Of Race and Justice, the Strengths of The Hateful Eight

“A Weinstein Company Production. The 8th Movie by Quentin Tarantino” begins The Hateful Eight, introducing the film and its legendary director in the same moment. We are not just seeing a movie called The Hateful Eight or even a Western; we came to the theater to see Tarantino’s latest masterpiece. And this film does not disappoint.

Being a fan of both Tarantino and old film formats, I attended a screening of the 70mm “roadshow” available in select theaters. Given that The Hateful Eight is a Western set in wintery Wyoming, 70mm captures perfectly the film’s stark contrasts of soft snow on a hard landscape and establishes the tone of the entire film. In these special screenings there are no trailers before The Hateful Eight; there is a mesmerizing overture. The credits roll as beautiful landscapes pan in front of us in the glorious, rich flickering only 70mm film can provide. The camera fixes on a close-up of a road-marker depicting Christ on the cross, carved in exquisite detail, and zooms out to a gorgeous snowscape with a stagecoach approaching. The coach rolls through falling snow and reaches a man standing with a pile of frozen bodies. The man is Major Marquis Warren (played by Tarantino favorite, Samuel L. Jackson), a bounty hunter headed toward Red Rock, Wyoming to collect his rewards. The man inside the coach is fellow bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), whose captured fugitive is very much alive: wanted murderer, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). During the ensuing banter, Daisy calls the Major a racial slur whereupon Ruth swiftly punches her in the face. The Major and his bodies are allowed on board. Ruth asks the Major to see a personal letter from President Lincoln, which he had seen in a previous meeting. The letter moves Ruth. Daisy spits on the letter; another beating ensues.

Down the road we meet Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins). Professing to be the new sheriff, he also wants to get to Red Rock. Mannix is a Southerner who fought alongside his father in a guerilla resistance force long after the Confederacy lost. He is neither a fan of the Union nor of free black men, adding tension and humor to the ride. The storm worsens, causing them to hold over at Minnie’s Haberdashery. Greeting them is Bob (Demián Bichir), a Mexican who claims that Minnie (Dana Gourrier) left him in charge. The Major is suspicious, but lets the matter drop. Inside they meet Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), the region’s hangman, Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a cowboy coming home to see his mama, and Sandy Smithers (Bruce Derns), an old Confederate general. The concept of “justice” is subsequently explored though these many distinct viewpoints, foreshadowing an intense climax.

The plot, complex and convoluted, keeps the viewer guessing to the end. One of the strengths of The Hateful Eight is the adept manner in which it plays off the viewer’s expectations. For a Tarantino film, the first two-thirds are remarkably devoid of over-the-top violence. And yet, through its relative absence in the first part, violence becomes a sort of McGuffin and creates a great deal of suspense.

Although ultimately a work of entertainment, The Hateful Eight does not shy away from tackling complex social issues.  In the first half, Daisy, pummeled by Ruth and once by the Major, receives the brunt of the violence we do see. Is this evidence of Tarantino’s misogyny, as some would have us believe? Or is he perhaps exploring a double standard in our society? If Daisy were a man, would we be uncomfortable watching her face become bloodied or think less of Ruth or the Major? These scenes are crucial to establishing Daisy’s persona as a tough, determined woman. She is true to character even in moments of immense pain. While Tarantino’s films can often both critique and glorify violence, this film makes it clear that all forms of violence, from striking someone to blowing a hole in their chest with a shotgun, is deplorable.

Furthermore, one of the film’s most prominent and timely themes is that of race. Although there are a number of racial views presented as part of the film’s world, the Major’s remarks on life as a black man in the post-Civil War West sadly still hold true today. Adding another dimension to this theme is the movie’s analysis of justice. Is trial by jury and subsequent hanging by a dispassionate party really any different than frontier justice, where the injured party strings the accused up themselves? Is emotional distance really all that justice boils down to?

The cinematography in The Hateful Eight is stunning. At times reminiscent of famous Westerns (especially Stagecoach) and at times completely original, every shot has a purpose in this film. This cinematography combines with the twisting story to form an experience which can only be described as mesmerizing. This experience is further enhanced by the acting in The Hateful Eight, which is superb. Samuel L. Jackson once again shines as the lead and the supporting cast is equally strong. Every actor has a strong voice and the film’s success in telling the story greatly contributes to the believability of each performance.

In an era in which Westerns are merely throwbacks, The Hateful Eight is respectful of the old and innovatively creative. Although fans of nonstop action may be let down, fans of Westerns, thrillers, and mysteries have an amazing experience in store for them. If you are truly a fan of Tarantino, then you will be rewarded by one of his best yet.

Grade: A                                                                                                                                    A beautiful film with an ending that is both satisfying and poetic. A must see in 70mm.

Rating: R                                                                                                                                 It’s Tarantino. Leave your kids at home, away from the brain matter spraying across the screen.

The Hateful Eight, The Weinstein Company                                          Runtime: 187 minutes