I’ve been a fan of Quentin Tarantino ever since Pulp Fiction introduced me to the auteur’s verbal pyrotechnics, narrative playfulness, and cinematic pastiche – recycling the tropes and conventions of countless crime thrillers, martial arts imports, blaxploitation flics, and spaghetti westerns. Cinema itself makes up a large part of his thematic concerns, to the point where Inglourious Basterds actually features burning nitrate film stock as the means to assassinate Hitler and prematurely end World War II. Over his last seven films, I kept searching for deeper meaning within the Tarantino oeuvre – whether it was the presence or absence of grace in Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, the need to break free from our narrowly proscribed roles or oppressive environments in Kill Bill and Jackie Brown, or his deconstruction of the horror genre’s rampant misogyny in Death Proof. But, as his fascination with revenge grew in films like Basterds and Django Unchained, the nuance in exploring these difficult themes began to disappear. I started wondering if any of the deeper insights I had noticed were merely unintentional accidents. His most recent film, The Hateful Eight, confirmed my suspicions.
The Hateful Eight opens on a snow-covered, barren expanse. A frozen stone crucifix bears a skeletal Christ, filling most of Tarantino’s 70mm frame and signaling that we have left grace, morality, and even basic decency behind. As a six-horse stagecoach approaches in the distance, we’re slowly (and I do mean slowly) introduced to the “hateful” characters who give the film its name. John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is a bounty hunter known as the Hangman (because he prefers to bring his bounties in alive so they can hang) who’s taking the killer Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock where she’ll stand trial for murder. Along the way he picks up Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a former Union soldier turned bounty hunter, and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a former southern raider now appointed the sheriff of Red Rock. With a blizzard hot on their heels, the stagecoach pulls into Minnie’s Haberdashery to wait out the storm where they encounter the remaining members of the titular octet, including the hangman of Red Rock (Tim Roth), a former general of the Confederate army (Bruce Dern), a cowboy (Michael Madsen) coming home for Christmas, and a taciturn Mexican (Demián Bichir) running Minnie’s while its proprietress is mysteriously absent. Locked in a room together for nearly two and a half hours (of the film’s three hour running time), mistrust builds among the travelers and Ruth begins to suspect that one of his fellow guests is there to free Daisy before they can get her to Red Rock.
The film’s first half plays like an Agatha Christie murder mystery set in the Wild West, while the razor sharp dialogue and conflicting character archetypes promise a blood-spattered exploration of our nation’s classist, sexist, and racist past. Sadly, Tarantino is too focused on his own special brand of stylistic excess and isn’t able to deliver much in the way of depth or substance. Any special insights or reflections on the nature of violence in American society appear as if by happenstance. In Tarantino’s world, if it comes down to a choice between being cool or being meaningful, cool will step over meaningful’s lifeless and bloodied corpse every time.
To be fair, there are times in Tarantino’s cinema in which style and meaning walk hand-in-hand. With Jackie Brown, his loving tribute to the blaxploitation films of the ’70s, his use of the cinematic form allows, as well as his casting of Pam Grier in the title role, allows for a critique of the genre’s misogyny. The pastiche of his two-part Kill Bill films takes viewers on a journey through the multiplex, from samurai slasher and Western showdown to Italian zombie horror and De Palma thriller, forcing us to confront our own expectations and thirst for bloody violence as members of the audience. But The Hateful Eight is so filled with contradictory symbolism and a hodgepodge of themes in conflict with one another that I’ve finally come to accept the fact that, in Tarantino’s world, any meaning you can come to is unintentional.
Let’s start with the sexism. (And from here on out, just assume there will be spoilers – see above.)
Early on, we see Ruth casually beating Daisy as they sit cuffed together in the stagecoach. The violence is played for laughs, a slapstick routine out of a screwball comedy executed with perfect timing. Daisy mutters something under her breath, Ruth’s fist flies into the frame and smashes into her face, the audience laughs. And repeat. At first it seems Tarantino might have a deeper purpose behind Ruth’s violent misogyny. Each time he hits Daisy, the camera cuts to a closeup of Warren’s reaction. His eyes narrow. Judgement is scrawled across his face. But no more than five minutes later, when Daisy spits on a letter Warren received from President Lincoln, he hits her even more viciously than Ruth and knocks her out of the moving carriage.
Even here, I had hopes that Tarantino was using these sequences to comment on the ways in which our culture subjugates women and attempts to own their bodies. Ruth plans to make ten thousand dollars by bringing Daisy into Red Rock. By selling her body to the Red Rock sheriff, he’ll have his slice of the American Dream. Had Daisy been a woman who murdered her abusive husband or someone who committed a crime in order to push back against her own oppression, this might have made for an interesting read on the film’s central conflict. Instead, Daisy is a ruthless, bloodthirsty criminal who ends the film twitching violently as the “heroes” string her up to watch her hang.
The film’s treatment of racial issues is even more confounding than its overt misogyny. Warren is a Civil War hero who joined the war effort to “kill white folk,” as Mannix, the overtly racist sheriff elect, describes it. Over the course of the film’s first act, we learn more about Warren’s troubled war record. He was captured by Confederate soldiers and escaped by setting fire to the prison camp, killing enemy and friendly white soldiers alike – an act for which he feels no remorse.
He carries around a letter, reportedly from Abraham Lincoln, that Ruth looks on with reverence. It’s discovered early on that the letter is a forgery, a lie used by Warren as a talisman, a protection from the white men he encounters. This discovery crushes Ruth, a man who – despite his brutality and violence – desperately wants to believe in the promise of America. The lies and ambiguity make Warren an intriguing character. He isn’t blameless or perfect, but a survivor, someone who does what he must to navigate a treacherous and hostile world filled with men who want to see him dead.
However, Tarantino takes these complications a step further, giving Warren one of his patented monologues at the end of the film’s first act. As he talks, Warren goads the Confederate general into drawing his weapon so that Warren can kill the general as an act of “self-defense.” Warren says he met the general’s son, who was off to collect a Confederate bounty on Warren’s head years earlier, and proceeded to humiliate, sexually violate, and kill the young man.
Here Tarantino’s script falls into caricature and racist stereotype – the sexually rapacious and well-endowed black man whose very existence is a danger and a threat to “white civilization.” And when Tarantino essentially castrates Warren with a shotgun blast to the groin, the brutal humiliation of the film’s central African American character is tasteless and becomes an act of cinematic oppression in and of itself.
By the film’s finale, Tarantino has shifted gears again, as Warren and the racist Mannix unite to kill Daisy’s gang and brutally string her up to die horribly. The parallels between the first half and the second are striking – the first half ends with an act of violence between representatives of the North and the South and the second half ends with the possibility of racial reconciliation. But any reconciliation comes at the expense of the film’s central female character, as degraded and humiliated as Warren.
There are claims to be made that Tarantino is attempting to show us that the divisions between men and women are more expansive than the divisions between men of different races or ethnicities. You could also argue that the Tarantino is attempting to deconstruct white fears of the African American community. Or you could argue any number of possible themes that have come up in recent reviews for the film. Those elements are all present in The Hateful Eight. But Tarantino doesn’t do enough with these ideas to counteract the racist and misogynist imagery which permeate the film from beginning to end.
His infatuation with cool wins out every time, and these little scraps of meaning… Well, they’re purely accidental.