“The Cabin in the Snow”
In The Hateful Eight (2015), Quentin Tarantino uses the cinema’s ability to manipulate space in ways that harken back to the great baroque Westerns made during the late classical Hollywood period. The film’s opening sequence, a grandiose exploration of the snowy landscape of the American northwest, with a mountain looming in the background, invokes Shane (George Stevens, 1953). In that film, the eponymous Westerner (Alan Ladd) rides into a valley on horseback, saves a homesteading family from a gunslinger, only to leave at the end, fatally wounded, to die in the mountains in the background, as if raised up into Valhalla.
In Tarantino’s film, there is talk of a valley, presumably the town of Red Rock where the characters on a stagecoach are headed before being forced into a small cabin by a blizzard. But crucially, we never see this town or its valley: the film refuses to leave the snowy mountains, finally coming to rest claustrophobically inside the cabin for much of its second half. These aborted references to the spatial design of the classical Hollywood Western abound in The Hateful Eight.
Twice, the film engages the plot dynamic of John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), the quintessential film about the 19th century Western form of communal transport. First, an African-American soldier, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel Jackson) stops the stage in the middle of the snowy forest. Bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell), taking the vile gang member, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock, allows Warren on board once he recognizes the African-American Civil War veteran from a dinner party at which he spoke of a personal correspondence he received from Abraham Lincoln.
The stagecoach gathering a microcosm of America is the central conceit from Ford’s film, most famously articulated when John Wayne as the Ringo Kid stands before the camera with his rifle, broad shoulders, and piercing eyes. The Hateful Eight doubles down on this conceit, as shortly after Ruth’s coach picks up Warren, they similarly add another snowy refugee, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a scion of a Confederate general. Warren and Mannix, African-American Northerner and White Confederate become the film’s center, as they unite to help Ruth guard Daisy.
There is yet another John Ford film that haunts The Hateful Eight, The Searchers (1956). That film, also starring John Wayne as vicious Indian hunter Ethan Edwards, is characterized by an odd alternation of interiors, shot on sound stages, and Monument Valley exteriors, shot on location. In a stunning sequence at the beginning of the film, Martha, secretly in love with her husband’s brother, fetches a coat she’s been saving for him while he fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. Ford frames Martha through an interior door in their homestead, desperately petting the coat, a shot witnessed not only by the audience, but also by the film’s repository of social power, the Reverend Captain Samuel Johnston Clayton, played delightfully by Ford company regular Ward Bond.
The Searchers abandons this interior for Monument Valley locations when Comanche Indian chief Scar burns it to the ground, raping and murdering Martha. For the rest of the film, Ethan searches maniacally for his secret beloved’s murderer. And yet, even during the film’s second half, Ford cuts between actual Monument Valley location shooting and sound stage work, most intriguingly employed in an odd sequence where the searchers plod through a foggy swamp that seems more like a place for a Japanese ghost than the American Southwest.
The Hateful Eight assaults the Western at this aesthetic spatial crux. Tarantino extends allegorically the merely suggested dream space of The Searchers. Whereas the classical Western is at least purportedly centrifugal, spinning outward from Eastern civilization to Western nature, The Hateful Eight is centripetal, drawing the stagecoach transients into the cabin, never allowing them to leave. The film ends up resembling no Western at all, but instead, an interiorized Existential drama.
Consider Albert Camus’ remarkable short story, “The Guest” (1957) where Daru, an isolated Algerian schoolmaster is visited by a bounty hunter who demands that the teacher take an Arab prisoner down from his mountain retreat into a town where the police await the murderer. At the end of the story, Daru sets the Arab man free, giving him a choice, pointing him in one direction, toward the town and the police, and another, toward nomads who will hide him. As the Arab walks of his own volition over the mountain toward the town and captivity, Daru returns to his school. On the chalkboard, Daru discovers that the Arab’s fellow revolutionaries have scrawled: “You handed over our brother. You will pay for this.” Camus swaps the roles: the guard has suddenly become the prisoner. In a beautiful Existential ending that describes all human experience, Camus dryly observes: “In the vast landscape he had loved so much, he was alone.”
This sense of interiorized Existential dread is the effect also of The Hateful Eight. As if on the stage of a Samuel Beckett play, once the Westerners enter the snowy cabin, they do not leave. The film highlights this with its last extended exterior sequence, as the men prepare a line of rope that will lead them to the outhouse in the dark during the blizzard. However, despite the film’s careful depiction of these preparations, no one makes it out of the cabin alive to go to the outhouse.
Instead, the cabin becomes the depository of the entirety of the visual design of the classical Western. As the men settle in for the night to weather the storm, they declare that the hearth, in front of which sits an elderly Confederate general, Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern) to be “Georgia,” while the bar across the room is “Philadelphia.” The film turns the cabin into an allegorical representation of the United States. Much like the boat in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), the cramped space presents a microcosm of America, home to Whites and people of color, the wealthy and the poor.
Melville had wanted to end Moby-Dick with everyone dead, in order to demonstrate that the madness of racism would destroy the country. He allows Ishmael to survive on Queequeg’s coffin only because it is required of classical narration that the narrator be alive to tell the tale. On the other side of the Civil War, and of literary history, Tarantino is able to complete Melville’s apocalyptic project. His embrace of modernist narration—the director himself summarizes the plot in voice-over mid-way through the film—allows the film to completely immolate itself. Late in the proceedings, Major Warren is attacked from below the cabin floor, a three-dimensional design that the black and white surface allegory occludes.
This, I think, is the allegorical key to The Hateful Eight. Both the Southerners and Northerners in the wake of the Civil War are caught in the binary thinking of the racial imagination. Even though Warren, the African-American and Mannix, the former Southerner but now the duly appointed sheriff of a town in a reunified nation, work together to establish law and order, they cannot see the human complexity that lies just below their experience. Buried underneath what we can see is a messy history of brutality. Whereas even a great film like The Searchers cannot quite acknowledge its role in constructing a dysfunctional America, The Hateful Eight builds an allegory of hesitation—Did Warren really rape the General’s son? Is the letter from Lincoln really a fake?—on top of a bedrock certainty: a country with lunatics who enact such hatred on their fellow human beings is doomed to end in self-annihilation.