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Tarantino's 'The Hateful Eight' Shows Us The Ugly Racist Truth Of America

Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bruce Dern in "The Hateful Eight." (Courtesy Andrew Cooper/The Weinstein Company)
Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bruce Dern in "The Hateful Eight." (Courtesy Andrew Cooper/The Weinstein Company)

What’s being billed as an “Extended Version” of Quentin Tarantino’s transcendently nasty 2015 opus “The Hateful Eight” drops this week on Netflix. Details of the release remain shrouded in mystery, but insiders assume that included will be the six extra minutes of dialogue scenes originally exclusive to the film’s 70mm roadshow release, and possibly the overture and intermission that accompanied its endearingly old-fashioned theatrical presentation – though neither musical interlude would really make much sense on a streaming service that doesn’t even let you watch the closing credits.

A far bigger question mark than the bonus footage is, “Who wants to see an even longer version of ‘The Hateful Eight?’” Tarantino’s most divisive and determinedly unpleasant movie kicked up a hornet’s nest of critical squabbling upon its initial Christmas 2015 release. (The New York Times called it “dumb and ill considered” while Time Magazine said, “these are uglies even a mother couldn’t love.” A nearly three-hour lump of coal in the stockings of holiday moviegoers looking for the slapstick historical revisionism of the director’s “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained,” here was a sour, sickly sardonic State of the Union with the kind of close-up violence and sadistic cruelty that practically dares audiences to walk out in droves.

I went to see it four times.

The film stars Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell as bounty hunters in post-Civil War Wyoming, the latter transporting to the gallows a homicidal harlot portrayed with snarling gusto by Jennifer Jason Leigh. (She spends the movie handcuffed to Russell’s wrist and used as his personal punching bag.) With a blizzard at their backs, the trio is forced to settle for the night in a small stagecoach station alongside Walton Goggins’ proudly unreconstructed renegade redneck and an ailing former Confederate general played by Bruce Dern. Also tucked in for the evening are a mysterious Mexican (Demian Bichir), a taciturn cowboy (Michael Madsen) and an English hangman (Tim Roth) as loquacious as he is effete.

“I know Americans aren't apt to let a little thing like unconditional surrender get in the way of a good war,” Roth wryly observes, and it’s not long at all before these surly strangers end up drawing another Mason-Dixon line across the length of their temporary lodgings. Like other Tarantino movies, “The Hateful Eight” is tirelessly talky, made up of sidewinding conversations that circle around and back again. But unlike other Tarantino movies, the patter here is pointedly political. He builds his snowbound cabin in the Old West into a microcosm of America today, crammed with longstanding grudges and racist resentments boiling over while everybody’s literally locked in together.

The best Tarantino pictures are comedies of manners, and this one pays particular attention to the formalities and paperwork required to carry out frontier justice. There’s much spirited debate about when murder is vindicated in the eyes of the law, as if strict adherence to procedural particulars will somehow keep all the underlying barbarism at bay. That’s how the smartest and most complicated of these characters, Jackson’s former U.S. Cavalry Major Marquis Warren, effectively engineers a justifiable homicide in the film’s most astoundingly obscene sequence.

This is one of Jackson’s finest performances, playing an emancipated slave who made his name in the U.S. Cavalry and found a road to respectability by slaughtering a massive number of Native Americans. He carries around with him a forged letter from Abraham Lincoln that he shrewdly uses like a hall pass to enter white society and privileged spaces. (Again, paperwork.) It’s Marquis who first senses that there’s something seriously amiss at this stagecoach stop, warily snooping around his fellow cast members as if Hercule Poirot were also a sociopathic war criminal.

Tarantino’s biggest box office hits – “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained” – presented cathartically ultra-violent, wish-fulfillment revenge scenarios in which Hollywood clichés were able to kill Hitler and free slaves. I can understand the appeal of such films but not the point, and while clearly in the minority, I nevertheless remain uncomfortable with Tarantino’s use of juvenile movie geek fantasies to glibly avenge actual historical atrocities for feel-good popcorn kicks.

“The Hateful Eight” isn’t about correcting historical atrocities, it’s about American history as an atrocity in and of itself. Every last character is a snarling, contemptuous racist with blood on his (or her) hands, all trapped together futilely re-fighting the Civil War the way we still seem to be doing in this country to this very damn day. It’s the declaration of an angry political consciousness from a filmmaker I’d previously never imagined having one.

I often wonder how the picture would have played had it been released just one year later, after the 2016 election revealed what too many people had been happy to ignore about the extent to which these divisions and hatreds still smolder in our midst. “Sounds to me like you’ve been reading too many newspapers printed in Washington D.C.” sneers Goggins’ surly rebel, in a sentiment that could be pulled straight from this morning’s episode of “Fox and Friends.” Built into the film’s third act is a trenchant irony that the only thing that can unite these bad, backward men is their hatred of a woman.

The confrontational ugliness of “The Hateful Eight” perhaps felt gratuitously brutal during the wistful sunset of the Obama era, but seen post-Charlottesville it’s alarming just how prescient this movie’s view of the past was regarding what our future was about to hold. It’s impossible to shake the film’s final shot of two sworn, mortal enemies cradled together in an ever-deepening pool of blood — strange bedfellows re-reading that phony Lincoln letter — in their final moments awed by the promise of an America they know is a lie.

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Sean Burns Twitter Film Critic
Sean Burns is a film critic for The ARTery.

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