THE HATEFUL EIGHT is an impudent, pugnacious comedy that uses the synthetic nature of its stylized homage idiom to be a whip-smart consideration of race, gender, politics, situational ethics, and very, very bad teeth. The genre is the western, but the tone is thoroughly modern as a group of the damned journey through the desolate winterscape of Wyoming on their way to meet their destiny.
Inside a stagecoach drawn by five black and one white horse are bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his prisoner, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who are are en route to Red Rock, where he will collect $10,000 and she will be hanged. Their journey is interrupted by Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a natty dresser formerly of the Union Army of the Republic and currently another bounty hunter sitting on the pile of frozen corpses he’s bringing in for the price on their frosty pates. Ruth prefers to bring his bounties in alive to watch them hang, hence Daisy’s continuing on this plane of existence, which provides her the opportunity to demonstrate her profane determination to go down fighting.
Their journey is delayed by yet another hitchhiker lost in the snow, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a southerner with an exaggerated accent and a lamp to ward off the gloom of the looming blizzard. Said blizzard brings them to Minnie’s Haberdashery, an ironically named waystation where they find hot coffee, an unreconstructed Confederate general (Bruce Dern), and an oddly missing Minnie. The further assortment of characters there includes gleefully effete Oswaldo Mowbry (Tim Roth), an Englishman delighted in Ruth’s preference for collecting his bounty, Joe Gage, a journaling cowboy (Michael Madsen) on his way to visit his mother, and Senor Bob (Demian Bichir), a Mexican caretaker not at all pleased with being tasked to finish plucking a chicken.
With the mystical overtone of Ingmar Bergman overlaid on a framework that is unabashedly Sergio Leone by way of John Ford, Quentin Tarantino ably deconstructs the tropes of the classic western while boldly evoking the metaphysical overtones of the ci-mentioned Bergman and the violent intensity of the ci-mentioned Leone. Make no mistake, this is a film that is as enraptured by its bloodletting as it is it by its preoccupation with social commentary. The assembled revisit the Civil War and parse the situational ethics of murder while recounting their life stories and accepting without question the wild coincidences that have brought a group with tangential relationships together in such a remote place. There is an air of kismet rather than serendipity to it all, echoed by the careful camera work of strategically composed shots that play up the stark black and white of the cinematography. All the better to make the red of the blood more ominous, whether from Daisy’s nose as the takes yet another full-bodied punch from Ruth, or the stains concealed beneath a Navajo blanket.
The violence is not just of the physical variety. We never become inured to the liberal and casual use of the N-word, nor to the disturbing images conjured up, and sometimes shown in flashback, as the assembled company recalls their life stories that have brought them to this place at this time. Most noteworthy, though, is the constant battering of Daisy by Ruth for, in effect, doing as she pleases when it comes to expressing herself. It is noteworthy that she never once attempts to use her traditionally feminine wiles on any of the men present. Never shows weakness in order to gain sympathy. And, for their part, while the men never show her any pity, they also never attempt to molest her sexually in any way. Literally chained to him, she is his property to dispose of in any way that he sees fit, and no one challenges that. The metaphor is savage and brilliant, as is Leigh, who is incendiary and mocking in her refusal to know her place. The shot of her in extreme close-up, eyes almost black in a face that is a mask of fury as cold as the blizzard is a challenge to the patriarchy that doesn’t know how to take half measures. When she licks her own blood from her lips, she is a Maenad sprung to hungry life from the safety of myth.
THE HATEFUL EIGHT takes no prisoners as it revels in its ability to make us laugh at its very shock value. There is something disquietingly satisfying about watching despicable characters whose sentimental streaks make them prey for one another in an orgy of what may or may not be either cosmic payback or the best shaggy dog story this year. In other words, Quentin Tarantino in this, his eighth film, doesn’t let us off the hook when it comes to our own ethics, either.