The Hateful 8 review that I promise was not intended to be some sort of history lesson
Quentin Tarantino’s script for The Hateful Eight notes an undetermined time period after the Civil War. 6 years, 8 years, or 12 years after the unconditional surrender of the Confederates to the Union Army. This is significant in the sense of America in this film is still being in the shadow of the civil war with Reconstruction, with Radical Republicans who wanted the South punished or versus those who wanted the South to get much more lenient treatment, as the Union was ultimately preserved, and a preserved Union needs some kind of ‘fairness’ for the defeated Southerners and Confederates. This was a clear tension in the country, as our characters in The Hateful Eight directly involved in the war have no feelings of togetherness or camaraderie, even if they were on the same side in the fight. But at the same time, this country that was quickly expanding out into territories that went far off the Mason-Dixon line, beyond the borders and alliances forged of North and South during this horrific war. Which brings us to Wyoming, the setting of this film. It didn’t become an official state in the United States until 1890, years after the Civil War and even years after the unclear time frame that Quentin Tarantino throws out there. It leaves the feeling of wide-openness and possibility in a place and space like that that seems so distant from that time and place in history. But there leaves a possibility for evil to creep in. The Hateful Eight is not just about the tensions of North and South but in the aftermath of that war, a war that involved so much bloodshed, sacrifice, alliances forged, grudges held, and certain degrees of betrayal, there may be something worse around the corner. After two consecutive films of alternative history used in the form of revenge by minority characters who were harmed and personally effected by the historical atrocities that Tarantino interrogates in both language and action, we get a film where it ends on one of the darkest notes in his whole filmography. The Hateful Eight is minor Tarantino for me, this is not to undersell its quality that is still quite good, but it seems reeled in, and in such a way that is purposeful. The flourishes in language and dialogue are mostly found in relation to the ruses and lies of these characters while the splattering gore in the violent acts committed in the film clearly take from horror, Italian horror and also the major horror touchstones in America with The Thing and The Exorcist, underlying the grotesquerie and the spectre of the evilness these certain characters confront if not embody themselves.
There are four characters in The Hateful Eight that directly share a history in the Civil War, a split of two on each side in the Union and Confederacy, North and South. For the North there is the lawman John Ruth, as played by Kurt Russell, who we can describe as both the stand-in for the trying to be upstanding white liberal who while trying to maintain the carry out of law and order in the still underdeveloped West is showing cracks. Russell’s performance plays on John Wayne, something he is certainly not unfamiliar with, but particularly in the manor of certain John Wayne performances fighting each other out (certain John Wayne performances that immediately sprung to mind was his roles in Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, particularly when Russell puts on his glasses to get misty-eyed reading Major Warren’s Lincoln Letter). Tarantino is known John Ford skeptic if not critic (and how I hate when a director I admire hates…. another director I admire), and his shades to Ruth are on one hand a man who prefers the hard way, law and order as far as carrying out hangings rather than shooting a known criminal because that would be easier, and on another hand has such reactionary, physical cartoonish impulses that turn violent in attacking his current bounty, Daisy Domergue. Much can be made of the ways the assaults of Domergue play out. At first it is so shocking that you definitely cannot help but let out a laugh, and you may even still laugh when Major Warren himself gets involved, but then it becomes something that is wearing down. Daisy is not letting up despite this abuse (we soon know why and we’ll get to that later) and at some point, for me at least, the assaults turn directly on John Ruth. It begins to show his weakness. He, who interrogates every man he has ever come across in this film as to maintain a certain stability, shows incredible instability in these violent acts. There is something about Domergue that makes it seem he cannot keep his bearings despite being not just on the right side of the law but on the right side of history. So when in the first 10 or so minutes of this feature we have Kurt Russell’s Ruth striking Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Domergue, we are already seeing a decaying sense of law and order in a grotesque and cartoonish fashion. Domergue becomes this rapidly mutating virus toward Ruth- and soon enough personifies that virus meets host.
On John Ruth’s side of the Union is Major Marquis Warren, as played splendidly by Samuel L. Jackson. This is a man we can say has certain grudges and grievances about what happened during the war. He survived and escaped being a POW by burning the whole camp down to be free, and yet, it seems he does still have to be in the mindset of mentally disarming people, even those who shared his views, by associating with the late President Lincoln, the 16th American President continues his presence in American cinema as a God-like figure (we will get to that later). His forge of the Lincoln letter to impress the likes of John Ruth is meant to disarm, to suddenly be seen as a charming black folk who has the approval from Honest Abe to be considered all right to fraternize with other white folk. When Chris Mannix mentions he heard something from the Union side that they thought Warren was too dangerous and radical for the cause, you tend to believe it not because you think Warren went too far, but that you believe that there are more than likely white folks who are scared of Warren for exactly the reasons he laid out, that white people are only comfortable around him unarmed. But in the way Warren uses the Lincoln letter to disarm even the most sympathetic white folks, he raises his own spectre of the most grotesque things imaginable used to dehumanized black men like himself to pretty much rub it in the face of Bruce Dern’s Confederate General Sandy Smithers. There is a direct war connection between these two people in the Battle of Baton Rouge where Warren’s central grievances lie on the fact how the captured black soldiers by the Confederates were treated the equivalent of extra cargo and horses, and murdered. Smithers still defends this act, a man who will never learn or be rehabilitated in his ways. So, and this is my interpretation of the events that lead up to what closes out the chapter (and the first half of the 70mm roadshow), Warren tells Smithers a story of what became of Smithers’ lost son and that he stripped the son naked to only sexually assault him through oral sex in graphic detail. But let us note the detail belongs in words and that the cross-fade of the image of this son at the mercy of Warren is with an image of Smithers, as to point to this image being in Smithers’ head. ‘You seeing pictures now?’ We cannot be sure these events had happened, but we do know that Warren then kills Smithers and instead of Warren just killing Smithers right there at first sight, he instead gives him a parting shot of the worst possible thing Smithers could ever imagine having happened to his son due, in part, to what he had done during the war. I, again, do not actually think the events and actions took place, but that Warren is showing the split dualities of his place in the world, not unsimilar to Ruth, that have been essential to his survival. But that does not necessarily mean he has clear control of these dualities, much like Ruth seems to not have control.
We then move to Chris Mannix (for what should be Walton Goggins’ breakout from television) who has declared he is the future Sheriff of Red Rock, but we cannot be certain for it to have been true. Mannix is from the South and part of a group of Southern bandits who tried to fight back for the Confederacy. He holds a grudge for Warren’s actions during the war and even seems to have these urges of contemplating the ways the South could have maintained their old order. But Mannix still feels out of depth against the likes of Warren and Ruth. Heck, Mannix seems to be more on equal footing with O.B., who drives the stagecoach. But we soon find that him and Warren, and to a certain degree Smithers, are all caught in the web of deceit at Minnie’s Haberdashery that didn’t even involve them.
In a way the first and second halves of the film are about how the first half is about the North and South tensions while the second half reveals a third party, both figurative and literal, that reveals something more evil and worse. It makes sense why this specific story is in the West and a remote location of Wyoming. The American frontier opened up for possibilities of a new life and yet, these second lives of people from the war, that they are holding onto are confronted by something by people without borders, without a real past, not quite tangible. This first comes in the form of Daisy Domergue, who begins the film so feral and so not human-like. She can take these beatings, increasingly looking beyond recognition of a person, let alone a woman. But once you realize what plans were taken on her behalf at Minnie’s Haberdashery, you sense a jocularity to Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance, such as the over the top hanging gesture, and that she continues to grin in her increasingly toothless (due to increased beatings from John Ruth) smile. The character Daisy Domergue grows in grotesquerie and monstrosity, on the receiving end of one last beating from a poisoned John Ruth, only to have him puke blood in her face that makes her look like the diabolic Carrie White (by the way, Kurt Russell is now in the second grossest Western of the year in addition to being in the first, Bone Tomahawk). She wears his blood almost in pride. We see that the setting of the Haberdashery had been in her favor. Everybody at Minnie’s Haberdashery are of the Domergue gang plus Dern’s Confederate General and have been waiting for Ruth to be there to kill him and take Daisy. They are without borders, without a real back story beyond killing, and can build ruses and charm folks but turn on a dime to kill if it means taking care of their own. The poisoning of John Ruth was a success for Daisy and the Domergue Gang but what was never taken into account was that Mannix and Warren would be involved due to pure happenstance. Daisy’s racist as all can be and would seem sympathetic to the South’s view of blacks, but she nor the Domergue gang take any real stance on the war. They seem to look at the past with a distance, like Oswaldo Mobray declaring the Haberdashery be divided by North and South for the characters involved in the war, something that does not appear to involve any of the Domergue gang. This could be just the case of geography, on the periphery of the war (such as that scene of Blondie and Tuco seeing the Civil War spillover into the New Mexico campaign in Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly that feels so out of their world), but also in time.
Note how in the flashback to Minnie’s Haberdashery that Minnie herself describes Bruce Dern’s Confederate General as an old man in a 'foreign’ uniform. It is an interesting choice of words and given that this is a Tarantino film, it seems on purpose. Minnie, a black woman, seems young enough where she was at most a child during the War and it begs the question of whether or not she was born a free woman due to time or geography. So foreign uniform as the Confederate uniform could represent a type of country that ceased to exist but also just a ‘foreign’ concept to a woman from a different time and place. Again, it shows the possibilities of a growing country that is not specifically tied to a dark past. It is the idea that you can make the rest of America anything you want, and while Minnie’s Haberdashery shows the harmonious side to that oh so very American idea of a post-Civil War inter-racial harmony, Tarantino quickly destroys it by making the Domergue gang the embodiment of evil. The Domergue gang sacking this place by unmercilessly killing everybody in it but one that represent a certain odiousness where it ties back to John Ruth and Major Warren’s debate on frontier justice versus law and order. The Domergue gang know of Ruth’s reputation and prepare accordingly by killing him and any collateral that stands in their way of freeing Daisy.
Over the course of this film is a slow decay of the idea of law and order in the face of frontier justice. For one thing, one of the upholders of the idea of law and order dies, while the others who respect him are splintered against a group of people who forged bonds to save their own fellow outlaw. This situation forces Mannix and Warren into a bind that ultimately does become a bond. Mannix and Warren are facing monsters and shape-shifters of what may or may not be surrounding them in snowy mountains of Wyoming. Mannix chooses Warren’s side when told by Daisy he can be considered 'an innocent’ as opposed to Warren, who shot her brother dead. When I think about why there is so little backstory on the Domergue gang in that we know equally little about their ruses as much as their real identities not to mention the most prominent ones in Jody and Daisy hardly have any calling card beyond their sadistic and masochistic streaks, I truly do think Tarantino has them standing in for spectres and monsters. They are the sickness, the source of rot and decay in America, an infection, a disease that hits whoever touches them. They are more the future of what evil is to hit the rest of the country as opposed to the already damned North and South from the past. So when Mannix and Warren agree to treat Daisy with some frontier justice, they kill what lied there in the Haberdashery, but who knows if those 15 or so gang members are not going to kill them once the credits roll. Or if those 15 or so members exist at all. Mannix and Warren are screwed anyway due to the amount of blood they lost. In this forged bond they take comfort into Warren’s major lie of the Lincoln letter that Warren reads aloud, as though Lincoln is the deity they must face together as much as Jesus Christ. Lincoln himself wanted reunification and the Union preserved in ways that were not appeasing to his Radical Republican counterparts. Ultimately, Mannix and Warren do achieve what Honest Abe wants before their possible last breaths, but North and South seem out of sorts if not prepared for this growing nation that as much as it is haunted by its past, it also has its other forms of evil hiding, shape-shifting, dropping in, or somewhere else in the distance, unclear. The film The Hateful Eight ends with Roy Orbison’s song 'There Won’t Be Many Coming Home’ that seems to invoke the war, after this scene of two characters achieving inter-racial harmony and North/South Harmony. The lyrics are notably anti-war in the sense of that the man you are killing might as well be your brother and a loss is a loss, equal is equal. These two have accepted their equality but right as they are facing their impending death. The sides they opposed each other on were so much cleaner and clearer for them than what they had just faced and could be facing again. American history is messy and I do think the purposeful lack of clarity in the shadow of the Civil War is the exact point of The Hateful Eight. Even if we did get out of the shadow of the Civil War as a country that expanded and grew, what we became as a growing country was a huge mess with its own darkness.