Back in 2009 I wrote a post after watching Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. In that post I reveled in the joy of that film. After all, we get to be party to the killing of Hitler, to the refusal of forgiveness. At the same time, at the end of the film, Tarantino does something that he often does in his consistent refusal to allow some viewers-arguably the majority of them-any comfort. For, though we get to enjoy the fact that, this time, the angel of history wasn’t so powerless, we find out at the end of the film that we are in fact the Nazi. For the film ends from the perspective of Hans Landa after he’s had a swastika carved into his forehead. From the perspective of the camera it is in fact we, the consumers of this violence, who are now marked with the shame of our own enjoyment. (This is, I am sure, not my original idea, but I cannot remember for the life of me who wrote something along these lines. If you do let me know in the comments.) Something similar happens in The Hateful Eight, except without really any of the enjoyment of a clear moral division as there was between the Jewish guerillas and the Nazis.
It should be assumed that from this point forward there are spoilers.
I don’t tend to read reviews of films I like. I have to admit this is because I think most film reviewers are idiots when they disagree with me (perhaps I should include the hastag #sorrynotsorry here). I’ve scanned a few and I notice that many call this film a failure. I think they probably mean this as a criticism, but it strikes me as a necessary element to the theme of The Hateful Eight. That theme might be described as the inescapable violence of being American. In the metaphysics of American being it is violence at bottom. And what’s beneath the violence? Just more violence; it’s violence all the way down. Thus any attempt to make a truthful film about America will have to take failure as its very condition. And this is a film at bottom about that inescapable violence.
Sure, the dialogue is a slow burn. I have less of a problem with that than with the fast paced idiocy of a film like The Force Awakens. And when there is finally the action that I assume too many of Tarantino’s fans come out for, what we get is the bloodbath that is America. Though it probably misses some of the more genre obsessed fans, Tarantino is an amazing filmmaker at refusing you any innocence in that bloodbath. The viewer is complicit in everything, just as they were in Basterds. But unlike in that film, in Hateful Eight there are no obviously likable characters. The constant abuse of Daisy, the female prisoner, is grossly gratuitous and so viewers are not likely to feel any kind of secure bond with “The Hangman”. But Daisy is herself vile, though this vileness is communicated to us exclusively through her racism, so the viewer is not encouraged to have sympathy with her either. In a move somewhat similar to the Jewish guerrillas killing Hitler and other Nazis, Major Warren’s torture and sexual assault of the confederate who came to murder him does offer a similar impure satisfaction. It is a very gross satisfaction that one feels in the midst of such an ugly world. But the way the Warren plays with the white narrative of the “big black penis” and fear of it was an example of that character’s study of the white world he is forced to survive in. He ends up being the closest thing to a sympathetic character as we see him engage in various forms of dissimulation and double consciousness. His knowledge of the law and incitement of the Confederate general to go for his gun is indicative of his need to know the law better than anyone else in that cabin. The rights of the others will always be assumed, whereas he has to demonstrate his worthiness and righteousness at every turn.
Now at some point it felt like we were going to get that narrative that Americans love of an anti-hero criminal gang that exist outside the law and flaunt the authority of the legitimate authorities (one can’t help but point to the current white militia movement). These gangs are, to my knowledge, always a good white gang or with junior partners in the American experience (so a mixed-race hispanic, as in this film, is fine), always near “the frontier”. That’s why Tarantino’s going back and showing us in a long flashback what happened prior to how the film began was important. We needed to know that this gang murdered the mixed-race couple, their few employees, and dishonored them despite the hospitality and gifts that couple gave to them. These are not interesting criminals, they’re simply violent in the service of protecting “their own” (that is, breaking Daisy out).
There is a period of fantastic violence, but after all the killing happens, all the heads and other body parts are blown off, we get to something truly interesting in the section entitled “Black Man, White Hell”. There the few surviving members of the gang, who have mortally wounded Warren and the Sheriff, are trying to convince the Sheriff to kill Warren. They keep saying this line that’s just a perfect encapsulation for anti-Black white solidarity. Though they are all bleeding to death (except for Daisy) they say, “You ain’t done nothing we can’t forgive yet.” In other words, even though you’re the law and we are the criminals, we are still not that, there is solidarity in not being socially dead/black. The Sheriff resists this call to solidarity, but this doesn’t mark a turnaround for the former Confederate soldier. He’s just disturbed that Daisy would have let him die from the same poison that killed The Hangman earlier. Then, finally, the only thing that would fit under the theme of “triumph” is the vision of two males who hang a woman. She was a horrible person, a murderer herself, but structurally it remains disturbing. Even in the moment of triumph, we are actually just stuck in failure.
As the Sheriff and Warren are dying they read a letter that’s come up a few times in the film. Warren has faked a letter from Abraham Lincoln as a way of garnering some goodwill from whites that he has to deal with. The former Confederate knows this the letter isn’t real and outs Warren earlier in the film. He knows that the North is just as racist as the South, hence his true belief that he was fighting for “defeat with dignity [for white people]”. Yet The Hangman needs the fantasy offered by that letter of an America that does not exist in the film. He, as so many citizens lining up to watch American Sniper or 13 Hours, needs to deny the failure of America. He needs the “nice touch” of the letter with the American pastoral of the emancipating (white) man who kindly writes letters of friendship to those whom he emancipates. And as they both lay there dying, joined in their violence against this horrible woman, they know the lie of it.
Sidenote about Tarantino generally: In interviews I have seen him be an idiot and I have seen him do interesting things. The recent spat with police unions was not nothing, but neither is his easy use of the n-word. I know he often appeals to his friendships with RZA and other Black celebrities. It is an idiotic defense. In trying to say that his films do something interesting I am not trying to defend him. At some level I suppose I am operating on an assumption that artists can create works that are not dependent upon their own form of life. But I recognize that I am on “not unproblematic” ground in trying to separate those films from his person. No doubt there are elements of this film and others that play a role in the inescapable violence of being American and specifically being a white American.
This reminded me of a few remarks about failure and social death from Lisa Marie Cacho Social Death: Racialized Rightlessness and the Criminalization of the Unprotected “As I demonstrated in this chapter, the space of social death is not a location of pure politics free from racism and heteropatriarchy. On the contrary, the space of social death is a desperate space, overwrought with and overdetermined by the ideological contradictions of ineligible personhood. The alternative actions, politics, and ways of knowing that emerge from or are inspired by social death are not without fault. They do, however, have a different relationship to fear and failure because they have a different relationship to rights and personhood. As Derrick Bell argues, a racial realist approach realizes that victory is not connected to winning but to struggling despite guaranteed failure. When guaranteed failure is the predicted result of struggle, an aggrieved group’s allies and adversaries will seem to want the same course of action—to put the struggle on hold, to wait, to give up. In the spaces of social death, any and every option is unthinkable, not because of impracticality or the U.S. public’s reluctance to change but because of the threat and promise of state violence. We are disciplined to not think the unthinkable when we learn about the risk of incarceration or deportation or when our families are held hostage. And yet the space of social death is always graced with hope, courage, and/or youthful idealism, where those who decide to take responsibility for the unprotected are always looking for and stepping on the pressure points that can barely manage the contradictions that their very presence, their very being inspires.” (p. 146).