One of the characters of The Hateful Eight carries a personal letter from Abraham Lincoln. “Honest Abe” is remembered in the history books for having saved the Union, and Lincoln remains a symbol for the uneasy unity of the United States. Like the U.S. Constitution, people are moved by the dream of unity on paper, but it’s much more difficult to make these ideas a reality.
The 8th film by Quentin Tarantino is a western by settling. It shares elements with a thriller. It often feels like theater. As with most of his pictures, it is a melting pot of style and influence, and while he is often criticized for dabbling in genres, it feels appropriate in this context, especially considering its themes. Like many, or most, of his films, there is an exploration of race and violence, but in this case they are recurring motifs under the umbrella of the greater theme: America itself.
This film begins with a shot of a crucifix in the wilderness, with snow accumulating on the body of Jesus. No better symbolism could be used to introduce this Western. The America of the film—and the America that exists today—carries the idea of Christ with it, but the civil society that has been, at least theoretically, sought by Christianity in the West has been covered by the more savage elements in the wild New World. It may receive lip-service, but “good will towards men” gets in the way of survival and has never been useful for personal prosperity. While Christianity remains ubiquitous in America, it has been altered by the environment; other things got in the way. This image, like this film, reminds us that the civil society that exists in America is held together by the most fragile semblance of unity—and it’s worth noting that symbol of unity is represented the body of man being executed.
Circumstances have forced the Americans in The Hateful Eight to find themselves in close quarters, and the commonality they share is their desire to keep on the path towards their separate goals, in spite of those who get in their way. That is where most of their commonalities end. Samuel L. Jackson is “The Bounty Hunter”, who is on his way to Red Rock to collect money for three fugitives that he has chosen to capture on the dead side of “Wanted: Dead or Alive.” Kurt Russell plays a bounty hunter called “The Hangman”, who has a famous reputation for bringing in his fugitives alive so “not to cheat the hangman.” Even these two characters that share a trade come from different backgrounds and have a different outlook on the way their work should be completed. The Hangman is bringing “the Prisoner” (played in feral perfection by Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock to hang. We learn “The Bounty Hunter” is a black union solider from the Civil War when they cross paths with “The Sheriff”—or a man who claims to be the Sheriff—of Red Rock. “The Sheriff” (in a great performance by the underused Walton Goggins) is a former renegade who didn’t surrender when the war was over, and seeds of distrust are quickly sewn between him and “The Bounty Hunter” for their recent past in America’s bloodiest war.
A storm is brewing. Because of the oncoming blizzard, The Bounty Hunter, The Hangman, The Prisoner, and The Sheriff are forced to take shelter at Minnie’s Haberdashery, where they meet The Mexican, The Little Man, The Cow Puncher, and The Confederate (played by Demian Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, and Bruce Dern, respectively).
In these close quarters, we have people from different backgrounds with different ideas of morality, honor, and justice, who are left with no choice but to live together until the storm passes. The setting of Wyoming is a wise choice, because Wyoming remains nearly isolated from the rest of America the way America—mentally speaking—remains isolated from the rest of the world. Minnie’s Haberdashery is a microcosm of the American dream on screen. It is an attempt at civilization in the wild, and a structure made by an entrepreneurial soul trying to carve out their own fortune against the odds. The people who have arrived at Minnie’s are seeking shelter in a marketplace; seeking shelter within capitalism. This mixed bag of individuals have arrived seeking fortune, running from their past, or in chains. The violence that follows in this environment was never an “if” but simply a question of “when.”
Tarantino has created his what is possibly his darkest and most overtly political film yet. It asks how we can trust each other if we are only interested in our own prosperity and survival. It asks how we can cope with suspicion and fear. Can we open our eyes before everything is ruined? The film gives us the obvious answer, but still allows us to consider the possibilities.