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.