THE HATEFUL EIGHT

If you haven’t seen the movie, don’t read this. So many spoilers below.

As a pure moviegoing experience, few opening scenes thrilled this year as much as Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. The cold grip of snowy Wyoming mountains, on real, beautiful 70mm film, with Ennio Morricone’s sinister music overlaid. These were like Star Wars-opening-crawl chills.

Tarantino’s wild West adventure becomes a natural continuation of the rugged, backward, racially charged Old South he desiccated in Django Unchained. But there’s no redemption or justice in this bitter country. Don’t expect good guys versus baddies. Its moral complexities make The Hateful Eight more balanced than Django‘s overwrought ending, though the payoff is similarly disappointing.

Tarantino’s last act executes each character one by one, as if out of obligation. So the first two tense hours are just a long exposition, in retrospect, and the whole movie’s no more than a dime-novel. There are so many intriguing characters and actors in the mix (Kurt Russell was my surprise favorite) that I expected more from the ending: A great character reveal? Or even a survivor? Nope. Once the bloodshed starts, the wit tapers off.

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“The only time black folks are safe, is when white folks are disarmed.”

Of the eight, Samuel L. Jackson is top-billed as Major Marquis Warren, a feared bounty hunter. His race is significant in post-Civil War America. Jackson, who owes many of his best characters to Tarantino, plays Major Warren with relish. In the movie’s first death, he baits Bruce Dern (“The Confederate”) by recalling how he forced Dern’s son to fellate him — a white man humiliated by a superior black man. Is the story real? Seems to be, and it brings Dern’s prejudices to a boil and costs him his old racist life.

This cues up a message of black justice over white oppression, like Django, but that’s where Tarantino throws us off. Warren gets too cocky as he lines up the suspects, solving the mystery Perry Mason-style, and he’s shot (ultimately fatally) by an unseen Channing Tatum. You can never turn your back. In his final minutes, re-reading his phony letter from Abraham Lincoln: a pipe dream that a noble white president would think of writing to a free black man.

Another member of the eight, Demián Bichir, is the Mexican man overseeing Minnie’s shop. But Jackson, who isn’t fooled, has no trouble disparaging Bichir’s ethnicity to trap him in a lie, and Bichir takes pleasure in hurling racial invectives right back at him. The lone representatives of their race and culture here, these men more broadly must have faced these attitudes day in, day out.

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“When you get to hell, John. Tell ’em Daisy sent ya’.”

In a similar way, The Hateful Eight isolates the women in its cast, but Tarantino’s view of these women is more complicated. After an hour snowed inside Minnie’s place of business, we meet Minnie herself in flashback. She and her shop girls are mighty welcoming to the sinister band of outlaws (and their female driver, Judy) that arrive, flirtatious even — unlike any creatures we’ve seen yet. But they die in minutes, like a splash of exotic color in an otherwise grisly tale. Whatever Minnie’s Haberdashery was before this day, it is no longer a safe zone for femininity.

That leaves Daisy Domergue as our only window into the Western woman. Man, is she a picture. Tarantino’s script de-genders her: she’s a prisoner like any other, only coarser and rottoner than the boys. She’s the first character to call Samuel L. the n-word, and when she’s rebuffed by John Ruth, she says, “I been called worse.” We see evidence of that “worse” immediately, when John Ruth pummels her with his pistol butt for wisecracking. I’d swear the sound effects whenever a man strikes Daisy — and it happens a lot — are louder. Just as in Django, Tarantino undercuts the lively men’s banter and loosely comedic shoot-’em-up vibe with moments of actual pain, which provoked nervous gasps and laughs in our audience.

Is Daisy Domergue worth the $10,000 bounty on her head? Is this a case of society doubling down to punish a woman criminal? The one-by-one shootout in the third act leaves these questions unresolved. As all the men around her shoot and poison each other, she’s still the most vile character on screen. Half of the men’s guts end up splattered across her face. I enjoyed Jennifer Jason Leigh’s commitment, but somehow Daisy herself is lost beneath the blood covering her face. She remains enigmatic to the end, the first pawn in a losing chess game. If you think she’s going to break out, well, this isn’t a movie with survivors. That’s just not Tarantino’s style.

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