Rated G. Running time: 2 hours 14 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 9; Language 5; Sex 4/Nudity 2 .
Our star rating (1-5): 4
They are free from common human burdens;
they are not plagued by human ills. Therefore pride is their necklace;
they clothe themselves with violence.
From their callous hearts comes iniquity their evil imaginations have no limits
Although I loved Pulp Fiction because of its unusual theme of grace running through its three stories, I have since had ambiguous feelings about Quentin Tarantino other films. His re-imagining of World War Two and the old West in Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained show him on the side of justice, but his overly embracement of redemptive violence makes his films as bloody as Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. He continues on this gory path with this new film, and maybe, as some have charged, added more than a touch of misogamy. The characters in this twisted tale certainly live up to the film’s title. Despite my qualms, one striking image in the film makes me wonder if the writer/director intends us to see this as his version of the Passion Story set in post-Civil War Wyoming.
The image referred to above is the opening one of a large weathered Crucifix standing alongside the road traveled by a stagecoach. The camera lingers on the close-up of Christ’s face, the wood or stone (hard to tell) a weathered grayish color. Then very slowly the camera pulls back to reveal the full figure and then the road. The statue is partially covered by snow, which also blankets the countryside. More snow is falling from the clouded sky, driven by a wind that promises that a blizzard is on the way. The Crucifix stands in mute witness to the faith of Spanish explorers and friars reaching this far north before receding to the warmer clime of the Southwest. This testimony to their zeal remains, but, as we will see, very little of the faith itself was left behind. This is the Devil’s country, well summed up in the old phrase “God forsaken.”
Against the majestic backdrop of snow-covered mountains we see a stagecoach pulled by six horses. Driver O.B. Jackson (James Parks), wrapped in blankets to ward off the cold and the snow, pulls up his steeds when a man stands in his path, his saddle and several dead bodies heaped beside him.
Major Marquis Warren (Samuel Jackson) asks for a ride, but because the coach has been hired excusively by John “The Hangman” Ruth (Curt Russel), O.B. says that he will have to talk with him. Ruth is a bounty hunter shackled to Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), murderer and head of the Domergue Gang. One of her eyes is blackened, and her hair is as unkempt as a grizzly’s. He plans to turn her over in Red Rock for the $10,000 bounty on her head.
The black man also is a bounty hunter headed for Red Rock to collect the bounty on the men he has killed. The two have differing philosophies in regard to their dangerous trade, Warren believing the “Dead” in the “Wanted Dead or Alive” is best because the dead give less trouble. During their conversation Ruth is impressed by the Major’s showing him of a letter sent to him by Abraham Lincoln. He marvels that they were “pen pals.”
A little later the coach stops again for another would-be passenger whose horse has expired. He is Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), but Ruth not wanting anyone else in their crowded compartment, decides to leave him. Mannix states that if he perishes out here in the cold, they will not receive their bounty, and, indeed, will be accused of murder—he is headed for Red Rock to assume his new post as Sherrif. Ruth does not believe him, but decides he had best take him along, just in case. The atmosphere inside is loaded with hostility, the Major having fought in the Union army and Mannix still an ardent supporter of the Cause. Daisy also is contemptuous of “the nigger.”
They arrive at the stopover known as Minnie’s Haberdashery just as the storm descends in full fury. Minnie and her helpers are nowhere to be found. In charge is the bearded Mexican who goes by the Anglo name of Bob (Demian Bichir). Minnie’s companion, the lazy Sweet Bob (Gene Jones), is also gone from the fireside chair he hardly ever vacates. He and Minnie went to tend to a family matter, Bob explains. Sitting near the fire with a chess board between his and Sweet Dave’s chair is an old man dressed in a Confederate officer’s uniform. When Mannix discovers this is General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), he salutes him.
Also holed up in the store is an Englishman calling himself Oswaldo Mowbray (Tim Roth). He too is headed for Red Rock to perform the duties of a hangman. When Ruth tells everyone that he aims to take Daisy to be hanged, she makes the motion of a hanging rope as she turns her head to one side and sticks out her tongue as if breathing her last. The other occupant of the shelter is Joe Cage (Michael Madsen), a man of few words. He answers Ruth’s question about what he is writing in a notebook that it is his memoirs.
The rest of the action takes place in the claustrophobic confines of the store. There are hints that all is not well—a quick shot of a jelly bean stuck in a crack of the floorboards; a door that has to be nailed shut to keep out the wind each time someone goes in or out; and Bob himself, not all looking like one you would entrust your store to. What happened to the lock and latch? (Opening, nailing it shut, only to kick it open again becomes the running joke.) If the atmosphere in the confines of the stagecoach was hostile, it is now poisonous due to the lingering racism and hatred from the Civil War. Although the epithet “nigger” is under-used in comparison to Django Unchanged, it is still almost as stinging coming from the General, Mannix, and Daisy. Some samples of their exchanges: Not caring to know Warren’s name, General Sandy Smithers says, “I don’t know that nigger. But I know he’s a nigger. And that’s all I need to know.” Offering contrasting views: Mannix, “’Cuz when niggers are scared, that’s when white folks are safe,” and Warren, “The only time black folks are safe, is when white folks is disarmed.” Things grow so tense that it is suggested that they divide the room into a Northern and a Southern district.
The story takes on the aspects of an Agatha Christy mystery, especially when someone slips poison into the coffee that dispatches two of the characters in a most gruesome way. Who is the guilty party, and why was this done? Daisy saw who did it, but she is not about to reveal anything. There is also a cold-blooded killing when Major Warren delivers an obscene narrative about how he had forced the son of one of the travelers to commit fellatio on him before shooting prisoner.
In an earlier exchange we learn what a vicious killer during the War Warren had been when Mannix tells the story of the Major’s imprisonment by the Confederates. The prison was built of dry wood, so Warren’s escape plan included setting fire to it. To continue in the sheriff’s own words, “There was a rookie regiment there spending the overnight in the camp! 47 men, BURNT TO A CRISP! Southern youth, farmer’s sons, cream of the crop.” Warren adds, “And I say let ’em burn!” Shocked, Mannix glares at Warren as the black man continues, “I’m supposed to apologize for killin’ Johnny Reb? You joined the war to keep niggers in chains. I joined the war to kill white Southern crackers. And that means killing ’em in any way I can! Shoot ’em, stab ’em, drown ’em, burn ’em, throw a big ‘ol rock on their heads! Whatever it took to keep white Southern crackers in the ground, that’s what I joined the war to do and that’s what I did!”
Clearly this is not a film for everyone. It is not the violence itself that upsets me, but the appaent viewpoint of the filmmaker that violence is not only justified, but enjoyable. The description of Warren’s burning alive the 47 sleeping Rebel soldiers will bring to mind Inglorious Basterds, in which we are intended to celebrate the incineration of a group of Nazis and their wives trapped in an underground bunker. Tarentino’s view of justice is that of the early Old Testament, long before the book of Isaiah was written—indeed his idea of unlimited vengeance gave rise to the command to extract only “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.”. The filmmaker employs an image from the New Testament, the Crucifix, but he does not embrace its message of reconciliation and redemption. (Though it could be argued that he does in Pulp Fiction.)
The plot and characters in this film are fascinating, and Spaghetti Westen composer Ennio Morricone enhances the action and mood with his score. There has been some debate as to whether or not the film is really a Western, despite its setting and time. For those willing to see and think aloud with others about the film, the writer does again reveal and decry the racism that permeates our society—not only that of the post-Civil War period, but also of more recent times, especially that during the period when Hollywood’s version of the Western excluded blacks. During the heyday of the Western in the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s all the mainstream Westerns featured white cowboys, blacks showing up once in a while in servile roles, despite the fact that almost a fourth of real cowboys had been African Americans.
Thus, I can say that The Hateful Eight is a very mixed bag of a film, one that rubs our noses in human depravity. I suggested that it might be discussed as a Passion story—we see the tall Crucifix again in the scene that takes us back a few hours to the morning of the day on which the stage stops at Minnie’s. In this story there is a brutal execution, but one will not be able to find a Christ Figure in it, other than the statue itself. The thoughts, words, and deeds of the Hateful Eight characters are precisely the reasons why Christians believe that Christ came and died on the cross!
This film with a set of discussion questions will be in the March issue of Visual Parables.