The Passion of the West, being some notes on Tarantino’s Hateful Eight

by Eric on January 12, 2016

Non-specific plot details discussed herein.

Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight opens with a close shot of Christ’s face as he hangs on a cross; the frame widens to show us it’s a roadside crucifix somewhere in a desolate snowscape. Along that road sweeps a stagecoach bearing a bounty hunter—whose dual nature is revealed in his nickname, “the hangman,” and his surname, which is Ruth, meaning mercy—together with his prisoner, a murderer and thief.

The film so swiftly displaces the lingering shot of the stationary crucifix with the rush of the coach, which is seeking to beat a blizzard to shelter, that perhaps by the end of the film a viewer has forgotten the opening invitation to contemplate the image, and concept, of redemption-through-suffering. But that is where the movie starts, and also where it ends.

The opening shot looks a lot like the beginning of Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One, which also opens on a long close shot of a crucifix, this one in France during World War I—or rather, in the hours just after the armistice, when Fuller’s protagonist slays one more German before finding out his license to kill has expired.

Fuller’s movie is largely about how arbitrarily, but how completely, the declaration of war permits human slaughter. It mocks the idea of meaning emerging through violence; it mocks meaning altogether, I think. There is only survival and, where permitted, empathy. By invoking it—we know Tarantino admires Fuller, and shares some of his preoccupations—is the Hateful Eight doing the same?

Maybe; I think it may go further. In Fuller’s movie the hate between antagonists switches off instantly once the war ends. In Tarantino’s, the hate persists and intensifies after the war. Denied the outlet of legitimate killing, hate finds other ways to erupt. War gives way to guerrilla fighting, terrorism, outlawry; murder after murder.

For Tarantino, “war” here is specifically the US Civil War. In the film, the artifact embodying the myth of this war’s meaning is revealed literally to be a lie. The Christ crucified of the Civil War—Lincoln—has brought no redemption. Indeed the only “Redemption” in the offing—the end to any attempt at Reconstruction of the defeated South—will repudiate the purpose for which the war was fought.

Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction can only give its main characters what seems like a happy ending by twisting the order of the tale, and ending in (what the film lets us know is) the middle of the story. Apart from a fairly conventional flashback, The Hateful Eight proceeds more or less chronologically to its conclusion. That flashback shows us an evidently idyllic Minnie’s Haberdashery in the hours before the movie’s main action begins—a place where black and white people live in blissful harmony and women are in charge, driving the action.

On an uncareful reading, one might assume this flashback is supposed to tell us that the West really could have been a new and better society (it is, after all, Wyoming territory, the first to enact woman suffrage)—but Tarantino undercuts this illusion too, making Minnie’s hatred of Mexicans into a plot point. There was already a serpent in the garden then.

Straightened out, the film’s narrative begins with this false Eden and ends with a mocking Calvary. One of its most thoughtful monologues comes from Tim Roth’s character, who muses that justice demands that an executioner act without passion. A passion play ends with a crucifixion. This movie ends with another kind of execution, and none are saved.



DavidtheK 01.12.16 at 6:11 pm

A small error here. the name Ruth doesn’t mean mercy. That would be Rachamim (for a male) or Ruchama (for a female) names which did not make a phonetic leap into English because of the guttural Chet sound, which of course English does not have. Ruth could be translated as “a loving friend” or “innocent companionship”. Still ironic or cruel for a character representing a philosophy which seeks to excise the phrase “Promote the
General Welfare” and the concept of do-gooding from the political lexicon.


Eric 01.12.16 at 6:24 pm

Sorry I was unclear; his name is Ruth, which when it is a word, means mercy…


Waiting for Godot 01.12.16 at 7:15 pm

Thanks for the review. I had the feeling when I left the theater that I had just watched Hurricane Tarantino destroy another big chunk of American mythology. It will be interesting to see how the gatekeepers of popular culture treat the film as well as the performances of the extraordinary cast.


Bloix 01.12.16 at 8:31 pm

i.e. ruth means mercy in English. Obsolete except in ruthless.


Theophylact 01.12.16 at 10:58 pm

Like “reck”.


Scott P. 01.12.16 at 11:13 pm

“Obsolete except in ruthless.”

As in “the ruthless Red Sox failed to win another pennant in 1919”.


None 01.13.16 at 12:18 am

“making Minnie’s hatred of Mexicans into a plot point.”

Word on the internetz has it that this is yet another one Major Warren’s lies. The usual suspects scoured the mise-en-scène and found no evidence of “No mexicans allowed” signage in the flashback.


medrawt 01.13.16 at 12:47 am

None –

It may or may not be one of Warren’s lies, but the flashback wouldn’t tell us either way. The flashback shows us events earlier that morning; Warren already claims to have seen Minnie take down the “No dogs or Mexicans” sign … because she allowed a dog. I don’t remember the precise dialogue, but it would’ve had to have been earlier than the flashback arrival of the stagecoach.


ZM 01.13.16 at 1:54 am

I don’t really like Tarantino’s movies. There is a kind of un-fittingness in how they lift from B-grade movies but they are sort of high and professional pop culture, sell well, have high production values etc.

One of my friends did a thesis on Spaghetti Westerns and the carnivalesque in the historical context. I think it is different with Tarantino since he is American though not from another country re-appropriating American cinematic forms, and he is also not a marginal small B-grade director either, he is very famous and occupies a place quite high in American film making and is well regarded for making references etc. Also the Spaghetti Westerns could be carnivalesque in terms of the grotesque, but the professionalism of Tarantino kind of modifies the humorous grotesquery you might find in B-grade movies into something kind of shinier. Another review noted this: “The scope of The Hateful Eight, though, comes in those stunning 70mm frames and the depth the filmmaker captures whether he’s shooting a Wyoming mountain range or a small shack. Aside from its technical execution and the success of such, the film could be viewed as Tarantino making a B-movie”

I suppose if you were going to write about Tarantino in the historical context you might look at gun violence within America and American-led wars in the Middle East during the period he has made films in. Maybe something about the fabric of American society not being as strong since the 70s , so the metaphor of frontiers without much law and order could be applied (this would be somewhat of a stretch though I think since its not nearly as lawless). Maybe you’d write about him in terms of the development of a sort of American amoralism/immoralism reflected both in pop culture and in politics and American-led wars. Of course, I don’t mean to say everything American was amoral or immoral, just Tarantino movies and similar things.

I think this is a difference from Spaghetti Westerns too. I looked up another article on these films and the carnivalesque, and it draws out how structurally they often had Catholic undertones, such as in terms of themes of death or defeat followed by some sort of resurrection etc.

Eric mentions the cross being prominent at the start and end of The Hateful Eight, but says “A passion play ends with a crucifixion. This movie ends with another kind of execution, and none are saved.” Which again appears to be structurally different from the Spaghetti Western, as there is no redemption.

There is a funny June Carter Cash song about her granddaughter who talks about Quentin Tarantino and June Carter Cash tells her to jump into an earthquake rather than meet him in Hollywood:


William Burns 01.13.16 at 2:12 am

White men and black man, Confederate and Unionist, bond in their common hatred of women.


None 01.13.16 at 5:03 am

medrawt – Good catch.


Eoin 01.13.16 at 9:53 am

Does Quentin’s crucifix not wear a Klan Hood of snow?


LondonKdS 01.13.16 at 12:33 pm

It’s not just the lack of signage, it’s that Minnie shows no sign of the hostility towards Bob/Marco that we would expect given Warren’s claim about how much she hated Mexicans.


jake the antisoshul soshulist 01.13.16 at 2:54 pm

I like dark moves, but am not a fan of Tarantino. To me he is a nihilist.
There is a tightrope that Fuller walked without ever quite falling over into nihilism,
but to me, Tarantino is too smart not to be aware of the line, but seems to jump over it with glee. His recent theme seems to be “fight evil with evil”.
Sometimes, I wish he had taken better movies home from the video store.


never mind 01.13.16 at 5:29 pm

Tarantino is a SATANIST, who revels in cultural decay.
Pure and simple. The death ceremony is his form of worship.


William Berry 01.13.16 at 9:40 pm

OK, then. Never mind.


GeoX 01.14.16 at 1:35 am

I thought the “Minnie hates Mexicans” thing was a plot hole, pure and simple. Because, as noted, she shows absolutely nothing in the flashback to indicate that this is the case, and it wouldn’t make sense for Warren to be lying: he’s logically deducing that the Mexican character’s story doesn’t hold up. Not that the movie has much of a moral center, but there’s no indication that he’s itching to just murder a random dude for no reason. So I think Tarantino just somehow momentarily lost track of what he was doing.


Anderson 01.14.16 at 1:55 am

It is so very silly to call QT a nihilist.

His earlier movies, at least (up through Kill Bill) are about people who live according to a code of honor. Beatrix for instance loves Bill – but that’s secondary, because Bill tried to kill her, and that means they have Unfinished Business. Red in the ledger.

It’s not Christian morality, but that doesn’t make it nihilism.


Seeds 01.14.16 at 2:40 am

On the “Minnie hates Mexicans” thing – I also noticed that she didn’t show any dislike towards Bob, but assumed that this was because Warren was telling a small lie to bolster his case. He’d already noticed the jelly bean between the floorboards and tasted the stew, seen the rugs over the back of Sweet Dave’s chair etc. He just needed a rhetorical flourish to tie all his circumstantial evidence together.

For me it made the flashback more powerful, because up until that point the only information the audience has about Minnie is negative (she hates Mexicans). Then we see that she’s actually really nice, which makes the inevitable murders all the more shocking.


Seeds 01.14.16 at 3:38 am

17: Needless to say, I don’t buy this at all. QT’s not exactly a careless director, and this is pretty critical to the denouement of his (extremely long) film. I saw it – and see it – as completely deliberate, particularly as we know the Warren is a ready liar.

I also think that, taken together, the Lincoln letter and the Minnie/Mexicans issue casts doubt on one of the most disturbing scenes in the film (you know the one). If Warren is an unreliable narrator, did this happen, or is it pure provocation?


None 01.14.16 at 4:40 am

GeoX@17 – ” and it wouldn’t make sense for Warren to be lying:”

It would if he’s doing it to smoke “Marco the Mexican” out.
Also, there’s ample evidence that Major Warren, unlike Django who only wants to rescue his wife, is a stone cold killer – he seems not at all remorseful over the death of the Union soldiers in the fire. He is very much one of the “Hateful 8”.


GeoX 01.14.16 at 5:13 am

I kind of assumed that he was most likely making shit up in the scene in question just to provoke the guy. But I still have my doubts about the “Minnie hates Mexicans” business–if it was intentional, it was poorly done, as far as I’m concerned.


Seeds 01.14.16 at 5:59 am

GeoX @ 22: Really? It’s pretty much the only thing we know about Minnie, pre-flashback, other than she makes a distinctively flavoured stew. The audience is primed to expect a reaction from her meeting Bob, which doesn’t take place. That would be odd, if we didn’t know that Warren is completely comfortable with lying and already has (had?) plenty of reason to suspect Bob in the earlier (chronologically later) scene.


Alison P 01.14.16 at 6:14 am

I agree with William Burns ‘Confederate and Unionist, bond in their common hatred of women.’ I would be interested to hear how the final scene struck people, because I have seen various reviews online saying it was ‘redemptive’ or ‘optimistic’: offering a vision that the different factions of America can reconcile one day.

It seemed to me that this redemptive interpretation was intended – that Tarantino meant us to leave the cinema on a bitter but hopeful uplift. And that made me dislike the film that up to then I had mostly appreciated.


GeoX 01.14.16 at 6:20 am

Fair enough, I may be wrong.


Seeds 01.14.16 at 6:29 am

GeoX @ 25: I’m not wedded to my interpretation either. I found it surprising too, but (because I know that there’s often a lot going on in Tarantino’s films that passes me by until someone points it out, and because he’s nerdishly obsessive about things) I charitably assumed that it was intentional. Which made me enjoy the film more!

However, it is an obvious inconsistency and as such it’s not very “satisfying” – if it was, we probably wouldn’t have been discussing it.


William Burns 01.14.16 at 12:51 pm

I think the reason that the disturbing scene Seeds refers to is shown in flashback is to assert that it actually did happen and isn’t just Warren lying.


Shylock Homeslice 01.14.16 at 4:03 pm

I recall a flashback in Reservoir dogs where the character was lying. By the end of The Scene That Shall Not Be Described, it was pretty obvious to me that Warren was lying his ass off.


jake the antisoshul soshulist 01.14.16 at 4:32 pm

Maybe nihilism is the proper term, but I wanted to avoid going Godwin. It is possible I miss read him. But as opposed to the J/C theme of redemption through suffering, QT seems to promote redemption through chaotic violence.
Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill may be trangressive entertainment, but it is not a theory of morality.


bob mcmanus 01.14.16 at 5:32 pm

10, 24: White men and black man, Confederate and Unionist, bond in their common hatred of women.

That might be the takeaway image. Yeah, disturbing, and I suspect the point. One presumes QT meant it as descriptive, rather than prescriptive. I am reminded of Roth’s important argument that justice must be dispassionate to avoid being just revenge, and ask if the two men really hate Daisy, or care much about her at all, or at least very little compared to the passions generated by race and the Civil War.

In which case we could invert and caption the final image “Justice for women requires that men emotionally dis-attach from relationships and heterosexuality.”


bob mcmanus 01.14.16 at 5:43 pm

There is no denying that QT puts our very worst impulses up on the screen, I presume for some moral purpose.

God forgive me, I remember cheering when DeNiro shuts Fonda up in Jackie Brown, and of course feeling guilty for it.

I think by relentlessly putting his violence into hard genre exploitation frames, QT somehow makes it more difficult to interrogate. “Violence is within us all” is usually explored in stuff like Straw Dogs under conditions of repression.


GeoX 01.14.16 at 8:19 pm

@27 I thought the scene in question most likely was made up, but ultimately, I think it’s meant to be unknowable. Certainly, the fact that it’s shown on screen doesn’t provide any definitive evidence one way or tother.


Jim Buck 01.14.16 at 8:28 pm

The movie put me in mind of 3.10 to Humour. Faith Domergue had it coming of course; and Quentin hurried her to a fate worthy of a bad-man. None of that sexist “Why, I ought to put you over my knee!” Wayne way to treat a bad-mouthing woman. In the real world, though, Warren’s sizeable member risked being bitten off and spat out into the snow. Good old Tarantino only shoots cartoons.


HT 01.14.16 at 9:57 pm

FWIW, I think Mr. McManus is generally correct with the descriptive, not prescriptive point. Anyway, the common theme running through QT’s most recent films seems to be “sometimes you need evil to fight Evil, we don’t like that so we tell lies/myths about how the evil was somehow good, but those fictions create their own problems and social trauma and anyway…it really was evil…and hey, look at all of you cheering that evil on while watching my movies! How about you go home and think about that some.” I’m not so sure he gets past this to make any kind of argument re: what should we be doing instead…


Shylock Homeslice 01.14.16 at 10:47 pm

The Flashback That Shall Not Be Described reminded me of this famous flashback of a lie Reservoir Dogs (as well as Tuco and Blondie in the desert, of course).


ZM 01.15.16 at 12:17 am

“Anyway, the common theme running through QT’s most recent films seems to be “sometimes you need evil to fight Evil, we don’t like that so we tell lies/myths about how the evil was somehow good, but those fictions create their own problems and social trauma and anyway…”

Well that kind of sounds like realist arguments in American foreign policy… I’m not sure it’s any better from a film director than in foreign policy?


bob mcmanus 01.15.16 at 1:00 am

Anyway, the common theme running through QT’s most recent films seems to be “sometimes you need evil to fight Evil,…

Again, I think QT’s chosen contexts argue against such an interpretation.

The good, innocent ordinary civilian forced to take up arms and act against her principles in order to fight evil is a very common trope, especially in genre film, and probably the best way to express the above. QT has done that twice, questionably in True Romance and most clearly in Death Proof, but for the most part QT makes movies about the always already professionally violent. Even Jackie Brown is a hardened criminal, working for the worst.

And even in Death Proof, it is abundantly clear that the women are seeking revenge, not justice.

I am not comfortable calling it nihilism, because we are simply not given enough of a civilian set of values to negate. The nihilist is in opposition, she disbelieves.


Seeds 01.15.16 at 1:34 am

HT @ 34:

and hey, look at all of you cheering that evil on while watching my movies! How about you go home and think about that some

If you haven’t seen it already, you might be interested to read this excellent essay on Ingourious Basterds by Christian Thorne. (Only posted a link to the second half there)


Seeds 01.15.16 at 1:35 am

The extra bonus misspelling was unintentional


Shylock Homeslice 01.15.16 at 4:27 am

That’s a very interesting essay. But it reminds me that a few months ago I went to Tarantino’s theater on a night when he decided to show up and watch a movie, and I’ve been regretting that I didn’t accost him to ask what the deal was with casting that whiney little twerp as the “Bear Jew.” I mean the Jewish Boxing Blog didn’t start until the year after it was released, but surely he could have asked around or something.


HT 01.15.16 at 8:27 am

ZM – Maybe. But probably not. I’d wager you’d have less of a problem with those foreign policy folk if they stopped at “how about you go home and think about that some.”

Mr. McManus – for the sake of argument let’s take this to be truth “[t]he good, innocent ordinary civilian forced to take up arms and act against her principles in order to fight evil is a very common trope, especially in genre film, and probably the best way to express the above.”

My comment was mostly focused on his last 3 movies; the Jewish Bastards/Shoshana, Django and Major Marquis Warren fit pretty well within that framework.

Anyway, I agree its not really nihilism as values aren’t so much negated–it’s mostly national myths and historical platitudes which he targets in his last three movies.

Seeds – Thank you for the link; it was a good read. The last paragraph was a bit extreme for my taste, I’m not sure hate is the right word; but he most definitely takes a certain kind of pleasure in manipulating audiences in ways that should make them uncomfortable.


js. 01.17.16 at 10:46 pm

I have finally seen this. So:

@Seeds — I like your explanation. Leaving the movie theater, I was sort of in the same boat as GeoX. But I think what you’re saying makes sense. (I do think the other flashback is a lie, at least partly. QT practically winks at the audience, having SLJ say something like, “you’re seeing pictures now”.)

I would be interested to hear how the final scene struck people, because I have seen various reviews online saying it was ‘redemptive’ or ‘optimistic’: offering a vision that the different factions of America can reconcile one day.

This seems quite strange to me. I thought the ending was resolutely unredemptive. If you take what the Roth character says about justice requiring dispassion, the ending is utterly lacking in that. I thought there was no sense of justice or reconciliation at the end.


js. 01.18.16 at 12:08 am

Seeds @38: That’s a great piece; duly bookmarked.


Seeds 01.18.16 at 2:35 am

Shylock Homeslice @ 40: That guy is Eli Roth, one of two atrocious directors that for some reason QT greatly admires and likes to collaborate with (the other of course being Robert Rodriguez).

He directed “Cabin Fever”, “Hostel” and “Hostel: Part 2”. I’ve only seen the first of those – the only time in my life that I’ve asked for my money back from a video rental place! – but I’m pretty sure that the other two are worse (they belong to a genre called “torture porn”, if that helps to imagine them).


Seeds 01.18.16 at 2:37 am

(Glad everyone liked the essay. I was really impressed by it, and see IB in a completely different light now. Although I still don’t like it that much.)

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