Let’s not let something so small as unconditional surrender stand in the way of continuing the Civil War. What say you, shall we reenact the Battle of Baton Rouge right here in this room?”
I recall reading a piece in the Atlantic some months back, marking the sesquicentennial anniversary of Appomattox Court House, the thesis of which was that America had never really stopped fighting the Civil War; that the divisions of the nation in the mid-nineteenth century were born of the same root causes and divided along the same demographics as these early years of the twenty-first century.
If true, it’s a hard truth to see from my vantage point. I walk among an unusually cosmopolitan circle, collegiate and multi-cultural, in which I frequently forget the fact of belonging to a white minority. My America is one of Asian evangelicals, Bangladeshi imams, Columbian love triangles, Ethiopian blue-bloods star-crossed with urban potheads, Korean sorority girls, mulatto vagabonds and unicyclists, Pakistani philosophers, Peruvian pharmacists, and a best friend the direct decedent of Roger Williams.
Though none of these Judases join me, I moonlight as a karaoke night troubadour; when not serenading bleach-dyed blondes with my rendition of “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)” I’m constantly amused by the flood of white frat guys selecting “Gold Digger,” somehow forgetting the epithet dropped throughout, awkwardly unsure as to what to sing each time the asterisked letters appear onscreen, managing a meager mumble come every chorus. Cue Tarantino. Per Hateful Eight’s character John “the Hangman” Ruth, “They don’t like it when you use that word.”
Of course, Tarantino himself uses “nigger” prolifically throughout his scripts, in Hateful Eight more so than even Django, perhaps. Such parlance has become the proper property of artists and activists exclusively. Like Matt Stone and Trey Parker via “With Apologies to Jessie Jackson” (which surely set some sort of record for the most uses of the word “nigger” in a half hour block of content), Tarantino is both, depicting ethnic slurs and vitriolic attitudes in advocacy of reconciliation, or at the very least in warning of the wanton violence such ill will breeds.
In the wake of Eric Gardner, Michael Brown, Tamar Rice, and Freddy Grey, such a reminder hardly seems necessary. We know full well the Blue/Red divide is new nomenclature for the same old Blue/Grey battle lines of a hundred and fifty years ago. That Tarantino’s script was finished over six months prior to Ferguson could almost be constituted as prescient. After all, here in a single cabin is a militarized police force: bounty hunters and sheriff still carrying the same weapons and grudges as they did in the war.
Here too are race riots, the black man and the good ol’ boys set against each other’s throats. And also the extortion that black live matter, with Samuel L. Jackson’s Major Marquis Warren one of the few sympathetic souls, the closest the ensemble cast has to a protagonist, save perhaps Kurt Russel. 1870s, meet 2010s. As per Django before it, enough blood spilled from the right folks does indeed wash clean the sin. Baptized in the blood of the unjust, Johnny Reb and Billy Yank form bonds of brotherhood, “The Lost Cause” truly becoming lost.
Jackson plays Warren with a disappointingly defter touch than his stellar Stephen, the Uncle Tom of Candyland, save for a single show stealing scene spent antagonizing an ex-Confederate war criminal. Jackson has done amazing understated performances in the past, but is always most enjoyable as his eccentricities are enlarged.
Surprisingly, Jackson is overshadowed by many of his fellow cast members. Kurt Russel carries much of the film as the noble if un-chivalrous John Ruth, as pragmatic and paranoid a paladin as ever there was. Jennifer Jason Leigh as Daisy Domergue ramps up slowly, her face emoting the more its blasted with blood and brain tissue. Channing Tatum, Bruce Dern, and Zoë Bell are among the more memorable performances, though not so much that Hateful Eight won’t get lost in their extensive filmographies. Best of all is the lively Walton Goggins as Sheriff Chris Mannix, whose initial cartoonish zeal belies the emotional core of the film and the most affecting character arc.
Such outstanding acting is only made possible by the appropriately Tarantino-esq dialogue, the true highlight of The Hateful Eight. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the cinematography, which between the bottle-episode format and the surrounding visually-bland blizzard suffers greatly. It’s one of the only movies I’ve seen which could have truly worked equally well as a radio drama.
The title Hateful Eight of course refers to this being the eighth movie in Tarantino’s filmography. It’s certainly in the bottom half, better than Inglorious Bastards but behind the likes of Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, and Django Unchained. Still, one of Tarantino’s lesser works is inevitably nevertheless one of the best films of the year no matter when it comes out, and Hateful Eight is no exception. Like the father from A Christmas Story, “he works in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay.” The same for gore. But unlike his imitators, there’s always a story beneath the vicious veneer of violence, vengeance, and vitriol. With Pulp Fiction, it was the Grail Quest. With Django Unchained, it was the Ring Cycle. But The Hateful Eight pulls not from legends but from headlines. It’s a story all together American, about a house divided against itself which cannot stand, writ small till Lincoln’s apt metaphor is the literal truth.