The Hateful Eight – You never really know what to expect with Quentin Tarantino. Whether historical revisionism, non-linear narratives, or the constant use of various four-letter words in a variety of new and interesting ways, this director never fails to surprise. However, The Hateful Eight is a very different kind of film from his previous works. Clocking in yet again at around the 3 hour mark, Tarantino takes his sweet time talking about serious, relevant topics, and it somehow works!
Potential plot spoilers ahead, but it’s hard to talk about this film without spoiling one thing or another. Suffice to say that if you’re not squeamish about violence and sexuality, then you’ll be fine with this film. Otherwise, I’d stay clear of it.
In post-Civil War Wyoming, bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) races towards Red Rock with his fugitive prisoner (Jennifer Jason Leigh). On their way, they encounter another bounty hunter (Samuel L. Jackson) and a man who claims to be a sheriff (Walter Goggins). Hoping to find shelter from a blizzard, the group travels to a stagecoach stopover located on a mountain pass, called Minnie’s Haberdashery. Greeted there by four strangers, the eight travelers soon learn that they may not make it to their destination after all.
This sounds like the beginnings of an exciting movie, doesn’t it? This is not so! Somehow, Tarantino takes a panoramic camera and translate a Western setting into a murder mystery/stage play – there’s nothing ironic about it. The film primary takes place in exactly one central location, one fairly large room, and never moves from there for two whole hours. This gives us the opportunity to simmer on the dialogue of this unbelievably great ensemble cast, who really chew into their roles. I don’t think I need to tell you Samuel L. Jackson is the clear standout here, as he’s given a role on par with his previous work in Pulp Fiction – he’s as close as you get to a protagonist, anyway! I don’t think I need to describe the peculiarly Tarantino dialogue – suffice to say if you’ve watched previous films of his, you’ll enjoy the weird mix of vitriol and comedy that gives his work a unique flavor.
But, why should I watched this three hour descent into hell, almost literally? That’s a good question, but The Hateful Eight provides a very good answer. A lot of critics seem to think this a “muddled” film, without a very specific theme or message, but it’s right there in the title – Hate. We could more easily define it as “prejudice”, mostly of the racial kind, but the post-Civil War Reconstruction era is the perfect place for an examination of such issues. Technically, Abraham Lincoln “freed the slaves”, and the assumption of the modern day history class in America was that everyone was OK with this.
It turns out that, no, slavery remained in place – we just sorta renamed it. Enter “convict leasing“; because the South’s economy remained in shambles after the Civil War, most prisons were destroyed and lawlessness became rampant. They had no place to put these prisoners, so where do they go? State governments found they could lease prisoners to local companies and industries for forced labor. You might imagine that the vast majority of these prisoners were black, and you’d probably be right – we don’t just suddenly get over racial animosity because some guy “freed the slaves”.
However, we do universally believe in that mythology of Abraham Lincoln, almost as a sort of mythical figure. He ended slavery and racial prejudice, we say to ourselves, all under the guise that believing it somehow makes it true. Tarantino certainly doesn’t think so. The Lincoln Letter written to the only notable African American guy in the entire film turns out to be a fake – it represents the myth of believing hatred suddenly disappeared with the act of one man. John Ruth believes, vehemently, that belief in this letter shows that he isn’t hateful, or prejudiced, or anything of the sort – but the moment he finds a black man lying straight to his face (and out of need for his own safety), his true prejudices come out.
And before you think Tarantino limits this to the central dichotomy of white vs. black, plenty of other kinds of prejudice crop up. Warren is a black bounty hunter who actually likes killing white people, and there’s no way to justify this – he abuses racists in any way, shape, or form. Unlike in Django Unchained, Warren takes things so far as to sexually abuse the people who would oppress him – he responds to hatred with even more vile forms of hatred, to the point where it’s hard to see anything redemptive at all.
The sheriff and the Confederate general both repeatedly, and often, call black people “n-ggers” with more forcefulness and vileness than I’ve ever seen in a movie. You feel the intensity of it, and the lack of a pastiche soundtrack, instead with a dark and dreary Ennio Morricone soundtrack, tells me that Tarantino made this an intentional decision. A bunch of people in this film hate “Bob the Mexican”, because apparently it’s OK to dislike Mexicans (especially black people). Lawmen hate criminals, and vice versa; Tarantino puts a literal cross-section of America prejudice and hatred into a Wyoming cabin just to watch it explode. Explode, it does, in some of the most visceral violence Tarantino ever put to film. Partly, it feels worse due to our familiarity with the characters and the relative density of the settings, but there’s some really terrible violence in this film (some played for laughs, but that’s QT for you).
And when the bloodshed ends, and a twisted version of vigilante violence ends the movie, the only two guys who weren’t supposed to be in this situation – utterly opposed to each other in identity and beliefs – end up together, reading the fake Lincoln Letter in hopes that, some day, somebody might make this American Dream a reality without the hatred associated with their “union”. The vision of a prejudice-free America is still just that – a vision.
So yeah, if that sounds interesting, it’s one heck of a movie, and one of my favorites from 2015. Only this director could make something so entertaining, thought-provoking, and visceral.