© 2016 by James Clark
The Hateful Eight (2015) is suffused with such a dazzling and challenging vein of cinematic bounty as to momentarily stop us in our tracks when setting out to convey it in all its bushwhacker severity. Tarantino’s work here is indeed a delicious entertainment; but it is also a cornucopia wherein very little is in fact what it seems to be.
Proceeding on that premise, we’ll tap the film’s vital signs by way of two scenes seemingly miles apart. The first has to do with a factor eclipsed here by the movie’s more disconcerting virtues, namely, that of our host’s comedic genius. In the wake of our accompanying four characters on a stagecoach ride through a snowbound Wyoming countryside a few years after the official end of the Civil War—a quartet revealing themselves therewith to be steeped in murderous violence of various kinds—they reach a stopover point just as a blizzard hits. That ride had been marked by a bounty hunter, John Ruth, having handcuffed to himself his prisoner, Daisy Domergue, en route to the regional hangman, repeatedly smashing her face and head while the bloodied captive persistently referred to another bounty hunter on board, Major Marquis Warren, as a nigger who should not be in the coach, and defiantly ridiculed her captor. His penchant for beating up Daisy, notwithstanding, Ruth, as his name rather quaintly telegrams, is a mainstream, rather doctrinal, John Locke liberal (referring to Warren as “Black fella”), whose well-known (to Warren, for instance) nickname, “The Hangman,” pertains to his eschewing the “dead” part of the “wanted dead or alive” prescription. Warren’s three frozen corpses on the stage’s roof declare that he is all for the “dead” clause. His referring to himself as “a servant of the Court” introduces a touch of chivalry which might be lingering in his kindly eyes and resonant voice. Daisy, a Southern girl, to judge from her accent, blows a nostril full of snot in Warren’s direction and spits on his letter from Abraham Lincoln which has left Ruth deeply touched (“That gets me”). In smashing her for that latter impudence, he brings both of them crashing outward into the snow. When he catches up with her and his letter, Warren spits on Daisy, smashes her and then she remarks, “That nigger like to bust my jaw… Is that the way niggers treat their ladies?” A fourth member of the party, the son of a notorious leader of a rebel, post-War vigilante gang, “Mannix’s Marauders,” enters into a heated quarrel with Warren—each citing lurid, well-known details of slaughter perpetrated by the other, with firmly anti-slaver Ruth siding with the dishonourably discharged Black fella and putative friend of Lincoln.
By the time this hyper-opinionated crew reaches the station in the middle of nowhere and the middle of a crippling snow storm, Warren is very close to shooting that Mannix (Chris, by name) for the latter’s declaring himself proud of his Daddy for striking a (gory) blow for “dignity in defeat,” particularly in the form of slaughtering “emancipated niggers.” But Warren, whom Chris reports had been drummed out of the cavalry with a yellow stripe down his back for a racially motivated torching of a prison containing not only white Confederate soldiers on guard but also many white Union prisoners—information sending both left-wing Ruth and right-wing Daisy into gleeful laughter—retorts, “I joined the Army to kill white men…” Along this trajectory of pitched-for-battle metaphysical theorists something happens to give us another sense of their modus operandi. The wooden door of that gale-stressed haven does not close effectively and requires nailing a pair of boards into the door and the wall next to it after each forced opening. Ruth and Daisy are inside and Chris and the driver, O.B., try to enter after setting up a bit of storm provision in the form of rope fencing leading to the barn and the outhouse. They find the door locked and their fuss elicits from a hitherto intense variation on Siamese twins (even more intensified by the presence in the building of a small group of travellers who have trouble written all over them) a spate of caterwauling, reminding us of Ma and Pa Kettle. “Kick it open!” Ruth instructs. “Kick it open!” Daisy repeats, her eyes a bit like that of a mule skinner but also very resembling the register of an ambulance crew, forgetting everything else to see the mundane step succeed, going from Public Enemy #1 to someone’s grandma in 3 seconds flat. The kicked door swings furiously, accompanied by a large punch of snow and screaming wind. Chris and O.B. flounder on the floor and the volunteer busy-bodies get even more ordinarily hysterical. “Hammer and nails by the door!” Ruth screams. “Hammer and nails!” Daisy howls. “Two pieces of wood!” comes next. “Two pieces of wood!” she adds, in becoming a guardian of municipal order. (On the prior entry by Ruth and Daisy—accompanied by similar extremis by the otherwise sinister guests in place—the newcomers fumble quietly with their carpentry, only Daisy’s everyday “Yeah” in response to Ruth’s orders indicating her mainstream wobble away from being an incorrigible thug and killer.)
We all have a good laugh here. But Tarantino is not done with drawing attention to the slipperiness of primal power residing within his cast and his world. One of Daisy’s more powerful insults (getting smashed in the face for her trouble) in that introductory stagecoach ride was to tell Warren that though Ruth has positive characteristics his judgment is feeble. Now at the station, ever the emissary of civilized procedures, Ruth disarms the off-color strangers (being assisted by Warren and his knife to the throat of the most transparently sociopathic nuisance—Joe Gage, played by Michael Madsen, the psychopathic Mr. Pink in Tarantino’s debut, Reservoir Dogs). On, then, to a meal of too-good-to-be true stew, and an increased alliance of the Union forces (The Hangman decently wiping a bit of food from Daisy’s face), blown to smithereens by the subject of that Presidential letter nearly everyone seems to have heard of—genre melodramatic coincidences straining credibility the better to light a fire under some brand new credibility. On hearing the notion that the Commander-in-Chief would send a warm greeting and heartfelt reflection to a dishonourably discharged soldier, Mannix, the presumed (by Warren and Ruth) to be just another hillbilly, white-trash cretin, being so out of the Union loop that he hadn’t before encountered that celebrity topic, wastes no time in laughing rudely in their face and confidently declaring it to be a fake. Warren, assuming himself to be within the friendly range of a notable and rational gentleman, flashes a generous smile and admits, “’Course it was…” Ruth’s perplexity is exacerbated by Daisy’s erupting in loud and contemptuous laughter. (On first hearing that Mannix had been a vicious killer of Yankees and Blacks, she said, “Sounds like my kinda fella!”) His systematic assurance that a power conducive to humane and mounting solicitude will win the day thus receiving a painful setback, he becomes not merely embarrassed and irate but clearly recriminatory. “I guess it’s true what they say about you people…” Warren, bewildered by this tailspin, addresses the ally’s increasingly prissy correctness. “I hurt your feelings?”/ “Matter of fact, you did.” He makes an effort to recover that recent goodwill, by arguing, “You have no idea what a black faces in America… I achieved the desired effect of disarming them.”
Warren’s self-perception now threatened to undergo another dishonorable discharge, he strolls over to a guest being apparently unconnected to the off-putting Gage and his two probable subversive associates. Seated by the fireplace all the while, we have former Confederate General Sandy “Don’t-Give-a Damn” Smithers (an exponent of Total War), who, when first pointed out the presence of Warren by Mannix, snarls, “I know he’s a nigger, and that’s all I need to know.” (Earlier he told Chris, “I never met your father. But I always respected his resolve.”) Overhearing Warren’s being cashiered, Smithers might have found in the method of his disarray an enemy with craftsmanship to respect. Warren’s gambit, addressed to Chris, “I shared a battlefield with this man,” finds the General in a more composed disposition than before. “May I join you?” the so-called nigger calmly and (seemingly) respectfully asks. “Yes, you may,” the old man replies from his throne-like position. (Like a king’s musician, Mexican Bob, a fella both Ruth and Warren don’t trust at all, begins to play a very weak rendition of “Silent Night” on the house piano.) Warren shows an interest in the military and militant man’s family; and then, on the heels of his companion’s maintaining how much more successful his life has been as compared with “my no-good brothers,” he segues to the both domestic and cosmic minefield of remarking that he knew his son (who had relocated to Wyoming, disappeared without a trace and thereby induced his father’s trip to the town of Red Rock [bloody and hard implied] to establish a rather antebellum memorial gravesite there). “Yeah, I knew him,” the black militant, counter-attacking after his being temporarily routed in the range of that letter, contends, with a voice taking the musicale to fields of operatic verve and self-confidence. “I know the day he died.” Prefacing his massacre to come with the rationale that the racist’s racist son was employed in “killing niggers” at the rate of $5000 a head, Warren proceeds with a voice-over for a flashback of his having captured the hunter (who in babbling for a break divulged who his father was), having him slog, nude, through snow for two hours and then subjecting him to performing fellatio (with a view to receiving a blanket)—a scene adding complication to an already complicated situation). Warren notes that another point here was that this was a quirky form of the enemy’s finding warmth; but this expose does go farther into the area of an elusive dignity. Having, in his outlook, such as it was, stunningly accomplished a kind of coup d’état in that way, he also rounds out the new assault with that coup de grace of giving the old soldier an irresistible need to draw and kill and thereby be gunned down by a much younger killer. Marquis, along that skein of questionable aristocracy affixed to his name and operatic, bathetic villainy in his body language, pours out a war cry nowhere close to the heights of sensibility his hateful manoeuvre had hoped for. “You’d be surprised what a man that cold would do for a blanket…That blanket was just a hard man’s lie!”
More directly warming to the priority of reaching and maintaining a primordial cogency, Tarantino introduces us directly, in a voice-over, to what the General and the underworld had been doing earlier that day. Arriving by a stagecoach driven by a pretty young blonde wearing a buckskin outfit, Gage, Mexican Bob, a debonair Brit (Mobray) also in evidence in the previous actions; and a fourth member of the company we had not seen until now, enter the station where the owner, Minnie, and her staff, Sweet Days and Charles (all blacks), greet them with the same spontaneous cordiality shown by Six-Horse Judy, the driver. We have already been on a vehicle lurching into moods of varied shocks; but with this brief episode, prefaced by horror-genre musical ambience as the coach approaches that site of all-out war, the various dramatic entanglements of the cinematic offering just covered give way to sharply simplified experience. Judy’s sunny—those of us of a certain age would say, Doris Day-like—welcoming effervescence with the ride just over, in urging the four passengers to go in and sample the coffee and other treats of that so-called “Minnie’s Haberdashery,” beams out there as more a generic America-at-work display of timbre (as derived from a venerable, homespun upbringing) than any specific complexity, not to mention calamity. (That Judy turns out to be an émigré from New Zealand further heightens the studied nature of the solicitude on view.) But with the apparition of that famous-but-now-unknown musical actress’ film Calamity Jane in the air, we move inside for a taste of the Manson gang wreaking gratuitously murderous havoc on the premises owned by Doris Day. Ruth, Warren, Mannix and the General (and, even, obliquely, Daisy) had given us fightin’ words peppered by essential priorities, however corrupted. “She’s peppery,” Ruth explains to Marquis, apropos of Daisy’s Dixie trash talk disparaging the Major’s blue coat and black covering. The second wave coming ashore gives us corruption without pepper. They casually shoot down the locals—including an old man named Mr. Day who is shown enjoying outflanking at chess the General (who had been there for a few days waiting for his ride to Red Rock [Judy remarking he was making life difficult for Minnie])—as if they were swatting flies, in setting up a rescue of Daisy whom they knew would soon be escorted there. The kills are also remarkable inasmuch as the ladies die slowly from bullet wounds without uttering a sound. The juxtaposition of their buoyant solicitude and the passengers lacking any interest in other lives cues consideration of the extremely difficult span of interplay lurking within the peppery ones’ dashing gestures. Gage, wouldn’t you know it, adds a whiff of cruel amusement to his dispatch, by shotgun at close range, of the stable hand, Charles who had only been wounded during the first fusillade (which wrecked the door). To the bitingly ironic strains and lyrics of hymn-like folk ballad, “Now You’re All Alone,” Gage follows a blood trail in the snow, discovers Charles in a shed and blasts him to pieces, as if he were disposing of vermin (a significantly different slaughter from that produced by the rebels; and a sharp kick in the pants of idiotic softies like Ruth, dangerously overestimating the rationalist tradition). Mexican Bob recommends to the leader, Jody, who is Daisy’s brother, that the General remain alive to add credibility to the scam of polyglot folks from far and wide. The interview to vet the veteran finds that avatar of resolve eager to help Jody’s cause. The venerable rhetorician as to Southern dignity and justice snarls with a quaking voice, “I don’t give a damn about [the one carrying out the arrest]. “That was a good answer,” Jody praises. “Old man, be dotty” [some role for a supposed warrior], is the director of the deception’s last hint before going to the basement, going to the hidden side of the showtime he’d framed; going in fact like a film director, a French film director.
Far from coincidentally, that latter scene, sharing a glimpse of how tough it can get, establishes on a stronger footing the current which Tarantino had in mind when he momentarily showed himself directly to us. Jody’s charming Minnie with the usage of French (specifically the word Oui [Yes]) helps us to see something we might not have followed up—namely, the butchered pronunciation of his sister Daisy’s surname, Domergue, pronounced sensibly as dough/ mare/g. Ruth and his prisoner and everyone else in sight wants it to emerge as dough/ mur/ goo. As such it tracks closely to dugh/ noove, Deneuve, particularly the Catherine Deneuve starring as the mercenary shop-girl [haberdashery] princess in the Jacques Demy surrealist musical, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1963), who, having struck it rich with a smooth crime figure (like Jody) pulls up in her Rolls Royce to a gas station in the snow only to get a rude brush off within. We, however, are well advised to pay close attention to the tuning of that precedent.
The Reconstruction-era saga we have on our hands here does not stop with the mountainously flawed tunesmiths in the foreground. Daisy, for instance, that serial scene-stealer, wears a mantle shifting from Charlie Chaplin (her dark blood clot under the nose being a Charlot moustache; and her ability to flash big, troubled eyes supplemented by her black eye operating as mascara) to Janis Joplin (Daisy surprising us, over and above her facial features and her hair, once freed from the bowler-look of her fur hat, with a professional address toward the guitar by which Ruth unwittingly allows her to get down and convert a sea shanty—about one, Jim Jones, another mass-death exponent—into a nasty requiem: “By and by I’ll break my chains/ And you’ll be dead behind me, John…”) However, before bringing to bear the Repulsion-level denouement of The Hateful Eight, we are advised to put into the stew the fulsome beauties of this shockingly ugly projectile (projectile vomiting of blood just around the corner). That alarming distemper grabbing us by the throat meets its match—much to our puzzlement and delight—in cinematic sunbursts of transcendent power. Closely associated as they are with Tarantino’s play of film genres for the sake of measuring how far down the road of suffocation things have moved, there is a vial of sheer, eerie and lovely kinetics which, in the calamitous circumstances, stands as a bite of magic. Cutting across the grain of an opening moments soundtrack informed by cellos and violas slashing away to present a world of fright and pain, we have visuals of not only soaring but vaguely light-hearted lyricism. Before the stage carrying Ruth and Daisy becomes a dot crawling our way against a universe of snow, we’ve seen cloudy, far from travel-ad mountain ranges and then a swirl of small, black birds over a snowy field, a sight that goes a little way to lift our spirits. A neat zigzag fence of tree-trunks, followed by a young cedar forest well-spaced adds some more upbeat, a gathering of quiet and solitude being in effect. A Republic Studios-like B-Western title makes short shrift of this early moment; and it ushers in the onset, in addition to a gnarled, pain-ridden Christ-figure on a grave-site cross, of endless, appalling strife. And yet the four principals on O.B.’s stage having reached a cardiac-threat cease-fire, we get something crazy and charming (more crazy and charming than O.B.’s round-the-clock shades and his early-twentieth-century hat strung with little pom-poms on the fringe, in the spirit of one of those loony sidekicks of cowboy heroes of the old silver screen), namely, a slow-motion close-up of the two lead horses of the six-horse team, airing it out for the sake of avoiding a blizzard. The white horse and the black horse form a fluid and harmonic plunge through a snowy resistance glistening in bright sunlight. The simple sensuality of this teamwork shines as an ironic rejoinder to those quick and punishingly failing tongues, fists and guns. That Warren is very much a work-in-progress may be further intuited by his not only being easily dragooned (as a “freeloader,” along with Mannix, in Ruth’s eyes) to help feed and bed down O.B.’s team of horses, shown making difficult and yet bracing headway to the barn with the wind whipping up a pristine force of nature as seen from the perspective of the open door of the barn’s calm and sheltering interior darkness; but also staying with Mexican Bob to make additional provisions for creatures who don’t regard him as a nigger or a black fella and know something about doing what comes naturally. (The Major explains to [sort of] Good Samaritan Ruth that his elderly horse could not handle the heavy snow base and that he was an old friend who will be missed. That amity can be readily included in the chat with O.B. before approaching Ruth for a lift. O.B. had remarked that Ruth had bought up all the coach’s tickets, fearing someone trying to steal Daisy and the $10,000 on her head. “Real trustin’ fella,” Warren observes. “Not so much,” the driver, living largely alone with the surround and the horses, emphasizes.)
In restoring some vestige of order after the splenetic rampage—initiated by him alone—of drilling the warrior too old, maybe always too old, for his victories, the distraction of which allowing Gage to poison the coffee in the pot, leading to Ruth and O.B. literally spilling their guts, Warren has the now clearly- slated-for-death remnants being kicked around mercilessly, with special attention to O.B.’s not having been at all implicated in the apprehension of Daisy nor a party to the aggressive idealism coming out of the Civil War. (Seeing that Mannix is a fellow-blacksmith of white-hot and too-hot-to-handle integrity, far from and yet close to his own militancy, he brings the nigger-killer on board to deal with killers of a different stripe, clearly needing to be put down like vermin.)
The wobbling glimpses of long-shot confluences between these two seeming survivors are carried away by western, comedy, noir, horror and sci-fi genre semi-to-full-bore rhapsodics. What, you may ask, could be more Golden-Age innocence than a stagecoach, en route to Red Rock, no less, driven by a figure of comic relief arriving at a station in the middle of nowhere where eccentric and ominous characters lurk? (The proceedings are framed by  chapter headings—the first being good old, “Last Stage to Red Rock”—with their venerable promise of kiddie fun. Speaking of cowboy [“not so much believable”] fun, The Hateful Eight [Tarantino insistently pointing out that this is his eighth such shell-game, thereby somewhat treading on the toes of Federico Fellini] is, particularly in its opening movement, a veritable Shaggy Dog mechanism where figures out of the under populated blue are well-known to those they bump into—the famous War and the business of bounty hunting tending to find geeks of that world bristling with gunslinger lore.) Tarantino has enlisted greybeard spaghetti western composer, Ennio Morricone, to coat the vigorous action with peals of old-timey-sounding harmonies and discordance to lull us into an entertainment being like a piece of cake. But this being a Tarantino movie, the whimsy promptly bleeds to less sunny (but still somewhat amusingly oddball) noir and horror constructs. (Placement of early folk-rock hits pertaining to this wildly inflected drama also brings to the less alert viewer the promise of bell-bottom, country-club leisure. For instance, during the ride to the station, and during a lull from the battering of Daisy, she is shown hearing the strains of, “Hey Little Apple Blossom… I will come and rescue you…” But of course the blood-letting there—never seen in Roy Rogers or Hopalong Cassidy adventures—smashes the sneaky promise of a relaxing night. Gage referring to Warren’s intervention with a knife from behind as “sneaky.”)
On reaching the station (first of all vaguely suggesting a crime-wave noir redoubt or haunted house, where accompanying eerie chords are just a shade too muscular for uninterrupted fun), we’re soon totally disabused of any kind of light confection in the offing. But genre rhetoric continues to spill out amidst the shock and gore, doing nothing so much as riveting us to a historical juncture where such easy going is virtually senseless—recall the Doris Day moment—and yet having a purchase upon the primordiality of a special kind of lightheartedness. (Inserted into this uprising of Total War peppered with irony, there is an exchange by Ruth and Marquis, when they were still talking, which constitutes an investigatory, ironic window of opportunity: the liberal idealist declares, when questioned about not simply shooting Daisy like a cash cow and bringing in a far less troublesome pay check, “No one said it had to be easy;” the realist replies—surprisingly touching upon a new idealism—“No one said it had to be that hard.”) With smugly and dictatorially humane Ruth emitting rivers of blood, Daisy smiles and tells him—noir-style, but “not so much”—“When you get to Hell, John, tell them Daisy sent you…” There follows a not so classic “who done it” [the poison] experience, with the well-spoken rhetorician/ detective, Warren, proceeding to shoot the suspects—first of all, Mexican Bob—at point-blank range. Horror topping horror, the Major (sadist) then goes on to mete out more two-gun justice in the form of blowing Mexican Bob’s head to smithereens. (The outhouse where the promise-of-tomorrow frontier women have ended up, resembles [in supportive light] the monolith in Space Odyssey [aptly bathed within an eerie ambient soundtrack]. Once again the monkeys upstaging vacuous and heinous products of evolution.) Off-camera and rodent-like Jody shoots Warren from beneath, robbing him of any chance to repeat the bath-house-in-the-snow coolness. Proving, I suppose, that comedy is hard to kill, he declares his attacker to be a “bushwhacking sex-shooter” and then, shifting gears, he flushes out the brother of bad bravado from his fortress by threatening to kill Daisy (now outfitted with nearly a hundred per cent scarlet war paint from John—his corpse still locked to her–vomiting all over her). After tossing out his guns, Jody comes up, looking like a weasel, the siblings smile and Marquis blasts the brother’s head off, the spray of his blood adding another layer to her special look. (Sort of boy-next-door horror fun; but heading for plumbing a reflective matter not for boys.) Mobray and Gage die noisily—boundless impoliteness trumping an incomplete poise—and in the process of their having had guns stashed away Chris is also now in the process of bleeding to death. (Before doing so, the new friends learn, Shaggy Dog-style, about the true identities of their opponents—all known to Warren as meat with specific and varying prices on their head.)
In the aftermath of her brother’s early death, Daisy begins to rave about the unbeatable power of the Jody Domergue gang, in her (preposterously shrunken) estimation topping, for urgency, by far, the armies of the North and South. In that context, the world of Domergue (now Dugh/ mer/ gee, the better to jibe with Demy), is stalked by true largesse. Trying to win the heart and mind of Mannix, she insists that another facet of Jody’s (shrunken) marauders, “15 killers all,” will soon descend upon the station and also kill the whole population of Red Rock—a sort of Manson dream. Another version of her stunted dreaming has her moving on to Mexico (yet another cowboy standby). (Jennifer Jason Leigh, dealing out her final incarnation as one of the adolescent jerks in the Manson gang, performs, as throughout, with remarkable authority.) Mannix’s “No deal, Tramp,” is a bit melodramatically creepy; but the two felons making a mess—but not a complete mess—of striking a blow for an unusual form of justice, have, the pulse of the presentation insinuates, to be given some slack. Thus the little twist of Chris passing out (Warren already immobilized by his wound) and coming to just before Daisy can drag that dead weight to a gun on the floor comes to us as booth goofy contrivance and the huge handicap of sensibility at the cutting edge of Wyoming and worldwide civilization.
One last non-sublime gesture by the dying philosophers has Warren interrupting Mannix’s plan to dispatch the Tramp with a bullet in the head vigilante-style. The lifelong exponent of the easy way comes up with a mood to recognize Ruth’s Quixotic but also somehow promising hang-up. After the Grand Guignol spinoff of the two (barely) breathing contestants attending to the hangman’s rope from their luridly bloodied sick bed, Chris, the good old boy with an eye on something not so old, asks Warren for the letter he so delighted in debunking. Though not from President Lincoln, there was nothing so very stupid about Warren’s prose-poem assessing the odds we have just witnessed, which, for all their goofiness, ring only too true for the war we live every day. (Mobray’s erudite and insane calculations as to the dispassionate [rational] mechanisms of justice, shorn of any consideration of the passionate errancy of the prisoner and the abused, is a witty and Tarantino-wicked satire of liberal compassion—that of Ruth being far less correctly enervated and self-serving.) “There’s so much to do. Times are changing slowly but surely…We still have a long way to go…” The last line, about “Old Mary Todd” urging him to come to bed, strikes both of them as a “nice touch.” It’s a slip; and the overview also underestimates the problem—not a politician’s evolutionary progress problem. But as the two warriors shut down forever, their spunk means something. Ruth was proud of having “no mixed emotions” when it came to the right (liberal) stuff. In smashing Daisy, he could elicit from her, as to any friction spoiling his cruise, “I got it!” [Anything you say!]. Warren and Mannix had made their way to a blizzard of “mixed emotions.”