Cheekily, the director of The Hateful Eight labels his latest work "The 8th film by Quentin Tarantino." It is to be considered then as part of an oeuvre, and indeed it can be read as a sequel of sorts to Django Unchained and the third in a trilogy of period films that began with Inglourious Basterds. Again, Tarantino plays the hypothetical historian: Basterds was a Holocaust revenge fantasy set in France in 1944; Django was an equally vengeful tale of a slave's liberation just before the American Civil War; now, in the years following that war, The Hateful Eight considers how Northern and Southern, black man and white man, might be reconciled. Like its predecessors, The Hateful Eight is exceedingly well-crafted and exceptionally violent.
It introduces four characters: John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is a bounty hunter bringing in the murderess Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) – and bringing her in alive. Travelling toward the law by stagecoach across wintry Wyoming – gorgeously portrayed in vast vistas captured on 70-millimetre film – they meet Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), another bounty hunter, who prefers to be paid for corpses. Ruth reluctantly gives him a lift, and they are soon joined by the new sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who says he is heading to town to accept his badge.
The plot, a mystery of sorts, gets rolling when they take shelter from a blizzard at a lodge, where they find themselves stuck with four more characters: a hangman, a cow puncher, a Mexican and a former Confederate general. (From this point on, the much-touted 70-mm becomes rather superfluous.) The possible escape of the hard-bitten Daisy, who Ruth keeps handcuffed to his wrist and punches viciously at the slightest provocation, is the linchpin here, but in truth, the inclusion of one female character is largely tokenism. The men are surprised by her presence, but her gender matters so little to the story that it can be argued the grotesque violence done to her makes no comment on the treatment of women, but instead is merely part of the film's larger picture of a viciously retributive society.
Besides, if she is the trigger for the plot, the main thematic confrontation is acted out by Warren, who is black and a former Union soldier, on the one hand and the two nakedly racist characters, Sheriff Mannix and the old Confederate general, on the other. As they come under attack from some mysterious scheme swirling around them – not everyone here is who they seem in a plot with some flourishes worthy of Agatha Christie – they have to decide whether they can possibly band together.
And so, in the end, Tarantino heals the wounds of the Civil War and unites American society – by means of a bloodbath that kills practically everybody in the room. The Hateful Eight asks us to consider a social union achieved through butchery, just as Inglourious Basterds defeated Nazism with sadism and gore.
Tarantino is a masterful storyteller, painter of cinematic images and director of actors; the script, the cinematography and the cast of outlandish characters, created by a powerful ensemble dashingly led by Jackson, can't be faulted in any way. The auteur again displays the playful narrative dexterity with which he first distinguished himself so amusingly in Pulp Fiction, but this time he addresses that thematically, too, as both the characters and the audience question how much they can believe of the various tall tales that get told here.
And the film is also, yet again, exceedingly violent; the complaints of those who detest Tarantino for that reason should be acknowledged. In that regard, he is a director who has his cake and eats it, too, exciting an audience with blood even as he critiques that excitement.
The Hateful Eight could be interpreted as another example of the embarrassingly presumptuous Tarantino playing God – a vengeful Old Testament one – fixing history by blowing up the bad guys. If that interpretation suggests itself, it is only because of the sometimes cringe-making spectacle in Basterds and Django of Captain Quentin riding to the rescue of Jews and slaves on his celluloid steed.
And yet, Tarantino's craft is so superb, it seems wiser to give him the benefit of the doubt; to figure that he knows precisely what he is doing when he depicts an America in which black and white have only one unifying belief: the power of the gun. The Hateful Eight is not a movie about America's past but about its present, and the final picture it paints is very dark indeed. That Tarantino takes you on a wild and hugely entertaining ride before he makes that explicit is what some would consider his genius – and others might call downright amoral. The Hateful Eight is devilishly good.