Dr. Dawg

The Hateful Eight (spoilers)

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America, says Quentin Tarantino in his “eighth” film (really his thirteenth), was forged out of hatred. As in other Tarantino films, it’s the only true-to-the-world emotion: all others are easily-dispelled illusions. Hatred binds together; it creates and propels history. Its modulations are, in the final analysis, the sum of what we are.

It’s a bleak and profoundly cynical outlook, and Tarantino is remorsely consistent in his development of it. The howling blizzard in winter-desolate Wyoming that envelops the stagecoach station in which most of the film’s action unfolds is a kind of pathetic fallacy, a mirror of the human condition. In Minnie’s Haberdashery, dominant themes of American history and mythology are re-presented in capsule form, like a morality play without the saving lesson. Race is salient, but gender should also be foregrounded. It’s a film of manly men, performed to at least some degree upon women’s bodies.

The Hateful Eight is a classic director’s film. Like Ingmar Bergman, Tarantino tends to treat his characters like vocabulary as he spins his dismal tale. They are types rather than people. Thus there is surprisingly little character development for the most part, with the exceptions of John “The Hangman” Ruth and Major Marquis Warren, the latter a Black soldier in the northern army during the recently-concluded Civil War. Both are bounty-hunters: but Ruth, unlike most in the dead-or-alive game, delivers his outlaws to the hangman rather than taking the easier course. Warren, on the other hand, appears with three dead ones on the stagecoach trail, begging a lift to the little town of Red Rock where he expects to collect his reward.

Inside the coach, Ruth is riding with his prisoner, Daisy Domergue, a murderess with a black eye and a demonic smile. She is continually, almost casually, brutalized by Ruth, to no one’s outrage—not even her own. As in Django Unchained, free use is made of the N-word, directed at Warren, which just careens off his gravitas. He carries a letter allegedly from Abraham Lincoln, wherein, with deep irony, the President expresses optimism about race relations in America—and here we need to place what we are viewing in the present-day context, where Blacks, even children, are considered to be the lawful prey of American police officers. But Warren plays no moral centre of the action: he turns out to be as murderous and sadistic as all of the others—perhaps more so, in fact, given what is revealed of his bloody past.

In a self-consciously cack-handed manner, Tarantino assembles his cast of characters. There’s the former Confederate soldier and (so he claims) the next sheriff of Red Rock, Chris Mannix, who also wanders out of the winter snow to get a ride. Then there are those who wait for them at Minnie’s. Bob, a walking Mexican stereotype; Sanford Smithers, the very image of creaky old Confederate general; Joe Gage, a taciturn fellow who claims he’ll be spending Christmas with his mother; and Oswaldo Mobray, a fussy and annoying Englishman who identifies himself as a hangman.

Effectively trapped in the snow-bound building, the characters and their interactions are so contrived that we are reminded of Tarantino’s earlier Reservoir Dogs, another almost ritualistic enactment of pure violence in a single room. Nothing is as it seems at Minnie’s, of course. An atmosphere of menace is so pervasive that the relatively spacious haberdashery becomes almost claustrophobic. As it turns out, a gang of outlaws is trying to save Daisy from the hangman, and hours earlier they arrived by an earlier stagecoach and took over the place, murdering everyone in it except the old general, who agreed to keep his mouth shut. The victims included Minnie herself, who is an almost too effusively friendly and welcoming Black woman, her shop assistant, her partner Sweet Dave, a Black ostler named Charlie, and the accomplished “Six Horse” Judy, who drove the stagecoach.

Three dead women, out of four women characters. Their casual killing highlights the underlying theme of hatred, reinforced by hyper-machismo. The love they show the visitors is weak. It’s effortlessly wiped out. In the final analysis, it is nothing at all. Hate, not love, is all you need.

The story staggers on to its finish, if not a conclusion, with an orgy of poisoning and shooting, until everyone lies dead or grievously wounded. It’s an Elizabethan revenge tragedy enacted in Wild West costume. Warren is shot in the groin through the floorboards by Jody, Daisy’s brother, who had been hiding in the basement the whole time. Mannix is mortally wounded by Mobray before he guns the latter down. Jody himself is easily dispatched.

The finale: the N-word-spouting ex-Confederate and the Black Major, both mortally wounded, manage to string up Daisy Domergue together, in perhaps the ultimate example of male bonding—which is, as we need to remind ourselves, not love, but complicity. It transcends both history and race. The last of the four women is sacrificed, not to reinforce law and order, but as a male ritual, to honour “Hangman” Ruth.

The Hateful Eight contains no “gratuitous” violence. It’s American history in microcosm. America is a quintessentially violent nation. In its 239 years, it has been at war, foreign and domestic, for 222 of them. The Civil War, a wound from which America aches to this day, claimed 620,000 lives—2% of the population. There is nothing hyperbolic about Tarantino’s roadhouse synechdoche. America’s past and present is a bloodstained tapestry. America was created in violence, it is sustained by violence, and it is imbued to its core with violence. Tarantino faithfully works with the copious material at his disposal. With this film he proves to be no bloody-minded fabulist, but a new and unflinchingly truthful, if overly-didactic, historian.

UPDATE: Reader Marie Snyder begs to differ, in a considered piece of her own.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on December 30, 2015 4:01 PM.

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