansing water, permanently stains our skin.