Caution: This review contains major spoilers for The Hateful Eight.
The Hateful Eight is filled with characters who are constantly performing for one another. Some of them are pretending to be something they’re not in the hopes of avoiding detection, some tell tall tales with theatrical enthusiasm in order to provoke, while others embellish at the margins to puff themselves up or knock someone else down. It’s no grand reveal when discussing a Quentin Tarantino movie to note that more than a few of them meet a bloody end, but what’s striking about the director’s eighth film is the way that the personas his characters assume, what roles they inhabit and which factions they align themselves with, change the kind of consequences they face within it.
The Hateful Eight is a film about justice and tribalism and how those two concepts inevitably lead to some strange, unsettling outcomes when combined. At the same time, the movie is just as concerned with how the identities that we project affect the kind of “justice” we receive.
To the point, the film is filled to the brim with little thought experiments that probe our ideas about when it’s right and wrong to kill someone. Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) tells the tale of Major Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) burning down a prison to escape certain death, but addresses the knotty moral implications of his killing a number of both Union and Confederate soldiers in the process. Warren himself goads General Smithers (Bruce Dern) into trying to kill him, going so far as to hand him a pistol, so that Warren can shoot Smithers first in “self-defense.” Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) sets it up by offering a brief parable on the differences between dispassionate justice and frontier justice. The Hateful Eight looks at these and other such scenarios to examine what, if anything, convinces us that dispensing lethal force is justified.
But it’s also concerned with how station and affiliation affect how people are treated when performing that moral calculus and determining whether something is truly just or honorable. Major Warren, despite his notable accomplishments and prowess in the field, is derided and belittled because of the color of his skin. Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is equal parts dismissed, patronized, and underestimated because she’s a woman. It’s no coincidence that one of the film’s final scenes is a black former union soldier and a white rebel renegade cooperating to hang a woman in an excruciating fashion because it’s the “right” way to honor their fallen comrade–the film’s closest approximation of the classic western hero–who’d variously disdained the both of them.
And yet everyone in the film is treated differently based on what they initially seem to be relative to who they really are. Mannix tries to leverage his position as a sheriff to overcome his lower stature as the runt of his family’s renegade rebel litter. At first he expresses concern for Domergue because she’s a woman, only to simmer his southern gentlemanly leanings down when he learns that she’s a wanted criminal. In one of the film’s more subtle touches, Mobray drops his posh British accent for a working class one, with the implication that the former gets him much further in his enterprises than the latter. Even Major Warren susses out Bob’s deception in his attempts to masquerade as Minnie’s friend thanks to the proprietor’s prejudices. While the concept of a righteous kill is certainly a focus of The Hateful Eight, the film is just as apt to explore how that idea is affected by what group, what position, and what tribe a person belongs to.
The opening shot of the film, which features a crucifix covered in snow, hints at these broader themes of needless suffering and persecution. The film contrasts Mannix’s statement at the beginning of the film that white people can only be safe when black people are afraid, with Warren’s rejoinder later in the film that black people can only be safe when white people are disarmed. The two men have the closest thing to a real arc in the film, from their initial mutual disdain, which curdles and festers, until the two are forced by circumstance to trust one another, to reveal certain details about themselves, and eventually, to do terrible deeds together because whatever their prejudices or grievances, it’s what’s “right.”
There’s a great deal to unpack in the film. Tarantino mixes and matches his characters, showing how lines of race or gender or class or ideology can be crossed by something as simple as being in the same line of work, fighting in the same war, or simply eating at the same table, in a way that seems to underscore how trifling those distinctions are. But then the film just as quickly shows how those lines drawn between human beings are not so easy to erase and can lead to some unfortunate, awful results.
But apart from the larger thematic material, the film absolutely works at a basic narrative level. The first half of the film has a wonderful Clue-like vibe to it, with a series of characters slowly introduced and then thrown together in interesting ways, where not everyone is what they seem, and the audience is left guessing, if not whodunnit, then who’s going to do it.
Part of what makes the broader explorations of the film work is the fact that its characters and performances are almost uniformly tremendous. Each of the major characters is well-sketched, and has interesting characteristics that lead to obvious but no less intriguing conflicts. The stand out performers are Samuel L. Jackson, who is captivating from the word go and nails the height of the film’s verve with his mid-movie monologue; Jennifer Jason Leigh, who gives a wonderfully unhinged, but layered performance as the debased Domergue; and Tim Roth, who has a delightful Waltz-ian flair to his bits of screen time but harbors something else beneath the charm. But nearly everyone in the film, from Kurt Russell (doing his best John Wayne riff) to Goggins to Dern makes an impression.
The structure of the film and stellar acting within it keep the tension high, whether in quiet moments in the stagecoach where things seem calm just before the peace starts to unravel, to the powder keg of the cabin that serves as the main setting of the film, where the mistrust only grows and tempers start to flair. The first half of the film, where Tarantino spends his time letting the tension gradually build to a frothing boil, is more enjoyable than the second, where the answers are revealed and the movie loses some of its momentum. The aftermath of the parlor mystery is interesting, but not nearly as engaging as the build.
The director’s usual quota of blood and guts, and his penchant for non-linear storytelling, are each satisfied in The Hateful Eight. But despite how familiar, even prosaic these devices have become after more than two decades of Tarantino flicks, he nevertheless employs them with flair. The film is never boring, though occasionally still a bit messy.
And while it builds upon each revelation and new character detail as it progresses, the stage-like vibe of the film also allows individual sequences to feel like small vignettes. Many such scenes could stand on their own as compelling or effective little stories, even as they take on new meaning when considered as part of the whole.
I have my nits to pick with The Hateful Eight–Channing Tatum feels a bit miscast (though his appearances are brief) and Tarantino’s narration comes off as a bit obvious and unnecessary–but its strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. It’s a beautifully shot film, with grand, frigid vistas that emphasize the isolation of the cabin, and interesting camera movements that convey both the extra man spying on the proceedings and the heightened nerviness of individual scenes. It is also, for all its tension and thematic material, a damn funny movie, that had me chuckling more than a few times.
But many of those laughs were uncomfortable. There’s an absurdity at the core of almost every Tarantino film, a heightened reality that stretches everything from physics to language to the cardiovascular system to odd extremes. And yet at his best, all of Tarantino’s absurdity is in service of something bigger. As a cinephile and a master filmmaker, he knows how to use the tricks of the silver screen to provoke, to enthrall, and to expose. In The Hateful Eight he lures the audience in as much as he does his characters, to root for one personality or another, to wonder who’s telling the truth and why, and to question who’s dispensing justice and who’s just cutting down their fellow man because of some misguided sense of honor or loyalty to their particular tribe.
And then at the end of the film, left with the bloody remains of so much “justice,” so many lines drawn and redrawn and tangled up in a hangman’s noose, the futility of it, the fatal foolishness of the masks we wear, the badges we put on, to signify that we’re this or that, to placate or enrage or hide from the strangers we pass by, hangs in the air just as long, and just as painfully, as Daisy Domergue.