(R) Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh
by Ben McEachen
Even if you've never seen one of his films, you know Quentin Tarantino. Responsible for Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill(s), he's one of the few film-makers to earn a household name. A skilled showman who revels in offensive excess, Tarantino does have storytelling depth that punches the soul. Not just our sensitivities.
His latest work, The Hateful Eight, is a sophisticated, biting western. Set not long after the American Civil War, The Hateful Eight has some no-goods trapped by a blizzard. Within a remote store, a bounty hunter (Kurt Russell) tries to protect his prisoner (Jennifer Jason Leigh) from dangerous dudes.
Violent, vulgar and thoughtfully composed, The Hateful Eight says deep things in impolite ways. Tarantino's version of a western presents familiar themes with venom. Surveying three of them reveals how he often approaches universal truth, yet maintains a strongly no-need-for-God line.
His previous film Django Unchained rocketed viewers into America's slave history. The Hateful Eight spotlights racism in the Civil War's aftermath. Battles are done but the snow-trapped desperadoes still divide along racial lines, as if God's creation of all does not apply.
Tarantino acknowledges The Hateful Eight is an artistic statement about the American nation now. But his crack at “institutional racism” is bludgeoned by pushing boundaries of decency. Once again, his use of the “N” word for African-Americans becomes infuriating, even though he hopes excess will enrage our humanity. Plus, arguments about race on-screen are exchanges of insults, rather than searing incisions into the heart of racial hatred.
Tarantino's displays of racial equality tend to be ferociously negative. Main characters share vengeance and ruthlessness, suggesting we're all the same when it comes to corrupted intentions. Such an understanding of what we're like deep down verges on the biblical... but Tarantino offers little hope for change. Even though agents for lasting change show up.
In The Hateful Eight's wintry wasteland, God, Jesus, heaven and hell are mentioned in light of ultimate justice. But nobody on-screen takes them seriously. Tarantino has his creations wield God or his beloved son as hollow threats and spiteful jokes. Heaven's just the opposite of the place the Hateful Eight want each other dispatched to.
Yet there's something distinctly true about The Hateful Eight's portrait of justice. “Justice delivered without dispassion is always in danger of not being justice,” observes Oswaldo Mowbray (Tim Roth), surrounded by hombres craving individual brands of reckoning. Mowbray's glaring statement about humans struggling to know how to justly measure out justice supports leaving it to God's enshrined standards. Something that's never considered by Tarantino's stable of fiercely human-centred creations.
The memorable opening sequence spends minutes lingering on a stone carving of Jesus on the cross. An odd marker in a snow-covered wilderness, frozen Jesus is eventually passed by a wagon headed for the remote store. Without using any words, Tarantino uses crucified Jesus as a boundary. Given how Tarantino presents what his characters go on to do, apparently they've crossed the line of forgiveness and there's no going back.
Asking for forgiveness rears its ugly head in the final act, as scheming characters try to negotiate down the barrels of guns. But like so much in Tarantino's western world, the worst of humanity is on show where the best parts could be. We might not need such a stark, bloody reminder of how terrible we can be to and for each other. But The Hateful Eight certainly confirms our intense need for the equality, justice and forgiveness summarised by 1 John 1:9 - “If we confess our sins, [Jesus] is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”