The Hateful Eight is a Western movie by Quentin Tarantino. The title is a reference, if not an homage, to the famous Western, The Magnificent Seven, which is an American take on Kurosawa’s film, Seven Samurai.
Though this post will examine the plot and characters in The Hateful Eight, there is no need for a spoiler alert. Representations of art cannot spoil the experience of art. That is because true art is not didactic. It is about what it depicts rather than being a diagram, so experiencing the art is everything, and knowing things about how a work of art is put together can never substitute for the experience.
Whether you think The Hateful Eight is good art or bad, it meets the criterion above. The film does not document the Western landscape, rugged individualism, or violence; it is about the Western landscape, rugged individualism and violence. I happen to think it is pretty good art, but I hate it anyway. Let me explain.
In the first part of the movie, we learn about the characters, who are all forthright, tough individualists. They have come West after the Civil War. They have come to be free to be themselves. They have come to be free of their pasts. They have come to get away from the hell of other people.
On a long stagecoach ride, the rugged individualists recount all the ways in which they have stuck to their principles, no matter the cost. They have been heroes in war and agents of justice afterwards, no matter which side they championed. What matters is that they have championed something, and have served blind justice.
But then, the stagecoach stops at a lonely outpost. The conversation moves indoors. Other people become involved. And in a ugly crescendo, we are shown the consequences of unyielding principle, and an ethic which extolls championing one’s principles as a virtue in itself. The result is scorched earth, and an endless cycle of vengeance chasing death, all sustained by the moral satisfaction which comes of living a principled life.
As the cycle plays out, the Hateful Eight sacrifice others and finally even themselves, a piece at a time, in the name of family bonds, racial justice, legal justice, and cultural allegiance. If the first part of the film invites the audience to share a draught of moral satisfaction with the characters, the second part challenges us to keep on drinking as it all turns to blood.
Because, the narrative doesn’t change as events on screen descend into an orgy of violence. The action is cartoonish, but the actors do not play it tongue in cheek. They do their best to keep it real. Their efforts seem pathetic at first, then sickening, as each side in turn slakes its thirst for justice on the suffering of the other.
At some point, the film invites the viewer to turn away from the escalating grotequerie, and when the viewer does turn away, that’s when the film really becomes art. Because, veering off in disgust is a hypocritical act. The audience hasn’t earned the right to look away. We were just admiring the characters for the very traits which generate the revolting atrocities in the second part of the film.
And haven’t we engaged in the same hypocrisy in real life, whenever we’ve bought into the Western-spirit myth of self reliance, toughness and self- righteousness without acknowledging that that same spirit has just as often manifested as selfishness, callousness and zealotry? We love Lewis and Clark; we choose to forget Wounded Knee. We admire Custer’s bravery at the Little Bighorn while we stubbornly ignore the intentions which led him to that spot. We buy into the nasty Western contradiction every time we choose to watch a Western movie.
Yet the film’s indictment is flawed. We do turn away, so we can make the distinction between, for instance, Bill Hickok and Emil Reuter. In illustrative contrast, the original film in The Hateful Eight’s family tree recognizes the schism between our moral ideals and our emotional reflexes.
The young samurai who idolizes the leader of the Seven Samurai expects glory and honor from defending innocent villager from a gang of bandits. What he gets, in the course of achieving his victory, is one bitter loss after the next. He finally turns away too, and although he achieves some peace in understanding that the choice to fight is merely one grim option among many, he must also accept that there can be no moral equation which resolves those choices. The last scene questions whether his own choice really is worth it – and if he could even know anymore, having made the choice.
Tarantino’s film points an accusing finger to the same end, but aiming the finger sustains the cycle of judgement and reduction. Sure, it brings us in and makes us feel what it’s really like inside, but it is an oversimplification. It dodges the hard questions which arise in arguments about just wars or the enforcement of human rights. It leaves open the possibility of moral equations.
So, though I hate to say it, I do hate The Hateful Eight. And I hate that that is my inevitable conclusion.