The Hateful Eight is a film comfortably entrenched in Tarantino’s auteuristic tradition; a film, espousing seemingly uplifting themes, mediated through the subversive lens of campy, operatic violence.
To place it on the Tarantino spectrum is perhaps too obvious an exercise, but The Hateful Eight seems to be a kind of pastiche of the style of Reservoir Dogs and that of Django Unchained. The former because The Hateful Eight is an ensemble film featuring a cast of misfits characterised by a proclivity for violence, talky, tense, structurally a whodunnit. The latter because of its mise en scene, its provenance, a preoccupation with themes of power relations, revenge, race , and its subversion of traditional genre tropes.
Personally, I see The Hateful Eight as a kind of spiritual successor to Django Unchained, in the sense that it presents the logical progression from the latter film’s upending of the putative power dynamic between white master and black slave. The Hateful Eight features Samuel L Jackson as Marquis Warren, a black former major in the American Civil War, a Django-figure given institutional fiat to impose punishment upon the society that wronged his people. In hiding long after the war’s conclusion from a South-imposed bounty, he makes a living as a bounty hunter. On the way to delivering bounties at the town of Red Rock, Wyoming, he chances upon another bounty hunter, John “The Hangman” Ruth, bringing in the wanted outlaw Daisy Domergue into town to hang. He also meets a former leader of a Southern renegade army, Chris Mannix, now new come to the West as Red Rock’s incoming sheriff. At first, the two, natural enemies – one a black Northerner, another a Southern former Confederate – disdain each other. But as a blizzard forces their procession to seek shelter at a roadside rest stop for the night, it becomes apparent that Daisy Domergue will make a bid to escape, aided by one or more of the denizens of the rest stop. Warren and Mannix are forced by circumstance to work together to find out who the accomplice is and survive the night, and in doing so, they begin to form a sense of camaraderie.
The clear allegory in The Hateful Eight is with the process of reconciliation between North and South, in the aftermath of the Civil War. Like the image of Domergue’s smiling, blood-caked face, it is a putatively uplifting message that is cheekily subverted by the over-the-top violence that accompanies it. This recalls Tarantino’s more recent offerings: Django was a power fantasy about a slave becoming the master through his mastery of the instruments of violence, and Inglorious Basterds was about the a Jewish brigade using methods more brutal than that of the Nazis’ to strike fear into them. These films are revenge fantasies that play upon the audience’s sense of the righteous and twists it into a grinning, bloodsoaked parody of itself.
Much in the same way, The Hateful Eight , while not a revenge fantasy, plays on the audience’s expectations of what is righteous by having a black man and white man work together to visit bloody, ultra-violent justice upon a group of hardened criminals. Tarantino’s films instantiate the Old Testament principle of “an eye for an eye”, or more secularly, “fighting fire with fire”, through the purifying, democratic medium of violence. Here, Tarantino dares us to take pleasure and derive catharsis from watching a bunch of bad guys being punished by the very violence that they have wrought upon the innocent, performed on them by two men acting out an uplifting vision of interracial trust and cooperation.
On a deeper level, violence is American pop culture’s way of characterising the national condition. Violence is the alpha and omega of plot, the one-size-fits-all solution to moralized conflict in the American tradition. Tarantino is merely taking that to its logical end, using hyper-violence to reveal this element of the American condition to its viewers. Push it hard enough and the seeming nobility of purpose of armed struggle is revealed for all its hyperbolic grisliness. This is the strand that characterises all his films, and is perhaps (I think) the one thing that characterises his auteuristic style.
This makes The Hateful Eight, like all Tarantino films, tread a very fine line between violence as statement and violence as gratuitous. There is something to be said for the types of violence that the film portrays – violence against women, sexual violence against men, comic violence that makes blowing people’s heads off funny. Are we, the audience, supposed to relish in the violence for its own sake, to find it not just humorous or risible, but also somehow enjoyable in a sophomoric kind of way? I think that if audiences were to watch Tarantino just for the gory special effects and miss the subtext of what that violence represents, then Tarantino has in a sense failed. But at the same time, that violence must be, on some level, a spectacle, both as a testament to the technical achievement of the film, to establish tone verisimilitude, and also to cater to the target demographic inured to the expectations of a Tarantino film. In that regard, I don’t think The Hateful Eight quite manages that balance perfectly. For one, it visits an inordinate amount of violence on Daisy Domergue, often for comedic effect. Is Tarantino trying to make a point about her primary abuser, John Ruth, with his rough code of justice, the prototypical Western hero-rogue, who with his alternating intimacy with Domergue and bouts of violence gives off the vibe of a wife-beater? If he is, it doesn’t seem quite as developed as it could have been. Apart from that, though, the film has good control over the tone of the gunfights of the final scene, bringing the parable of interracial co-operation to a head over the joyous sounds of pistol-cracking and fountaining blood.
The film does have its fundamental plot-premise holes: for one, there is the question of why the gang bothered to set up a whole complicated song and dance just to rescue Daisy from one man, instead of just shooting him as he entered the haberdashery. There’s also Mannix’s too-quick recovery over Warren’s calculated slaying of the old Confederate General Smithers, whom Mannix appeared to revere. Somehow, I don’t really mind – Tarantino’s films often benefit stylistically from some degree of measured contrivance, and this taut, parlor-tale of revenge and adversity couldn’t have happened without some act of God trapping these poor, lost, violent souls with each other in the parlous confines of a blizzardy night.
I give this film: 4 out of 5 candy jars