Quentin Tarantino is not exactly known for his subtlety, so when he opens The Hateful Eight with a close-up of a crucifix half-buried in snow, we know what he means: his is a world where salvation is dead and no god exists. Well, there is one god at least, but his name is above the title. And now he has made his most perfect creation. Tarantino’s latest film is the culmination of his oeuvre, and the apotheosis of his worldview. It depicts a place without justice, with the director forced to create his own. He writes wicked characters into existence, then doles out gruesome punishment as he sees fit.
But for the first time, it feels like he is punishing the audience. The Hateful Eight is his bloodiest, most sadistic film yet. If you’re a fan of exploding heads, this is your Citizen Kane. If not, it makes I Spit on Your Grave seem like a tasteful morality play. As in his previous two efforts, Tarantino tries for political cover here, framing his post-Civil War western as an allegory for today’s political divisiveness, but it doesn’t really stick. Violent revenge is the antithesis of self-reflection, and Tarantino doesn’t have room in The Hateful Eight for both. Guess which one he chooses.
This is all clear from the opening chapter, in which John “Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), a bounty hunter carrying chained murderess Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to meet her fate in a neighboring town, stops to pick up a comrade-in-trade Maj. Marques Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), stranded by a blizzard. As the three characters make their introductions, the words “nigger,” “bitch,” and “tramp” are tossed around like terms of endearment. Leigh’s imprisoned female gets knocked in teeth twice, by my count; it’s supposed to be okay, since we’re told she’s a murderer, but we don’t actually see her do anything wrong. All we know her as is a woman in chains, sporting a black eye, so it doesn’t feel great, but it didn’t stop many audience members at my screening from howling with laughter.
When Ruth and his crew stop into a local haberdashery to escape the blizzard, they find a seemingly unconnected group of fellow travelers (and a wasted troupe of veteran character actors) also waiting out the storm. Old Tarantino stalwarts Tim Roth and Michael Madsen show up as a British hangman and a mysterious gunslinger, respectively. Bruce Dern classes up the proceedings as a Confederate general. Walter Goggins (of TV’s Justified) stands out as a corrupt sheriff. And Damien Bechir is the Mexican handyman who, it quickly becomes clear, may not be quite who he claims to be.
It all seems like a set-up designed to play towards Tarantino’s talents. He excels at drawing out tension, and his best sequences are those in which he makes the viewer anticipate a violent outburst and then wait on seat’s edge to see if it will come to pass. The “tasty burger” scene in Pulp Fiction. The climactic dinner in Django Unchained. Inglourious Basterds had two of them: the opening farmhouse massacre with Christoph Waltz and the terrific tavern sequence led by Michael Fassbender.
So when you hear that the first death in The Hateful Eight doesn’t occur until nearly 90 minutes into the movie, you’ll think it’s a good thing. It’s not. There’s no tension at all because we don’t have to imagine what’s going to happen. We know it. We know everyone, or almost everyone, will die. We know this because it’s Tarantino, and he’s not going to put eight hateful people in a room together and let more than one of them get out alive. We know this because we saw Reservoir Dogs. We know this because he has referred to this film as his version of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians. We know where this is going, and we don’t care. These characters aren’t people with hopes and fears. They’re just future corpses.
It’s a problem that could easily have been resolved had we just a single character to root for, or even relate to without feeling morally uncomfortable. Warren is ostensibly the hero of the film, but an early recounting of his backstory – in which he killed over 70 men to escape a Confederate prison – places him on the same low moral rung as the other murderers in his midst. In fact, maybe lower: he commits perhaps the most hateful act in the film: informing another character that he not only killed his son but also forced him to strip and perform fellatio on him before leaving him, naked, to freeze to death.
Yeah, it’s that kind of movie. The kind in which Tarantino puts every sadistic impulse he has ever suppressed into a single, three-hour narrative. For your ten dollars, you are paying for the privilege of witnessing bloody projectile vomiting, testicles being blown off, and several heads exploding from being shot with a pistol. It’s vile, putrid filmmaking that seeks only to punish the few remaining viewers who are still sensitive to bloodshed and have not succumbed to the director’s simplistic and puerile worldview.
It’s also *really* not the film we need right now. With every day seemingly bringing a new mass shooting or terrorist attack, hatred and revenge are not abstract concepts. They should not be taken lightly, or used as the basis for a glorified experiment in genre. Look at the rhetoric coming out of a certain Republican front-runner’s mouth, and know that many Americans are now choosing fear over rationality, a sentiment reflected in the revenge-driven films that fill our multiplexes this holiday season.
Besides The Hateful Eight, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, about a fur-trapper who seeks revenge on the man who killed his son, also hits theaters on Christmas Day. Are these films responding to the public mood? Possibly, but it’s more likely that they are reflecting our values back to us, as art always does. If that’s the case, the audience is as much to blame for this vileness as the filmmaker, but it’s hard to support a film that highlights our most base, despicable instincts, especially when those same sentiments are currently threatening the very fabric of our society off-screen.
Perhaps the world has simply caught up to Tarantino, whose fascination with revenge killings stretches back to the final moments of Reservoir Dogs. But after punishing undercover cops, backroom rapists, Nazis, and slave-owners, he has finally created a film in which everyone is wicked, everyone gets punished, and no shred of morality exists. It’s not a social comment or an exploration of the western genre, as some critics (and the director himself) will inevitably claim. It’s an assault on the audience. A war on our humanity. Tarantino’s aim is to bludgeon the viewer into submission, to attack hatred with hatred, and the worst part is that it worked. I left the film obliterated, hateful, and feeling like God is a sick sonofabitch.