This is another Tarantinian experiment in suspense, trapping its cast of suspicious characters in a "haberdashery" while a blizzard rages outside for most of the film's expansive length. The one fact we can trust is that bounty hunter John "the Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell) -- so named because he always takes his men alive, so they can hang -- is trying to bring his woman, Daisy Domergue (pronounced "Dahmer-goo" and played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the nearby town of Red Rock, where he'll collect a $10,000 bounty. As the blizzard bears down, he reluctantly takes on extra passengers before reaching the haberdashery. Major Marquis Warren (Jackson) -- named after midcentury writer-director and authentic pulp fiction author Charles Marquis Warren -- is a fellow bounty hunter with victims of his own, dead, to collect on. Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) is the son of a Quantrell-like Civil War guerrilla commander, improbably appointed the new sheriff of Red Rock. Of the three, Warren is the most familiar with the haberdashery and the first to find it strange that the proprietors have left the place in charge of a stranger to him, Senior Bob (Demian Bichir). Hunkering down with him are Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), who conveniently introduces himself as Red Rock's new hangman, Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), who announces that he's writing his life story, and an elderly ex-general of the regular Confederate army (Bruce Dern). Ruth is disinclined to trust any of them, and Domergue encourages his suspicions just to annoy him. The two bounty hunters join forces to protect their bounties against all comers, but fall out when Warren's honesty -- he claims to own a personal letter from Abraham Lincoln -- is thrown into question. To go further into the story, however, would be to spoil things.
Oddly absent here are the really long Tarantinian conversations, inspired by George V. Higgins, Elmore Leonard and Sergio Leone, that expand the space of suspense in most of his films. While I was relieved to find that the dialogue was not as banal as trailers and commercials suggested, it still isn't quite up to Tarantino's standards. Interestingly, though, he uses action -- or, to be more accurate, activity -- to expand that space. He and cinematographer Robert Richardson do a great job of establishing the atmosphere outside in the opening chapters -- yes, he still has that chaptering tic -- but Tarantino reinforces that atmosphere by emphasizing the labor characters have to perform in the thick of the storm, from tending to their horses in the barn to repeatedly hammering shut a front door with a broken latch. He calls our attention to the arduous process of establishing a walkway from the haberdashery to the outhouse, giving his setting a feel of authenticity more likely to be appreciated by fans of American westerns than fans of spaghettis. The activity is interesting enough, or filmed in interesting enough ways, and the character interplay is intriguing enough that Hateful Eight never seemed to me as slow or boring as some critics have charged.
Another crucial element in establishing suspense is Daisy Domergue, whose rough treatment by the bounty hunters may be the film's most controversial element. Handcuffed to Ruth most of the time, Domergue is repeatedly subject to physical abuse: punches in the face, elbows to the nose, etc. Worse will come as the film lurches inevitably into Grand Guignol territory. Initially, Ruth's violence raises questions Tarantino clearly wants us to ask. What has Domergue actually done, both to have such a bounty and to make Ruth treat her that way? How dangerous is she, really? Leigh plays the character with deceptive superficiality as Domergue often plays the clown through a mask of blood. But in the film's disappointment, Domergue never develops into much more than a cipher, if not a Macguffin. If Tarantino seemed to have begged a question of what specific evil Domergue had perpetrated, he never bothers answering it. To spoil things just slightly, we learn that she is the sister and partner-in-crime of an outlaw gang leader, but we never learn whether she's done anything in particular apart from be in the gang and the family to justify the price on her head. You spend time wondering where Tarantino is going to go with the character -- whether he wants to build sympathy for her under Ruth's misogynist assault, only to reveal her as a legitimate monster, for instance. While she is the villain of the piece by default, she never quite develops into the epic villain she might have been, and that failure raises the question of whether Tarantino put Leigh through the mill just as a provocation, to dare the audience to call him a misogynist on top of all his other sins.
Marquis Warren's character arc is hard to figure out, too. Being Samuel L. Jackson, and Jackson being top-billed, he's presumably our point-of-view character, but being one of the Hateful Eight as well, Warren does things to alienate the audience and the other characters, most of whom already look at him slightly askance due to his race. Under pressure from the skeptical Mannix, Warren admits that his Lincoln letter is a forgery that he justifies by claiming that it serves as a sort of safe-conduct pass for a black man. He admits to carrying out an atrocity during the war, having burned down a prison to escape from it and killing fellow Union soldiers as well as his Rebel captors. Suddenly on the outs with most of the others, he takes his frustrations out on the old general, provoking him with a vicious account of killing the general's son after stripping the young man naked and forcing a blowjob from him. Given what we've just learned, we may wonder whether Warren is lying again in order to goad the most obvious racist in the room, even though Tarantino flashes back to the event in almost-unflinching detail. This episode nearly took me out to the picture, mainly because I still can't quite believe that even the most hateful 19th century people would brag of such loathsome antics in the slangy terms Warren uses. It came off as if Tarantino were subjecting the entire western genre to Norman Mailer's turd test, especially since it was unclear whether he wanted us to see the story -- either the incident itself or the telling of it to the old man -- as a despicable act or whether he was still in Django mode, in which racists are fair game for any reprisal blacks may have in mind. On the other hand, it may simply have been Warren's ploy to see whether the general was part of any conspiracy with Domergue, the idea being that, were that the case, he would not raise to the bait Warren flaunted at him. I suppose it's a virtue of the film that you can speculate that way about it after the fact.
But if Warren's encounter with the general reopens wounds of war and slavery, his evolving relationship with Mannix points toward an alternative outcome. As the guerrilla leader's son and an unapologetic apologist for The Cause, Mannix should be as irreconcilable an enemy to Warren as the general is. Yet when circumstances force him to choose sides, he sides with Warren. You get the feeling that his ability to see through Warren's occasional bullshit makes it easier for them to get along, or at least work together. They're both still haters -- Warren often dismissively refers to Mannix as "white man" -- but there's also a degree of respect on a no-bullshit level that warriors presumably share. At a crucial moment, Mannix rejects a moral equation of his father's guerrilla army with Domergue's gang. Mannix's Marauders, or whatever they were called, were probably worse than any outlaw gang by modern standards, but by the standards of the story, or Mannix's own standards, the guerrillas fought beyond any hope of victory in order to claim an honorable defeat, while all notions of honor are presumably alien to Domergue and her cohorts. At the end, Mannix can see through Domergue's lies while gaining some appreciation of Warren's need to lie, and Mannix and Warren can agree with Ruth that people like Domergue deserve to hang because shooting -- the mark of war -- is too good for them. Many westerns from classic Hollywood stage some sort of too-good-to-be-true North-South reconciliation through combat with outlaws, Indians, Mexicans, etc. The Hateful Eight takes that trope to another level by pitting a black man and a virtually unreconstructed Reb against the outlaw nihilism represented by Domergue. Neither man really changes, much less improves, but in any setting like this one somebody has to be the least hateful, and in Tarantino's hard world those are our heroes. Or at least they're heroes the way the old lady is a good person in the Flannery O'Connor story, as long as someone has a gun to her head. And for all the expected gore (much less than in Django) and toilet talk there's an appreciation of mortality, if not morality, that may signal a belated maturation in the veteran enfant terrible of Hollywood.