The release of his latest film, The Hateful Eight, has perpetuated one glorious fact about Quentin Tarantino — his place as one of the most divisive directors in the history of cinema. Some decry the egregious violence while others look on with contempt as he publicly displays an affectionate insider’s love affair with movies. Still others will find meaning in his informed cinematic contributions even as we share his obsession for the far reaches of cinephilia. No matter where you fall on spectrum of this eighth film in particular — Great, Waste, or Hate — I believe Tarantino’s soul-conscious cinematic lexicon has afforded us a chance to look beyond our predispositions. Having obsessively watched this film (three times in the past week and a half), I’d like to offer — fully aware of my subjectivity — some interpretive observations.
Before we do, however, it may be helpful to remind us of an often understated facet of this visual medium we call movies, which is what the camera is or isn’t doing at any given point.
Our post-Enlightenment default to the textual primacy of a story tends to obscure our ability to count its visual element as artistic equal. Ironically enough not all movies move with such great intention visually, although the best ones usually do.
The first is the meditative opening on a crucifix, standing as if abandoned in the middle of a snow-blanketed nowhere. One can almost hear the frigid stone statue cry out, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” This unhurried shot retracts in humility to a masterfully foreboding score by Ennio Morricone. I admire this juxtaposition because it both predicts and predicates the violence of the women and men fixed on one or the other side of a recent Civil War. Instead of feeling the grace and healing which the familiar image of the cross normally provokes, we feel isolation in harrowing view of the residual effects of our collective racial brokenness. This cross does not aim to comfort. It aims to remind us that it exists as something in which humanity can actively participate. When actively participating in the cross and its meaning, we put ourselves in the position of compassionately exploring realities outside of our own. For God so loved the world.
The film does more for me than simply indict our historic disunity, however. It also brings some semblance of participatory unity.
Although Tarantino seems to have fallen into a bowl of hater soup du jour for some, I think we may get a sense of his willful participatory soul upon deeper reflection. In particular, I find this in the relationship between Major Marquis Warren and Sheriff Chris Mannix. These two men whose entire ethos work in direct opposition are the two men left standing in respective unity — or more accurately lying down — at the end (although likely not for long). The more observant may have picked up on this foreshadowing earlier in the film during a harmonious close-up of two horses — one black, one white — pushing together through the snow. These two horses positionally lead the wagon to its destination. Not unlike Warren and Mannix who eventually lead the charge against the remaining hateful few — those officially on the wrong side of the law.
Or perhaps some noticed that when reaching Minnie’s Haberdashery, Major Warren almost heroically labors between these same two horses as he and Mannix lead the team through the snow to safekeeping.
One can’t help but notice his brief cross-like posture as he staggers along.
Cinematically, the most telling of these parallels is an atypical composited shot wherein both Warren and Mannix are in focus during the wide framing, instead of just one or the other as is normally the case. This occurs several times and, unless memory fails, the shot is reserved exclusively for select scenes with these two characters. For me, this dual focus — reminiscent of Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas — serves to eliminate prioritization of one over the other. Once again the auteur and his camera act in humility, elevating each individual to a level of philosophical and narrative importance.
I can’t remember the last time I came out of a Tarantino screening feeling a sense of awe, at least not on a level this deep. Perhaps I should have felt this way after Kill Bill, Inglorious Basterds, or Django Unchained. Either way, I believe Tarantino’s stylistic oeuvre concerning the historically marginalized continues to invite us into these difficult conversations. This, along with other cinematic visions of justice and equality with compassionate respect to individuality, are participations in the kind of unity we long for. Unity which, much like The Hateful Eight, begins with a cross.