This essay contains spoilers for “The Hateful Eight.”
“Startin’ to see pictures, ain’t you?” Quentin Tarantino closes the first half of “The Hateful Eight” with a provocation that’s practically a gloat. Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a Civil War veteran turned bounty hunter, finds himself snowbound in a Wyoming cabin with Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), an openly racist Confederate general who brags about executing captive black Union soldiers and throws around the n-word like it’s going out of style. (In Tarantino’s movies, it never is.) Rather than rise to the challenge, Marquis tells a story, purportedly detailing the last moments of Sanford’s vanished son, whom he’s come to this snowy wasteland to bury. It was, Marquis says, getting right in his target’s face, “the day he met me.”
The tale Marquis spins is an elderly racist’s worst nightmare: How Sanford’s son came to Wyoming seeking to collect the Confederacy’s price on Marquis’ head, and ended up being marched through the snow naked at the point of his target’s gun. Marquis leers and licks his lips as he recounts how he coerced the freezing man to perform oral sex on him, conjuring as many euphemisms for his private parts — pecker, dingus, johnson — as the movie has for his race: smoke, darky, “black major.” There’s no way of knowing whether, or how much of, the story is true, and how much is a ruse to get Sanford to lunge for the gun Marquis has carefully placed within his reach. (Tarantino shows us the pictures, but leaves it unclear if they’re real.) Either way, it’s as pure a distillation of racist anxieties as anything in “The Birth of a Nation,” and it has the desired effect: Sanford goes for his gun, and Marquis calmly shoots him through the heart.
Watching “The Hateful Eight” is a little like being Sanford Smithers, knowing that Tarantino wants you to jump, and feeling like a sucker when you do. The racist banter of “The Hateful Eight’s” first half is a mere prelude to the all-out assault that follows after the roadshow version’s intermission. Within a few minutes, two characters are vomiting torrents of blood; shortly after that, another’s head is obliterated with two blasts of Marquis’ pistols. (It’s fitting that in the movie’s closing credits, the first name after Tarantino’s is that of horror effects maestro Greg Nicotero.) It could have been worse — in the official script posted online, Sanford burns to death after being shot, and another character is eaten alive by rats — but even so, Tarantino has never worked so strenuously to get a rise out of his audience. Like “The Wild Bunch’s” slow motion, “The Hateful Eight’s” much-bruited 70 mm cinematography forces the audience to see screen violence with new eyes. (That alone would justify Tarantino’s determination to revive the obsolete format, and there’s also what 70 mm does to the texture of the actors’ skin — itself one of “The Hateful Eight’s major subjects.) But where Sam Peckinpah’s fascination was tinged with horror, Tarantino’s runs on glee. You can practically hear him crowing, “Check this shit out.”
Much has been made of “The Hateful Eight” as Tarantino’s “most political movie,” but reading it as a statement on, say, Black Lives Matter or the failure of the American justice system feels like reaching for that gun. You’re playing right into Tarantino’s hands, filling in the blank spaces he’s left for you to add your own meaning. Like “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained,” “The Hateful Eight” is set in the past, but the only history that really interests Tarantino is movie history. (Tarantino has defended the script’s frequent racial epithets on the grounds of historical accuracy, but if he’s so concerned with fidelity to the times, why does Kurt Russell’s 19th-century bounty hunter quip, “Not so much”?) Marquis Warren got his name from “Gunsmoke” creator Charles Marquis Warren, and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Daisy Domergue is named for “Santa Fe Passage” star Faith Domergue — both straightforward Western homages. But why does Michael Madsen’s taciturn cowpoke share a name with a director of ’70s gay porn, and why are two separate characters apparently named for Orson Welles regular Erskine Sanford? All the accumulated references really tell us is that Tarantino has movies on the brain.
“The Hateful Eight” is most powerful, and most coherent, as a movie about myths, those that sustain and those that separate us, and how they are often one and the same. When Marquis shows Russell’s John Ruth his “Lincoln Letter,” a purported missive from the late president, Russell’s face literally lights up, as if the creased piece of parchment were “Pulp Fiction’s” mysterious briefcase. It’s later revealed as a fake — another story of Marquis’, this one designed to put people at ease, since, as he puts it, “The only time black folks are safe is when white folks is disarmed.” It’s a corollary to an earlier statement by Walton Goggins’ Chris Mannix, a former Southern marauder soon to be sworn in as the sheriff of the nearest town: “When niggers are scared, that’s when white folks are safe.”
Fear isn’t just an emotional state: It’s a tool, used to keep others in line, and to bind disparate coalitions closer together. Whites hate blacks; blacks hate Mexicans; and everybody hates Daisy Domergue, who laps up their disdain along with the blood spattered on her face. When John Ruth elbows her in the nose or Marquis Warren shoots her in the foot, the moments are structured as comedy, in a way none of the movie’s copious other acts of violence are. With her allies dead and her life hanging by a thread, Daisy tries, in the movie’s final moments, to stoke the other survivors’ fear, conjuring a (likely imaginary) gang of 15 men just waiting for the snow to end so they can rescue her and put down her foes. But even if it costs them their last breaths, Chris and Marquis are determined to see her hang, and so they do, retreating to the false comfort of the Lincoln Letter as her lifeless body swings from the rafters.
I’ve seen many people take this scene at face value, as if Tarantino were straightforwardly suggesting that the best way for men to bond is over a woman’s dead body (or, in this case, under it). But that somewhat perplexingly overlooks the state in which Chris and Marquis end the movie: prostrate, bleeding, and almost certain to die. Chris even knows as much: He pronounces Daisy’s hanging “my first and final act” as sheriff. They may be the sole survivors, but soon they’ll be just two more corpses in a cabin full of them.
The central irony of “The Hateful Eight” is that the only real threat to its characters’ lives is the blizzard outside, the “white hell” that has trapped them together. In theory, all they’d have to do is wait it out and go their separate ways, but they’re consumed by their anger and their inability to escape. In that sense, the movie it bears the greatest resemblance to is not any of Tarantino’s beloved Westerns but M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village,” in which a manufactured threat blinds the characters to the real dangers outside. You’d think Wyoming, even now the nation’s least populous state, would provide plenty of breathing room, but then it’s also Dick Cheney country, home to the man who used bad intelligence and phantom adversaries to muscle the U.S. into ill-advised war. At the beginning of “The Hateful Eight’s” second act, as she’s waiting for the poison to ravage her enemies’ insides, Daisy Domergue sings “Jim Jones at Botany Bay,” an old English ballad about a convict whose punishment was to be sent “across the stormy sea,” and though that meant an Australian penal colony, it also calls to mind the ships that left England in the opposite direction, fleeing persecution to create a new nation secured by genocide and built on slave labor. It’s a prison we’re all trapped in, and if we can’t walk out the door, at least we’ll die with a satisfied scowl on our faces.