With The Hateful Eight, Tarentino once again skillfully blends Western and Southern genres, and uses the resources of the grotesque mode, calling on a type of comedy that comes with the baggage of terror. The French title “Les huit salopards” silences the ambiguity inherent in the term “hateful”: if Tarentino’s latest characters are “bastards”, they are also full of hate, which is perhaps the main issue of the movie.
With The Hateful Eight, Tarentino returns to the question of slavery and race in America, and to the legacy of a history of violence and discrimination—and hatred indeed. It is Django Unchained rather than Reservoir Dogs that is conjured up by this unflagging exploration of evil in the context of a past that continues to haunt the nation— today as it did yesterday, right after the Civil War. Did reconciliation come about then? More than ever the “house divided” of Lincoln’s image hovers above the numerous references to him and his era, his project and vision, in particular through his “letter”—a prop transformed into a trope.
To call the movie a Western tells only half of the story. Yes, the scene takes place in Wyoming, but the action revolves around Civil War events and unfinished business. The Frontier is that of the unresolved conflicts left in the wake of the so-called “War between the states”. The end of the war—there are numerous references to the “unconditional surrender” which indeed put an end to four atrocious years of fratricide conflict—has brought no closure. Tarentino, after having explored the horror of the plantation system and its “peculiar institution” in his previous movie, tackles the legacy of decades of abuse in the collective imagination and individual memory. So the film should be watched with Django (and Django) in mind.
The action is set against a blizzard (not the hot sun of Westerns) and the pristine landscape of the West is obfuscated by a blanket of snow which gets in the way of the characters’ moves and plans: the snow freezes, hampers, covers or betrays, yet it keeps track of the blood that has been shed —a curse for some, a blessing for others—in another metaphorical twist and turn of the movie’s physical cast. The film opens with a shot of a wooden cross, and ends with the last two protagonists on the verge of dying after having read a letter allegedly written by Lincoln and stained it with the blood of their murderous deeds. The President’s words, thus recontextualized in the context of the miniature war that has just been waged in the cabin, sound both preposterous and tragic. Hope and vision do seem to have missed the last coach into the light; no Western-like happy ending —just missed opportunities and hateful acts giving the lie to the promises of the American experience and political project.
The opening shot functions like a tutorial in watching and understanding. A puzzling close up triggers certain assumptions about what we are given to see: wood? The camera moves slowly backwards to propose another vantage point: we gradually realize that the disclosed wood texture belongs to an arm, a face, a body. The woods parts finally cohere into a sculpture representing Christ on the cross—a cross standing by the well-travelled track on the way to Minnie’s haberdashery. Other associations come to mind and the viewer feels compelled to review previous assumptions as the large view conflicts with the initial view. Likewise, the characters are not who and what they seem to one another and to the viewer at first sight. In other words, there is more than meets the eye, including the usual tricks used by Tarentino (sudden unleashing of gruesome violence, understated dialogues, characters that exemplify puppet like features at times, repulsive acts). Kristeva’s definition of the abject in her book Powers of Horror is relevant to get the full measure of the spit, the vomit and the blood as we encounter them repeatedly and relentlessly. The gore pulls obvious and not so obvious strings about human cruelty and abuse, and about emotions such as resentment, revenge, pride, fear, and humiliation.
Of particular interest:
-The initial teaser of the general looking straight at the camera as if to check on the viewer’s presence and complicity to garner support. We understand later that he is just a character in a play, a convenient prop the murderers use to make the scene “more real” for the next episode of their deadly plan. No small irony when you consider how other fictional forms such as Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Late Encounter with the Enemy” have handled the theme of the instrumentalization of questionable relics Southerners sometimes cling to in their cult of the past (there is an allusion to the whole ritual of battle reenactments in the film, another token of the worship of a dead past that will not be laid to rest).
-The narrative structure, with chapters, a voice-over, flashbacks, and embedded stories.
-The claustrophobic atmosphere and the three ideal ingredients for great drama: one action, one day, one setting. Minnie’s shop offers the ideal backdrop for a sartrean no exit; we eagerly await the play version that Tarentino has planned for the script.