Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight is the kind of film that makes you want to go home immediately after the film ends, light a fire, and cuddle with your loved ones on the couch. It’s the kind of film that makes you cherish the ones you love, to want to do good by them, and to extend grace to them at every opportunity. The Hateful Eight makes you want work to make peace on earth and to extend goodwill toward men. In many ways, The Hateful Eight is everything we want a Christmas film to be, because it inspires us to practice the things Christmas is supposed to be about.
The Hateful Eight inspires this kind of charitable sentiment, because it shows you that if you don’t do those things, no one else is going to. The Hateful Eight is about a group of bounty hunters, criminals, cast-outs, and cowboys holed up in a haberdashery together during a blizzard in the Rocky Mountains sometime not long after the end of the Civil War. Every person has reason to hate everyone else. Everyone is racist. Everyone is a killer. There’s a good chance they’re all going to murder each other, because that’s the kind of people they are and because this is Quentin Tarantino film. The man never met a stand-off he didn’t like.
The Hateful Eight may be a Western in its setting, but it’s a Mystery in its plot. Every person in the haberdashery is hiding something, and they are all trying to figure out the truth about everyone else. As the truth comes out, so do the six shooters. The characters try to get out of this snowy situation with their lives by playing off each others’ confessed prejudices. They discuss justice and mercy and debate whether or not they should offer it to each other. The tension builds and builds right up to its bloody conclusion.
Of course The Hateful Eight is a bloody affair. Tarantino seems to love to splatter his characters with blood almost as much as he loves to fill their mouths with witty patter. His films have always been bloody, but the violence in The Hateful Eight and Django Unchained has pushed past realism into a kind of hyper-realism. It pulls me out of the movie, because it draws attention to itself as un-real.
But that could be Tarantino’s intent though. Tarantino claims he makes two kinds of films – movies that tell stories about what happens in a “real” world of Tarantino’s own design and movies that the characters in his “real” world watch. (I’ve included the quote* in which Tarantino delineates between the two kinds of movies below. It’s widely attributed to Tarantino, but I can’t find its source.) Since The Hateful Eight was written as a sequel to Django Unchained, and since Django is connected to Kill Bill, one of Tarantino’s “movie-movies,” The Hateful Eight is part of Tarantino’s un-real oeuvre. The violence is stylized, because it is meant as symbolic in the moral universe of Tarantino’s movie world, just like violence is symbolic of our moral universe in the stories we tell about our world.
This kind of post-modern, meta-narrative morality leads us around in circles. We eventually come back around to asking the same question we wanted to ask in the beginning. Namely, what does The Hateful Eight say about justice and mercy?
The Bible is part of Tarantino’s universe—even if it’s not the Bible we read in this world; that quote that Jules likes to quote in Pulp Fiction isn’t from our Bible—and Jesus makes a prominent appearance in The Hateful Eight as well. As the film begins, after a few landscape shots that allow you to bask in the glory of 70mm film stock, a carved wooden crucifix dominates the frame, Christ’s eyes looking down on the names of the actors as they appear on screen. Near the end of the film, a character cries out for Christ and receives a curious response from another character. Is Jesus’ symbolic presence meant as a tip toward the kind of crucible these characters are about to endure? Are the carving’s sad eyes meant to mourn the lack of mercy that rules this world? I’m not sure.
There’s also a peculiar scene that kicks off the climax of the film in which the haberdashery that we’ve only known up to that point as a kind of hell is presented as a kind of Edenic paradise where everyone loves and cares for everyone regardless of their skin color. Again, racism is these characters’ principal sin, and the climax of the film hinges on whether or not the characters will move beyond their racism and care for each other, come what may.
Very few characters deserve mercy in this movie, and those that do deserve it don’t receive it. They’re all full of hate. They extend mercy to each other at their own peril, because this is not a world that typically rewards it. The snow falls—and the blood splatters—on the just and unjust alike. Jesus weeps over them all.
As with the rest of Tarantino’s films, I’m not quite sure what to make of it all. The Hateful Eight is wickedly entertaining, and it prompts me to mull over worthwhile questions about how I should live in this world. Maybe that’s enough. If you can handle the hyper violence, the, um, creative profanity, and the explicit sexual content, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more idiosyncratic time at the movies this year. See it in 70mm if you can.
* There’s my realer-than-real movies like Reservoir Dogs. And then there’s my movie-movies. And Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is definitely one of those. It’s the movies that Jules and Vince (from Pulp Fiction) would go and see. – Quentin Tarantino
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