The Hateful Eight features ten characters interacting with one another, and the moral distinctions among them are not always sharply etched. This raises the question, which of the ten constitute the hateful eight?
It's a useful question because it takes us to the heart of the film, the moral universe in which the story unfolds. It's easy to get lost in the personalities here, or the ins and outs of the dialogue, or the camera work, or the quirky details like the door that won't keep out the blizzard unless it is nailed shut. The distractions are endless, and the underlying structure, the moral universe, gets lost in a sea of gore. We have to step back and reflect in order to see what is really going on.
The two male leads are both bounty hunters, one white and one black, in a largely lawless post-Civil War west. The other leading character is a woman, one who is the equal of the men in violence and vulgarity. The drama lends itself to playing upon racial and gender themes, and it exploits those opportunities.
More deeply, however, this film is about the meaning of justice. One character even supplies a soliloquy on this theme and concludes that justice is characterized by being delivered dispassionately, without the anger or thirst for revenge that vigilantes might feel. On which side of the line do the two bounty hunters fall? Is their savagery necessary to their profession?
In Tarantino's universe, every character is morally compromised -- they differ only by degree. Which eight of the ten qualify as hateful may in the end be a matter of taste. Tarantino doesn't make clear how he sorts them out, but perhaps he suggests a solution by virtue of the fact that only two of the ten survive by movie's end. These two may well be the ones who are not hateful - but they are both very badly wounded, as if to underscore that they too are swimming in the same morally polluted stream.
Tarantino's last film, Django Unchained, featured a conspicuously admirable and heroic lead character. With The Hateful Eight, Tarantino has waded instead into moral ambiguity, and the resultant violence is excessive even by his standards. Coupled with clever dialogue, good acting, and mastery of the camera, the film is absorbing when it is not repulsive.
As the opening credits state prominently, this is Tarantino's eighth film. (That this fact is advertised in this manner makes it hard to resist seeing a connection with the "eight" in the title, but what that connection might be remains obscure.) Is his work maturing or becoming more indulgent? His latest film suggests the answer might be, some of both.