When it comes to Quentin Tarantino, one of the things I've long pondered and have recently been writing about, is the way his films exemplify an "incarnational aesthetic." It's not that they are about the Incarnation of Jesus Christ explicitly; but that their bodily, sensory, cultural preoccupations reveal a reverence for incarnational, embodied existence in a manner that helps the viewer re-sensitize to the physical, fleshy world in which Christ lived, breathed, died and rose. This is one of the reasons why Tarantino's films are so "cover your eyes" tense; the stakes are so high because the bodies are not CGI ethereal but physical, red-blooded and breakable. Yet beyond this implicit incarnational aesthetic, Jesus Christ does show up explicitly in The Hateful Eight, Tarantino's eighth film. The first shot of the film is a crucifix of Christ, peacefully, mournfully holding vigil amidst the pristine snowy horizon of the amoral western frontier. The shot is doubled later in the film as well, presenting the iconic figure of a crucified Christ as the bookends to a film where nothing is holy and hell is everpresent.
Watching the beautiful, snow-caked crucifix in 70mm, framed perpendicularly against a sweeping John Ford horizon, I wondered what exactly Tarantino was wanting this image to mean. As a framing device, was this crucifix simply a irreverent, ironic allusion to the hangman plot of the film, which follows a set of bounty hunters as they seek to deliver an outlaw (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to be hanged? Is the crucifix meant to be an image of tranquility and peace amidst a film that is arguably Tarantino's most violent yet? Perhaps a sign of what has been lost (or forgotten) in the godforsaken, depraved world of the film? Or is the presence of Christ's visage in the film meant to signify the power it can uniquely provide in the uphill battle that is reconciliation?
Set in the days following the American Civil War, The Hateful Eight portrays an America that is tenuous in its peace and still very much wrestling with the violence, racism and injustice of its past. It's a world where it's hard to trust anyone, where any "Other" is a presumed enemy, where truces and fragile "agree to disagree" peaces are liable to explode into bloodshed at any given moment. It's also a world where a black man (Samuel L. Jackson) must be the most on guard of all. Sound familiar? Though set almost entirely in an 1800s Wyoming haberdashery, The Hateful Eight is certainly a capsule of the present as well.
And though the film (like its predecessor Django Unchained) presents a questionable array of racial recompense as black characters avenge white racists in all sorts of explicit ways, the film's heart seems to be genuinely longing for reconciliation. [Spoilers from here.] At a time when black citizens and white law enforcement are prone to explosive collisions, it's telling that the film's most durable alliance is between the one black man (Jackson) and the one "man of the law," Sheriff Mannix (Walton Goggins). Indeed, the film's last few minutes (and stunning final shot) frames the challenge (and hope) of reconciliation well. The devil (Jennifer Jason Leigh's character) and minions will do anything to undermine peace and turn fragile friends against one another. Yet as unlikely as it may be that a black Union soldier and white Confederate sheriff would forge a friendship, reconciliation is possible. As the two men lay bleeding, reading the fabled "Lincoln letter" which has an almost eschatological function in the film, we see that in their fragile humanity (both bleed red, both are vulnerable to bullets) and in their desire for justice, they have a common bond that can overcome hate.
Where does Jesus Christ fit into all this? His crucified visage looms poetically over the whole ugly affair, but to what end? Whether Tarantino intended it to or not, I see in the crucifix the one true hope for reconciliation in a world torn apart by violence, revenge, greed and injustice. In the cross, man has hope of being reconciled to God no matter what he has done, but also hope to be reconciled to his fellow man, despite any dividing walls of hostility that inevitably exist.
The Hateful Eight is a violent, hate-filled film, devilish in its chaos and arguably nihilistic in its assessment of humanity. And yet, and yet. There is Jesus. There is justice. And there is the faintest glimmer of hope for the desperado wretches and criminal mavericks who spill each other's blood: A man whose own spilt blood spells forgiveness for the unforgiven and deliverance for the depraved.