The curtain opens, and the credits roll. Bold, old-fashioned Western music plays behind a static screen—a wagon before snow-capped mountains. The unsuspecting audience settles in for a classic-style Western, totally oblivious to the carnage, crudity, and conflict to come.
Okay, fine. “The Hateful Eight” is a Quentin Tarantino film, so the audience expects blood, gore, death, violence, entertaining dialogue, and visions not meant for children. And boy, do they all come—but only step by step, and only after lulling the audience into a false sense of security.
“The Hateful Eight” fulfills two classic functions of Western movies: It features the idealistic heroism of a film like “Silverado,” and the realistic pessimism of a movie like “True Grit.” Amid the carnage and lawlessness of a terrifying but liberating frontier, we see the emergence of villains and . . . villains. This film is aptly named: There are no true heroes, only evil men and women—though not without a capacity for redemption.
The film unfolds in a series of “Acts,” each one building the story. Some theaters show “Hateful Eight” as it was intended, with an intermission between Acts 3 and 4. I highly recommend this version, as the film can be difficult to bear without a brief respite. The break also allows the audience to decompress and think over what has transpired, setting them up for the roller coaster of a finale.
From start to finish, Tarantino’s film masters the development of complex characters. The fearless bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is traveling the snowy wastes of Wyoming, attempting to outrun a blizzard on his way to deliver the murderer Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to hang in the town of Red Rock. Ruth could easily kill her, but he insists on bringing in all of his bounties alive, giving an air of nobility to his distinctly filthy character.
Daisy has a quiet malevolence about her, but she frequently breaks her silence to get in a verbal jab at Ruth, who then overreacts, punching, shoving, kicking, and otherwise beating the bleeding woman into submission. Leigh gives the audience a distinct vision of a seemingly hopeless woman who nevertheless has a trick up her sleeve.
Samuel L. Jackson plays the vicious, calculating bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren. Warren has a sordid history serving in the Northern army during the Civil War, with a war crime in his past. He is the rare bounty hunter who knows what it’s like to have a bounty on his own head, and that makes him especially ruthless, in surprisingly evil ways.
Walton Goggins, who plays Sheriff Chris Mannix, ends up stealing the show. This white Southern boy not only hates black people—especially Warren—but proudly raped and pillaged black towns, even after his side lost the Civil War. His warped yet strong idea of justice and his constant mistrust of Warren make him a wild card from the beginning, accentuated by Goggin’s simultaneously bombastic and slimy portrayal.
These four end up trapped in “Minnie’s Haberdashery,” a stopping place for travelers, in the middle of a three-day snowstorm. The door must be forcibly kicked open, and then nailed shut to keep out the cold. Ruth, Daisy, Warren, and Mannix meet four strangers in the haberdashery, and the film revolves around these mysterious characters throughout the action-packed latter half. A twist—hiding in plain sight—gives the story a jolt and ushers in the classic Tarantino shoot ’em up violence, before and after a flashback gives the audience the full story.
“The Hateful Eight” is a masterpiece of sleight-of-hand, but it is emphatically not for anyone even slightly faint of heart. It features a scene of gross sexual coercion purposefully intended to produce gut-wrenching revulsion. Tarantino uses this scene to shock and awe the audience, demonstrating the horrific depths of his engrossing moviemaking. This is what Tarantino is famous for, but it proves truly disturbing in this film.
Nevertheless, the film has all the elements of a great movie in the Western style. From the gorgeous panoramas of Wyoming’s snowy peaks to the soaring score of classic Western composer Ennio Morricone, the movie goes all-out to master the Western style. Morricone has composed film scores since the late 1950s, including the classic “Once Upon A Time in the West” soundtrack, and his music makes “The Hateful Eight” truly chilling and impressive.
Another impressive element of the film is how it uses the television trope of a “bottle episode.” Such TV episodes take place entirely in an enclosed space, heightening the tension between characters. Nearly the entirety of “The Hateful Eight” takes place in Minnie’s Haberdashery, an excellent artistic choice that allows the film to build to a final emotional climax.
The film opens with the image of Jesus Christ on a crucifix, abandoned and covered in snow. This may prefigure the redemption at the end, or the bloody massacre about to unfold, or it may signal the utter lack of faith and religion among the hateful protagonists. After all, the characters boldly take the Lord’s name in vain on multiple occasions, both for dramatic and comedic effect.
“The Hateful Eight” is a bloody, disgusting masterpiece. Tarantino has once again proven his excellence in moviemaking, even as he sullies his art with evil, abuse, and gruesome death. A Christian cannot consider these elements as rightly used in service of the film, even though they fit well in Tarantino’s artistic style.
Indeed, a film like “The Hateful Eight,” by its deliberate artistic choices, forces deep questions about the elements that make a great film. According to purely secular standards, it achieves a rare artistic success. When considered from a Christian view, however, it falls far short. Unlike the gruesome pain and evil of the cross, which leads to the joy of the empty tomb, this movie’s pain and death yield only a slight reconciliation, as weak in true catharsis as it is poignant with subtle meaning. The characters end as they began, in darkness.
Image copyright The Weinstein Company. “The Hateful Eight” is rated R for strong bloody violence, a scene of violent sexual content, language, and some graphic nudity.
Tyler O’Neil is a Christian commentator and fundraiser living in the Washington, D.C., area. He has written for numerous publications, including The Christian Post, National Review Online, Values & Capitalism, and the Human Life Review.