I can say no more without giving away several major twists, but let’s just say that symbolic retribution—a gift Tarantino loves to dole out to his historically oppressed subjects in individual goodie bags of justified violence—keeps eluding Daisy, even as she continues to embody the site of that retribution for others.
Okay, there’s some big spoilers beyond this point.
So this western involves ten people (I think) trapped together in a big cabin by a blizzard. They’re nearly all terrible people, but some of them – mainly Major Marquis Warren (an enormously charismatic Samuel Jackson) – are more likable terrible people than the others. One character, Daisy (an excellent Jennifer Jason Leigh), is a prisoner being held by a bounty hunter nicknamed “The Hangman,” because he takes pride in bringing his prisoners in alive so they can be legally hanged. There’s also an over-the-top racist sheriff, played by Boyd from the TV show “Justified.”
In the opening scene, we see Daisy, handcuffed and helpless but definitely not broken in spirit, getting punched hard in the face again and again.
This being a Tarantino movie, you won’t be surprised to hear that the characters all die violently, until finally there’s only three characters left alive – the Major, the Sheriff, and Daisy. All three have been wounded, and the Major and the Sheriff both expect to die of their wounds. The Major and the Sheriff, despite hating each other earlier in the story, are now allies against Daisy; it was (now-dead) members of Daisy’s brother’s gang who gave the two men their mortal wounds.
After the Sheriff shoots and wounds Daisy, leaving her helpless, the Sheriff and the Major – rather than tying her up or shooting her – decide to lynch Daisy. Which they do – that’s the end of the movie, the Sheriff and the Major merrily lynch Daisy from the rafters and having a good laugh about it. Then they bond for a couple of minutes while waiting to die, and that’s the movie.
It was… disquieting. Not because Daisy was violently murdered – I expect that in a Tarantino movie. Characters of both sexes being killed is part of the genre (and if you don’t understand why that’s fun, then you should definitely not see this movie). And not per se because Daisy is a woman – I prefer action movies in which women kill and are killed on an equal basis with the male characters. (Such as Tarantino’s Kill Bill, which I love.)
It was in part because Daisy – despite being built up as a dangerous murderer (hence her appointment with the hangman) and a major character – never actually got a chance to compete in the movie’s bloodsport as an equal. She’s handcuffed until one of her accomplices poisons her captor, and then she escapes for maybe ninety seconds before getting shot again and then lynched. (She does shoot her captor – but he was already in the process of dying from the poison, and wouldn’t have lasted another minute.)
There are several characters, male and female, who are completely helpless and shot to death by Daisy’s brother’s gang in a flashback. Effectively, Daisy gets to be one of those characters – there to be killed by the other characters when the plot demands it, not to be an active agent in the plot. And the means of her death – being lynched by two laughing men who, before they had a common enemy in her, loathed each other – is really ugly. It also draws oddly, of course, on reversing the racial imagery of lynching – a white sheriff who would have happily have hanged a black man given an excuse, instead allies with that black man to hang their common enemy, the white woman. I’m not sure what it means; I’m not sure that it means anything, other than Tarantino looking for some high-octane images for his ending.
The end being disquieting was deliberate, I believe. Earlier in the story, a Hangman, played by Tim Roth, explains at length that the hangman is the difference between a hanging and a lynching. A hangman is neutral; the hangman has no grudge against the person he hangs, and gets no joy out of their death. That neutrality, Roth says, is what makes a hanging justice, and different from a lynching.1
In effect, Tarantino gives us a big monologue about how lynchings aren’t justice. And over an hour later in the film, two characters – including the most likable character, and the closest thing this movie has to a sympathetic point of view character – have a laughing, happy lynching. A lynching that can’t help but come off as super misogynistic.
I like disturbing movies. I like unlikable characters. I’m fine with movies including racist and misogynistic characters, when done well, because racism and misogyny are part of the real world. But I also like movies (and stories) which deliver what they implicitly promise. A movie that spends 95% of it’s time being a likable (if wince-ible) slaughter movie, but yanks out the rug from under viewers in the last five minutes, ends up feeling… wrong.
- Complicating matters somewhat, we later find out that Roth isn’t really a hangman; he’s a covert member of Daisy’s brother’s gang. Which, given that he’d be hanged if caught, makes his monologue interesting. [↩]