“The Hateful Eight” Toys with Truth and Race, but Ends Up Less than the Sum of Its Parts

The eighth film from Quentin Tarantino is not his best, but it might be his most political. The Hateful Eight was born from the TV Westerns of the 1960s where a group of outlaws would kidnap the main character in a sort of bottle episode. Well, Tarantino pondered, what if the audience didn’t know who was the “good guy” once we got to the bottle? As the back stories unfolds, various clues indicate that perhaps we shouldn’t be so trusting of what we are being told – by anyone. From there, Tarantino’s brand of pithy dialogue and penchant for violence takes over as percolating racial tensions begin to boil over.

Like almost all of Tarantino’s films, The Hateful Eight is rigorously structured. In this instance, the film is broken into six parts, and each act comprises two of these. In “Last Stage to Red Rock” and “Son of a Gun”, the audience is introduced to four of the main characters on a snow-blind journey to Minnie’s Haberdashery in anticipation of a blizzard. “Minnie’s Haberdashery” introduces the other four of the eponymous Eight and sets the characters free to interact, and “Domergue’s Got a Secret” sets the climax in motion. Finally, after an intermission for those who saw the 70mm Roadshow version, “The Four Passengers” and “Black Man, White Hell” clears up the mysteries that had been set forth and ties up the film in a gory bow.

But, while The Hateful Eight appears to be a basic shoot-em-up set in a cold locale, the film is not about the payoff of the absurd violence. The inability of the audience to be certain of truth is far more important, and the racial components of the film dictate the only real character arc in the film, which is certainly a weakness in the plot. Briefly, our eight characters coalesce at Minnie’s Haberdashery: The Hangman, The Major, The Sheriff and The Prisoner arrive just after The Confederate, The Little Man, and The Cow Puncher, and the Mexican is looking after the place for Minnie. The Hangman (Kurt Russell) is determined to take Daisy Domergue to Red Rock to hang once the blizzard abates, but he is certain that someone in the cabin is hell-bent on stopping him.

Much of the drama in these first two acts is derived from this conflict. Through a couple of details, Tarantino makes clear that everything is not what it seems, and that no one should be trusted completely. Coupled with this paranoia, palpable racial tensions threaten to erupt at any moment. These sequences, with characters feeling each other out and entering into frank political discussions are by far the most rewarding elements of the film. What’s more, these first four parts establish the allegorical nature of Tarantino’s story, as we begin to understand that this is a film about racial tensions and mistrust, and how different people behave under such circumstances.

Take one crucial symbol of this racial mistrust: The Major’s “Lincoln Letter”. As we learn in Chapter Two, The Major has a letter from Abraham Lincoln which he keeps on his person (and of which he is fairly protective). The letter features in a number of specific plot elements, and it is clear that The Hangman appreciates the letter. However, when the Sheriff – a former Confederate – asks to see the letter and then interrogates The Major as to its contents, he comes to a brazen conclusion: the letter is a fake. The Major confirms his hypothesis, and even laughs about it; The Hangman is nearly despondent, disappointed that the letter is fake and that he has been lied to.

When The Hangman explains that the deception has hurt his feelings, The Major reveals his motives: in a world so divided by race, he needs every advantage he can get. The Hangman balks at this idea, insistent that the world is not so racist to forgive such deception. This is Tarantino’s dramatization of white privilege, as the Hangman simply cannot understand the tribulations of the black Major.   The Major makes clear his position with a single statement to The Hangman: “You know why I have that letter? It got me in the damn cart, didn’t it?” An affect of realization infects The Hangman: if he had not met The Major previously and remembered the letter, would he have opened his cart to some wayward nigger? There’s no chance he would, and he begins to understand the life of a black man – at least a little.

The major plot elements of the film dramatize this same kind of challenge to a white man’s perspective. The Sheriff, who begins the film picking political fights with The Major, ends up becoming his only ally in the cabin. Though the film loses some of its panache amid the bloodshed of the final act, it does arrive at a single coherent statement when the Sheriff backs the black man in a firefight over his white “brethren”. This final act is undoubtedly the weakest of the film, though most of the mouth-breathing Tarantino fans will gush over the absurdity of the violence after two hours of tension-building boredom.

Overall, The Hateful Eight is another fine entry into the Tarantino canon, and I don’t think the man has ever made a movie that grades out worse than a B-. This latest offering is near the lower end of that, and I get the feeling that much of its failings are due to a discord between the plot elements of the film (which are fascinating) and the theme, which is very unclear and mostly leans on racial overtones. This results in the slapdash final act, which begins by traveling back in time to solve all of our questions in a very blunt and uninteresting way, and ends with a grand melee of gore. Technically the film is gorgeous, and you have to admire the score, the cinematography, and even Tarantino’s direction choices. There are astounding moments, but sadly nothing that reaches the heights of the best scenes from Inglourious Basterds or Pulp Fiction. The result is an interesting film that rewards interpretation beyond the surface level, but ends up ringing a little hollow.

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