The lies arrive before the movie even begins. Its title is The Hateful Eight , but there are at least 10 significant characters, at least nine of which are 100-percent hateful. This is writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s chosen subject: not hate, but lies. His second according-to-Hoyle western, set in the mountains of Wyoming a few years after the Civil War, is a pulpy whodunit paperback stashed under a cowboy hat. Tarantino’s asking you to sift through his latest collection of layered compositions and characters-who-play-characters in search of mistruths, misnomers, and bullshit. The Hateful Eight forces audiences into doing something that they should be doing anyway—when you watch it, you investigate.
“Come and sit with me and talk awhile,” Jack White croons over an early sequence of snow-swept landscapes, so we do. The first three chapters of Tarantino’s latest are dedicated to table setting, with his characters kicking their way around each other’s turns-of-phrase. Bounty hunter John “the Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell, invoking John Wayne) is accompanying captured bounty Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to a hanging rope waiting in the small town of Red Rock. But there’s a blizzard behind their stagecoach, and a man in front of it: Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson, invoking Lee Van Cleef), formerly of the United States cavalry, now another bounty-hunting flesh-trader. Next up on the trail is supposed sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), former Confederate soldier and avowed white supremacist, who’s also searching for shelter. Ruth recognizes both of them from Civil War times, which is something nobody’s forgotten in this movie. The conceptual joke of the setup is that everybody recognizes each other—just enough for all these mutual reappearances to be suspicious.
What’s being negotiated in that stagecoach, rather unsuccessfully, is mutual trust. Boundaries are broached, of profession (Ruth worrying that the two aim to tackle his captured bounty), race (Mannix’s misdeeds having been done in the name of “the cause”), and gender (more on that in a minute). And when the stagecoach, driven by O.B. (James Parks), reaches its destination—Minnie’s Haberdashery, in chapter three—there’re more symbolically loaded bodies to deal with: a British import (Oswaldo Mobray, the literal hangman of Red Rock, played by Tim Roth), a cowboy (Joe Gage, played by Michael Madsen with his own brand of off-kilter melancholy), a Confederate general (Sanford Smithers, played by Bruce Dern with consummate gravitas), and a Mexican shopkeeper (Bob, played by Demian Bichir with a sense of metatextual tragedy—he performs the same way that white men used to play Mexican characters in 20th century westerns, with squinted eyes, and his R’s rolled as loosely as a bad cigarette).
Somewhat true to the ugly side of Tarantino’s reputation, the movie is set up like a racist’s joke: Nine immigrants walk into a bar… There’s no punchline, because the walking-in is the very sin that Tarantino is doling out punishments for—it’s no coincidence that there are no Native Americans among this cast of capitalistic colonizers. Nor is it insignificant that Warren, the film’s sole black character, eventually finds himself being forcibly transported to a new location while trapped in chains. Once the whole gang is caught in the mystery, Tarantino lets the guilt of those national misdeeds fester, until you can see the results of the virus splattered against the sides of each wall. Ruth is sure that Daisy has a “double agent” inside Minnie’s, an untrustworthy element scheming below their society, and the narrative rhythm of most individual scenes sees one character—most often it’s Ruth—interrogate another in order to ascertain whether or not there’s any truth to the identity their enemy has claimed. Whoever has the gun asks the questions. They make demands. They tell their subject where to stand, or where to sit. Then they say the movie’s most oft-used line, “You got it?”, a demand in the form of a question, which is to say it’s about as honest as an American promise. Punches are thrown. Teeth are displaced. Poisons are forcibly ingested. Limbs are violently detached. And just as bodies are degraded and manipulated at gunpoint—in search of capital gains, and a supposed sense of “security”—so too are the identities these characters are presenting. Slurs are hurled—“bee-itch,” “n–ger,” “Muss’ican”—with the vilest of diction. As with the strikes and punches, these words are deployed not just with venom, but with a deliberate intent to obtain a desired effect. It’s been said that the use of these slurs is unnecessarily overwhelming, but to weary American eyes, it plays out like standard operation procedure. Ruth’s violence against Daisy, which is doled out in pieces and is generally accompanied by sexist language, is literally referred to as a “system.” And Tarantino’s vision of the nation, as outlined in this and Django Unchained , is an unambiguous one. To borrow one of the phrases from that prior film, he’s positioning the American character as one that grew from “flesh for cash” businesses. Claiming otherwise would be just another lie.
Quentin Tarantino’s authorial voice has grown so distinctive that even the work of his collaborators—like the panoramic, light-stained frames lensed by cinematographer Robert Richardson—now seems inseparable from his own artistry. And what you make of Tarantino’s artistry, in one sense or another, is impacted by your opinion on the artistry of genre cinema. Tarantino takes the iconography of the western very seriously—he respects the standards enough to deconstruct them. As the audience searches through the background of his multilayered frames, looking for clues to the narrative’s mystery, the director parses through the fortunes of the western in search of its lies. So his John Wayne takes great pleasure in beating women. His yellow-ribboned hero of the cavalry made his name killing “redskins.” His frontier woman is a gang member as unscrupulous as any CEO. Even his wide-eyed Sergio Leone-esque close-ups appear as though they crawled out from under the shadowy side of their more awestruck cousins. One, during an instantly-infamous Samuel Jackson monologue, qualifies as downright sinister. Django maintained the myth of the western hero, so that it could be reappropriated in the name of an oppressed race. So take Eight as a significant reversal. Now those myths have been made evil.
The movie makes that point as bluntly as a pistol butt upside someone’s head. Once the hidden allegiances have been spoiled and the bloodshed has begun, in the second half of the film’s six-chapter structure, The Hateful Eight turns toward the horrific. Guided by a threatening score by the legendary Ennio Morricone—it creeps up on each scene like an assassin’s footsteps—Tarantino allows the film to be overtaken by a tone he hasn’t previously explored: despair. One chapter forces us through a massacre of innocents, most of whom belong to marginalized social groups, that’s characterized by an almost nihilist inevitability. That this segment ends with an extended homage to The Last House on the Left  only confirms the implicit connection. The western and the horror film have conjoined. The unending effects of our foundational myths—“exceptionalism” and “equality,” consistently consecrated within the former genre —become a weapon, one worth being scared of.
We’re back to the subject of lies. Warren carries around a letter written to him by Abraham Lincoln, an object met with great reverence by each of the white people trapped in the blizzard’s “white hell.” The veracity of that letter is questioned throughout the movie’s three-hour running time. And it’s the very qualities that the 16th president’s image has come to stand for—the presentation of America as a haven for bravery and opportunity—that The Hateful Eight casts an aspersion towards. It maintains an obsession with the artifice of all these ostensibly-noble symbols; one segment even features characters “dressing the set” in order to manipulate the others into an unwise sense of calm. What Tarantino’s crafted is a revisionist western written in blood and viscera, a vision of capitalist America where the only certainty is that everyone will turn on each other if it’ll benefit themselves. When we wrote about Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies , we linked it to the director’s own Lincoln , noting that both were movies that pondered how much it is that we, the people, owe to the legacies and laws that forged this nation in the first place. We can leave those better angels to Spielberg. Tarantino’s cinema is chasing the demons.
THE HATEFUL EIGHT. WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 31. 6:30PM. RATED R. BRATTLE THEATRE. 40 BRATTLE ST., CAMBRIDGE, MA. 35MM. DOUBLE-FEATURE WITH CUT-THROATS NINE .