Watching Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Hateful Eight’ Is Three Hours of Self-Punishment and I Loved It

Tarantino gives us a hangman-based civilization, with specious “law and order” talk doing nothing to obscure the essential cruelty of his characters’ actions.

Eileen JonesJanuary 14, 2016

The Hate­ful Eight is a glo­ri­ous­ly grotesque odd­i­ty made by a tal­ent­ed freak con­jur­ing up some obscure mean­ing that’s for him to know and us to find out. Only Quentin Tarantino’s immense pop­u­lar­i­ty, based on his films’ cathar­tic gouts of blood and dia­logue, could have allowed him to make such a crazy and com­pelling Grand Guig­nol Western.

Against that harsh backdrop that represents both utopian promise and perpetual struggle, characters in Westerns engage in confrontations that test whether or not a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the principle that all men are created equal can long endure—or, if it endures, can ever develop a worthy civilization based on such ideals. Tarantino’s answer in The Hateful Eight, expressed with a kind of unholy glee, is “no fucking way."

The film takes Tarantino’s ten­den­cy toward out­ra­geous genre film com­bos to an unprece­dent­ed point of strange­ness. He plants a truth-seek­ing who­dun­nit” struc­ture straight out of an Agatha Christie mys­tery into his ultra-vio­lent spaghet­ti West­ern, with Samuel L. Jack­son tak­ing on the behav­iors of a badass fron­tier detec­tive seek­ing an ulti­mate cul­prit, the guilti­est par­ty or par­ties in a gang of equal­ly ruth­less liars, killers and god­for­sak­en sumbitches.

Per­son­al­ly, I like it when a gift­ed direc­tor at a mid-to-late-career stage goes com­plete­ly berserk and tries for some­thing bizarre and impos­si­ble. What’s wealth and suc­cess for, if not to inspire the huge cre­ative leaps that might mean fail­ure, ignominy and fan melt­downs on social media?

The entire film is set up as a chal­lenge. The puni­tive run­ning time of 3 hours, 7 min­utes, with inter­mis­sion in some locales; the trek to the the­ater in your area, if there is one, that’s show­ing the film in 70 mil­lime­ter Panav­i­sion, a now-anti­quat­ed for­mat that’s caus­ing pro­jec­tion prob­lems all over the coun­try; the pain of pay­ing almost dou­ble for your tick­et; and then the rag­ing baf­fle­ment of watch­ing the film.

It’s eas­i­er for cinephiles like me to meet this chal­lenge, of course. Give us a few sub­lime for­mal effects ear­ly on and we’ll sit there till dooms­day in a state of Zen contemplation.

Ter­ror and beau­ty in the Western

How well you weath­er the expe­ri­ence might come down to how thrilled you are about rare and awe­some shots — like, for instance, the first one in the film. The cam­era cranes back slow­ly and incre­men­tal­ly, from a close-up of the carved wood­en face of Christ nailed on the cross, wear­ing a bur­den of snow on his head, to an extreme wide shot of the big cru­ci­fix over­look­ing a vast, cru­el snow-scape as our stage­coach full of bas­tards thun­ders by in the back­ground. One nation under God!

If you can’t get all worked up about things like that, you might want to save your­self the trou­ble of see­ing The Hate­ful Eight.

No one’s pay­ing enough atten­tion to the sheer splen­dor of the film’s first chap­ter,” and the impact it has, or should have, on the rest of the film. There’s a stu­pid-crit­ic ten­den­cy to dis­miss the ear­ly out­door scenes as neg­li­gi­ble because the indoor scenes at a sin­gle loca­tion dom­i­nate the film to the point of per­ver­si­ty. But the exte­ri­ors are vital to the film.

All ambi­tious West­erns must estab­lish the sub­lime qual­i­ty of the ter­ri­to­ry, which is gen­er­al­ly more ter­ri­fy­ing than beau­ti­ful. It’s the nec­es­sary con­di­tion for con­tem­plat­ing America’s Found­ing, which Amer­i­can film­mak­ers a cen­tu­ry ago locat­ed on the West­ern fron­tier rather than at Val­ley Forge or the Con­sti­tu­tion­al Con­ven­tion in Philadel­phia. (Think about it: How many Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War films have you ever seen?)

One of the most mag­nif­i­cent scenes in this film involves two men strug­gling to set up a rope-line from cab­in to out­house in a howl­ing bliz­zard, with Ennio Morricone’s eerie, dis­cor­dant music keen­ing through­out. There’s no nar­ra­tive pur­pose to jus­ti­fy the length or impres­sive­ness of that scene. It’s there to insist on the raw pow­er of the land and its cli­mate, and the hope­less­ness of human endeav­or with­in it.

Against that harsh back­drop that rep­re­sents both utopi­an promise and per­pet­u­al strug­gle, char­ac­ters in West­erns engage in con­fronta­tions that test whether or not a nation con­ceived in lib­er­ty and ded­i­cat­ed to the prin­ci­ple that all men are cre­at­ed equal can long endure — or, if it endures, can ever devel­op a wor­thy civ­i­liza­tion based on such ideals. John Ford’s answer, expressed with con­sid­er­able heart­break in his clas­sic film Stage­coach and sev­er­al of his oth­er great West­erns, is No.

Tarantino’s answer in The Hate­ful Eight, expressed with a kind of unholy glee, is no fuck­ing way.”

With lib­er­ty and jus­tice for all

Yet we go on rever­ing the ideals asso­ci­at­ed with Amer­i­can lib­er­ty and equal­i­ty, even as we vio­late them with every action we take. You’ll see what I mean when Wal­ton Gog­gins, a god among actors, reads the Lin­coln let­ter” as the end of The Hate­ful Eight. If that doesn’t get you like a gar­rote around your throat, you ain’t no prop­er American.

Like John Ford set­ting up his micro­cosm of the West in Stage­coach, by gath­er­ing a range of typ­i­cal West­ern char­ac­ters into one claus­tro­pho­bic space with­in a des­o­late land­scape of max­i­mum dan­ger, Taran­ti­no takes his time set­ting the con­fin­ing scene for con­fronta­tions. Of course, Taran­ti­no makes some fun­da­men­tal changes to Ford’s approach. His cru­el West­ern land­scape show­cas­es moun­tains and bliz­zards, not desert scrub­land between grand mesas. And Tarantino’s West­ern char­ac­ter types are almost all bad men” (plus one bad woman) as the title sug­gests, instead of Ford’s clear hero with a tar­nished past (John Wayne as the Ringo Kid) and myr­i­ad col­or­ful fig­ures such as a the drunk­en doc­tor, the South­ern gen­tle­man gam­bler and the pros­ti­tute with a heart of gold. Ford’s char­ac­ters all have clear oppor­tu­ni­ties to present them­selves as exem­plary Amer­i­cans by over­com­ing dif­fer­ences to work togeth­er, learn­ing tol­er­ance and respect for one anoth­er in a con­di­tion of per­pet­u­al crisis.

And for a very brief inter­lude, as a trav­el­ing unit, they con­quer their lim­i­ta­tions suf­fi­cient­ly to achieve some­thing like a decent lit­tle civ­i­liza­tion. (If you can ignore John Ford’s own diehard prej­u­dice against Native Amer­i­cans, that is, which iron­i­cal­ly locates the nar­ra­tive with­in a con­text of blind hatred.)

Taran­ti­no fore­clos­es any such star­ry-eyed pos­si­bil­i­ties. His eight” are estab­lished as irre­deemably hate­ful from the begin­ning, and the only alliances that are cre­at­ed are forged in duplic­i­ty, venal­i­ty and abhor­rence. Just fig­ur­ing out amongst them how to keep the door shut against gale-force winds takes a laugh­able amount of stu­pid­ly repeat­ed instruc­tions, shout­ing, curs­ing and non­sen­si­cal hos­til­i­ty toward the door. (“That door’s a whore,” one says repeatedly.)

In the com­plex flash­back struc­ture, we even­tu­al­ly dis­cov­er that any benev­o­lent com­mu­ni­ty has already been destroyed before we arrive at the iso­lat­ed stage­coach stop called Minnie’s Hab­er­dash­ery, with our first five char­ac­ters on that fate­ful stagecoach.

There’s John The Hang­man” Ruth (Kurt Rus­sell), a boun­ty hunter famous for his com­mit­ment to bring­ing in want­ed crim­i­nals alive, which is much more trou­ble than dead, so he can see them hang; his fer­al pris­on­er Daisy Domer­gue (Jen­nifer Jason Leigh); a rival boun­ty hunter res­cued from the oncom­ing bliz­zard, for­mer Union offi­cer Major Mar­quis War­ren (Samuel L. Jack­son), whose past includes a scan­dalous escape from a South­ern prison that killed many white sol­diers on both sides of the war; anoth­er bliz­zard res­cue, Con­fed­er­ate loy­al­ist Chris Man­nix (Wal­ton Gog­gins), claim­ing to be the new sher­iff of the near­est town and also a for­mer mem­ber of his father’s maraud­ing Mannix’s Maraud­ers” which ter­ror­ized the black pop­u­la­tion of the bor­der states; and O.B. Jack­son (James Parks), the harassed stage­coach driver.

There they meet a rogues gallery of oth­er out­landish fig­ures that tend to pop­u­late the most inter­est­ing West­erns. (This film is an actors’ jam­boree, with a fierce com­pe­ti­tion waged to deter­mine who can give the most flam­boy­ant­ly mem­o­rable per­for­mance. Hon­ors go to Jack­son, Gog­gins, and Leigh.)

There’s Oswal­do Mobray (Tim Roth), a tit­ter­ing Brit who iden­ti­fies him­self as the territory’s real hang­man; lacon­ic cow­boy Joe Gage (Michael Mad­sen); Bob (Demián Bichir), the mys­te­ri­ous, squint­ing Mex­i­can claim­ing to be mind­ing the store at Minnie’s Hab­er­dash­ery; and testy old Con­fed­er­ate Gen­er­al Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), always pre­pared to refight the Civ­il War from his armchair.

The per­sis­tence of the Civ­il War as an orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple for The Hate­ful Eight, in the form of furi­ous­ly flung insults and rhetor­i­cal revenge among Union and Con­fed­er­ate par­ti­sans, is typ­i­cal of the West­ern genre, where South­ern char­ac­ters and val­ues in par­tic­u­lar relo­cat­ed to make a last stand. Hon­or cul­ture, vig­i­lan­tism, and insti­tu­tion­al race hatred, all social sys­tems asso­ci­at­ed with the Con­fed­er­a­cy, flour­ish in the Western.

One exam­ple of this cul­tur­al trans­fer­ence is leg­endary real-life South­ern­er Jesse James, an unre­gen­er­ate Reb who made his name as a mem­ber of Quantrill’s Raiders before becom­ing a bor­der state bank rob­ber. Pop nov­el­ists and Hol­ly­wood film­mak­ers trans­ferred him and his like to the far West, where they jos­tle against fic­tion­al North­ern and South­ern loy­al­ists, along with a wild mix­ture of peo­ple from all points of the coun­try and even the globe, in a no-man’s land of stark neutrality.

Here is a coun­try so wide-open that, in ear­ly West­erns, it inspired hope and awe. Sure­ly, look­ing at such a land­scape, one could believe in a new birth of free­dom” that Lin­coln resolved upon at Get­tys­burg, where gov­ern­ment of the peo­ple, by the peo­ple, for the peo­ple, shall not per­ish from the earth.”

But then you take a look at the people.

Even the sun­ni­est clas­sic West­erns are fun­da­men­tal­ly con­cerned with bad men” over­run­ning frag­ile set­tle­ments, infa­mous gun­slingers, crooked gam­bling syn­di­cates, fer­al clans like the Clan­ton fam­i­ly that run their ter­ri­to­ry like rur­al gang­sters. In revi­sion­ist West­erns from the 1950s on, the land­scape is increas­ing­ly pop­u­lat­ed by evil preda­to­ry bas­tards, under­scor­ing how the bad are enabled by lib­er­ty” and the open­ness of the land. Con­sid­er John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Lib­er­ty Valance, in which the psy­chot­ic killer ram­pag­ing around the West is named Lib­er­ty.”

Taran­ti­no push­es this asso­ci­a­tion of free­dom and rapa­cious vil­lainy to a car­toon­ish lev­el, mak­ing his main char­ac­ters extreme vari­a­tions of Lib­er­ty,” includ­ing the boun­ty hunters who are as nasty as the crim­i­nals they catch or kill for prof­it. A large per­cent­age of the char­ac­ters have, or had, large boun­ties on their heads that serve as a con­stant temp­ta­tion to mer­ce­nary yahoos all over the country.

When the dark side of lib­er­ty is under con­sid­er­a­tion, the law and sys­tems of jus­tice become the focus. In The Man Who Shot Lib­er­ty Valance, it’s East­ern lawyer Ranse Stod­dard who tries to face down Lib­er­ty in a shootout, and notably fails to kill him, though he’s giv­en the cred­it for it and builds a polit­i­cal career on it. In Hate­ful Eight, it’s Oswal­do Mobray, the territory’s hang­man, who speaks for the law and jus­tice. Civ­i­liza­tion, he argues, rests on dis­pas­sion” in legal pun­ish­ment, which is rep­re­sent­ed by the hang­man, a pro­fes­sion­al deal­er in jus­tice as opposed to a lynch mob.

A hang­man-based civ­i­liza­tion does seem to be what Tarantino’s show­ing us, with spe­cious law and order” talk doing noth­ing to obscure the essen­tial cru­el­ty of his char­ac­ters’ actions. 

The hate­ful eight” are all charg­ing each oth­er with crimes, and advo­cat­ing or deal­ing out ghast­ly pun­ish­ments. The film opens with a shot of Christ hang­ing on his cross — the cat­a­lyst for the nar­ra­tive is a boun­ty hunter called The Hang­man” trans­port­ing a mur­der­er to town to be hanged — and the film ends with a bru­tal­ly pro­tract­ed hang­ing inside the cabin.

Though it should be fac­tored in that Mobray, in claim­ing to be the real hang­man, is lying about him­self. Most of the char­ac­ters are lying in Hate­ful Eight. Much of the who­dunit” process is about reveal­ing true, or at least more plau­si­ble, back­sto­ries and cir­cum­stances behind the whop­ping lies they tell about themselves.

With its out­sized char­ac­ters and out­ra­geous long yarns and its own wild nar­ra­tive struc­ture com­plete with chap­ters, the whole film engages in the Amer­i­can tra­di­tion of tall-tale telling, though vil­lain­ous exploits are sub­sti­tut­ed for the enter­tain­ing­ly exag­ger­at­ed sto­ries once told of the hero­ics of Daniel Boone, Davy Crock­ett and Calami­ty Jane.

Tall-tale telling is woven into the mean­ing of the film as a fun­da­men­tal part of the way Amer­i­cans have defined our­selves. We run on myths and elab­o­rate lies, a crip­pling reliance that John Ford exco­ri­at­ed in The Man Who Shot Lib­er­ty Valance, with its famous­ly crush­ing dis­missal of the truth by a news­pa­per­man: When the leg­end becomes fact, print the legend.”

Shit­ting on the Lin­coln letter

The film’s most painful leg­end-in-the-mak­ing involves the Lin­coln let­ter,” a motif wind­ing through the Hate­ful Eight nar­ra­tive from begin­ning to end. It’s the most mad­den­ing aspect of Tarantino’s gory night­mare vision of the West, bring­ing togeth­er our Civ­il War obses­sion with our need for heroes, myths, and con­stant embiggen­ing. There’s a lin­ger­ing rev­er­ence attached to the let­ter through­out, even as it gets spat on, scorned, blood­ied and crum­pled. North­ern­ers and South­ern­ers alike want to see it, to hear it read, to bask in the home­spun warmth of the mar­tyred president’s words. Yet this sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty in no way inter­feres with the char­ac­ters’ per­pet­u­al vicious­ness, or pro­vides any hope of the nation’s redemption.

The man who car­ries the let­ter is the near­est to a pro­tag­o­nist” the film gets, the truth-seek­ing ex-Union offi­cer turned boun­ty hunter Major Mar­quis War­ren, played by Tarantino’s long­time muse, Samuel L. Jack­son. We are aligned force­ful­ly with him when he enters the cen­tral loca­tion of the film, the cab­in that will be awash ankle-deep in blood by the end. The let­ter has served as a kind of pass­port that has allowed the Major, a black man of con­sid­er­able noto­ri­ety, some mea­sure of safe trav­els through an infi­nite­ly hos­tile white world. Got me on that stage­coach,” he says.

If we put that line back into John Ford’s terms again, get­ting on the stage­coach means get­ting to play a sig­nif­i­cant role in the culture’s pop­u­lar rep­re­sen­ta­tion of its found­ing. But Taran­ti­no has now pushed the vision of that found­ing into a realm of ludi­crous, sur­re­al sav­agery. No one could want a seat in that coach.

The stage­coach in Ford’s vision trav­els to Lords­burg, an iron­i­cal­ly named town of vio­lent and exploita­tive fron­tier hor­rors, from which the pro­tag­o­nists — the pros­ti­tute and the out­law — are res­cued by a kind­ly mar­shal who was ini­tial­ly charged with bring­ing the Ringo Kid to jus­tice,” or at any rate to jail. Dr. Josi­ah Boone sends them over the bor­der to Mex­i­co where they might have a chance at hap­pi­ness, say­ing, Well, they’re saved from the bless­ings of civilization.”

In Tarantino’s vision, the stage­coach only goes as far as Minnie’s Hab­er­dash­ery. And no one is saved.

Eileen Jones is a film crit­ic at Jacobin and author of the book Film­suck, USA. She teach­es at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Berkeley.
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