*WARNING: The following piece contains major spoilers for The Hateful Eight*
As a scathing portrait of American bigotry that pushes viewers’ buttons to their breaking points, Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, The Hateful Eight, has stirred up quite a bit of controversy in the media over the past few weeks. Set in post-Civil War, Wyoming, the three-hour epic centers around eight despicable outlaws who seek shelter from a blistering snowstorm in a stagecoach lodge known as Minnie’s Haberdashery. Slowly, but surely, secrets between one another are revealed, resulting in a cataclysmic eruption of violence.
Even by Tarantino’s standards, The Hateful Eight is relentlessly sadistic, especially when it comes to how its female lead, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is treated by her male counterparts. When we’re introduced to her within the first scene of the film, she’s a black-eyed prisoner handcuffed to her captor, John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), a bounty hunter who informs us that he’s taking Domergue to the town of Red Rock to hang for murder. Nearly every time that she speaks, Ruth, or another man, responds through a form of physical assault with the intent of silencing her. It’s disturbing, but not orchestrated for mere shock value; Tarantino wants to shake the audience past the superficial to their moral core.
At first, it may seem as if Tarantino, who’s been known for writing strong female protagonists in the past, such as the titular character of Jackie Brown(Pam Grier), The Bride (Uma Thurman) in Kill Bill, and Shoshanah (Mélanie Laurent) in Inglourious Basterds, is getting a kick out of mistreating Domergue, the supposed antagonist of his eighth directorial feature. Several critics have already accused The Hateful Eight of misogyny, and it’s easy to comprehend the logic behind such allegations. Yet, despite Tarantino’s infamous reputation for reveling in gratuitous bloodshed, his violence is always engineered to provoke, as opposed to simply entertain, and this is especially true in regards to the treatment of Domergue.
The abuse that Domergue is consistently forced to endure becomes an allegory for how Tarantino analyzes the regressive state of gender equality in contemporary American society. The male characters may perceive Domergue to be a lesser person due to being a woman, but that doesn’t mean Tarantino shares their misogynistic worldviews. One could argue that he actually cares for Domergue the most based on her strength and perseverance, which is why the film’s intentionally disparaging finale centering around her downfall feels so subversive.
Nevertheless, Tarantino doesn’t put Domergue on a pedestal by any means. She’s as rotten, racist and ruthless as the rest of the ensemble. In fact, for all of the racially intolerant characters within the film, Domergue is the first person to address Samuel L. Jackson’s bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren, by the N-word when he requests to hitch a ride with them in Ruth’s stagecoach. Upon this exchange, Ruth states, “Girl, don’t you know the darkies don’t like to be called niggers no more. They find that offensive.” “I’ve been called worse,” Domergue replies, to which Ruth laughs and says, “That I can believe!”
Following Ruth’s decision to allow Warren to come aboard with him and Domergue, she criticizes his judgment, resulting in Ruth hitting her over the head with the butt of his pistol. “How do you like them bells, bitch?” he snidely remarks, before stating that the next time she speaks out of line, he’ll knock her two front teeth out. Soon after this, Domergue jokes to Warren about how Ruth is “lacking in the brains department.” Ruth elbows her in the face breaking her nose, and as the two men laugh at her, she licks the blood seeping from her nostrils as her lips form a devious smile.
From these initial sequences alone, it’s clear that Tarantino is enamored with Domergue, and finds her to be as equally vicious as Warren and Ruth. The beatings her character receives are rarely played for laughs, and Tarantino is perfectly aware that these instances of a man committing violence against a woman are bound to upset audiences. (He’s already responded to the various claims of misogyny, explaining that these reactions are “all by design.”) Yet, Domergue remains as tough as nails, despite these brutal forms of male oppression, and this is where it becomes clear that Tarantino is providing a commentary on gender politics.
In response to an increasingly popular streak of criticism regarding morally-questionable female leads, Domergue is in no way lacking in agency or stripped of it. When it’s revealed that cowpuncher Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) poisoned the cabin coffee, it was Domergue who was in cohoots and silently approved of his actions. A few moments after Ruth drinks from his mug, blood erupts from his mouth, and he realizes that his prisoner has gotten the best of him. Resting her head in the palm of her gloved hand, Domergue looks into his eyes and smirks. “When you get to hell, John, tell ‘em Daisy sent ya.”
Enraged, Ruth smacks Domergue in the head, resulting in both of them falling to the floor due to being handcuffed to one another. Ruth punches out Domergue’s two front teeth, but as opposed to writhing in pain, she spits them back in his face before cackling maniacally in his direction. He may have followed through with his aforementioned threat, but to Domergue, it doesn’t matter; she’s already killed him.
As Ruth vomits out geysers of gore onto Domergue’s face, she isn’t disgusted; she’s delighted. Her laughter only increases as her enemy continues to die a gruesome death on top of her. Digging into Ruth’s holster, she removes his pistol, aims it at his chest, and blows a bullet straight through him that bursts out of his back.
Leigh herself has defended both Tarantino and the character of Domergue in recent interviews. With Uproxx, she states:
“[Tarantino] doesn’t write [Domergue] as some delicate victim flower. She’s a killer. She’s gutsy and her whole identity is, ‘Yeah, give me what you’ve got, it doesn’t mean anything to me. Hit me again, I don’t give a fucking shit.’ You know? She’s not going to show any vulnerability and that’s a tactic she is using and it tells you a lot about her childhood.”
Indeed, Domergue never does show vulnerability, despite the cruelty she undergoes throughout the picture. She is regularly addressed as “bitch” or “tramp.” She has hot stew thrown in her face, in addition to Ruth’s blood. She is shot more than once. And she even gets splattered with the brains and skull matter of her brother, Jody Domingre (Channing Tatum) after Warren blows his head off right in front of her. She endures what few women, presumably none, have had to in order to serve Tarantino’s grand allegorical image.
During the film’s climax, Warren and white supremacist Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) overcome their racially based hatred for one another due to their overall contempt for Domergue. The fact that two men put aside their differences and unite in their animosity towards women is by no means incidental, nor is it an endorsement of misogyny.
Earlier in the film, Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), a supposed hangman who’s ultimately revealed to be a member of the Domingre gang, gives a speech to Domergue on the nature of her upcoming execution (which, by no coincidence, is on the original motion picture soundtrack):
“Now, you’re wanted for murder. For the sake of my analogy, let’s just assume that you did it… John Ruth wants to take you back to Red Rock to stand trial for murder. And if you’re found guilty, the people of Red Rock will hang you in the town square. And, as the hangman, I will perform an execution. And, if all those things end up taking place, that’s what civilized society calls justice.
However, if the relatives and the loved ones of the person you murdered were outside that door, right now, and after busting down that door they drug you out in the snow and hung you up by the neck, that would be frontier justice.
Now, the good part about frontier justice is it’s very thirst quenching. The bad part is it’s apt to be wrong, as right… But ultimately, it’s the real difference between the two. The real difference is me… the hangman.
To me it doesn’t matter what you did. When I hang you, I will get no satisfaction from your death; it’s my job. I hang you in Red Rock, I move onto the next town, I hang someone else there.
The man who pulls the lever that breaks your neck will be a dispassionate man. And that dispassion is the very essence of justice. For justice delivered without dispassion, is always in danger of not being justice.”
Upon freeing herself from Ruth’s lifeless body, Domergue dives for a pistol resting on the floor and gets shot by Mannix. As Mannix prepares to shoot Domergue again, this time in the head, Warren protests against it, stating that they should hang her in Ruth’s honor since they’re bound to die anyway based on the severity of their wounds. As the two men snicker in anticipation, Domergue lies on the floor, soaked in blood and paralyzed from her injuries.
The film jump cuts to Domergue with a noose around her neck being lifted up into the air, set to Ennio Morricone’s chilling, dread-induced score. Warren and Mannix yank on the rope in agony, raising Domergue’s body up as if she’s an American flag that deserves to be hung in pride. The camera lingers on in horror as Domergue suffocates to death, her feet kicking in midair as the two men hoot and holler at her demise, until she finally goes limp. “That was a nice dance,” says Warren. “Yes, it sure was,” Mannix concurs.
As Mobray foreshadowed, the death that Domergue faced was anything but justifiable. It was a sick, misogynistic act of revenge that quenched the thirst of two chauvinistic men who didn’t even kill her for survival, but for their own depraved satisfaction before they die. Domergue’s hanging served only for her male counterparts’ amusement, nothing more within the four walls of Minnie’s Haberdashery.
This point is further accentuated when the two men lay on a bed bleeding to death afterwards, and Mannix asks to see a fabricated letter that Warren wrote from the perspective of Abraham Lincoln, meant to disarm white people with the implication that Warren was a pen pal with America’s eighteenth president. Mannix reads it out-loud as Morricone’s patriotic tune, La Lettera di Lincoln, plays.
“We still have a long way to go, but hand in hand, I know we’ll get there,” Mannix recites as Domergue’s legs enter the frame and her spool heels dangle. Whether you see this as ferociously cynical or glimmering with hope after three hours of carnage, one fact certainty remains both on and off-screen: We certainly have a long way to go towards gender equality, but we can only get so far with one hand crushing the other.