I really like The Hateful Eight. Is it my favorite Quentin Tarantino film? No. Is it a masterpiece? Eh, maybe. Do I agree with your critique of it? Also maybe. But, I can’t get enough of it. I’m not sure why.
My favorite moment comes just after John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) and Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) enter Minnie’s Haberdashery for the first (and last) time, leaving their stagecoach and the swiftly approaching blizzard behind. The shot keeps the handcuffed duo in the background, while General Sandford “Sandy” Smithers (Bruce Dern) and Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) sit in armchairs by the fire in the foreground. As Ruth boards up the door behind them, sealing off the storm and their fate, Smithers glances directly into the camera, warning us of the trouble ahead.
It is that fleeting glance that gets at the playful ethos of The Hateful Eight, and the reason why I watch the film again and again. Roger Ebert began his review of Kill Bill: Vol. 1 by writing, “[The film] shows Quentin Tarantino so effortlessly and brilliantly in command of his technique that he reminds me of a virtuoso violinist racing through ‘Flight of the Bumble Bee’ — or maybe an accordion prodigy setting a speed record for ‘Lady of Spain.’ I mean that as a sincere compliment. The movie is not about anything at all except the skill and humor of its making. It’s kind of brilliant.”
Ebert was right about Kill Bill, and it is precisely this that I feel when I watch The Hateful Eight — that I am in the hands of a master. The Hateful Eight is a case study in the beauty of limitation, of a master challenging himself in form and style.
Perhaps the most obvious and notable example of this is the film’s use of a limited setting: Minnie’s Haberdashery. Tarantino has talked before about his desire to turn The Hateful Eight into a stage play, which one can easily imagine given that the film takes place mostly in a single room.
The Hateful Eight has always reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial ‘M’ for Murder, which I explore at length in my video essay “How to Shoot a Film in One Room.” Hitchcock once said that his decision to make the film came in part after seeing so many play adaptations that were not cinematic. These adaptations, mostly made for television, were dialogue-heavy dramas that were essentially filmed plays. The only changes made for the film versions, said Hitchcock, were adding moments where a character walks out of the taxi, onto the street, through the doorway, and into the room where the dramatic action takes place. With Dial ‘M’, his goal was to adapt a play using film language and challenge himself by limiting the film to mostly a single room. The same is done, minus the existence of source material, with The Hateful Eight.
Much of the dramatic tension in the film is a byproduct of its limited setting. Shortly after we first enter Minnie’s, Tarantino explores the space in its entirety, giving us an opportunity to orient ourselves and actually see each nook and cranny. In doing so, Tarantino eliminates any prospect of using unseen space to create tension (at least until the big surprise), and instead must do so through the characters, their interplay, and, of course, the camera. The film becomes a murder mystery, but instead of taking place in a spooky castle or mansion that becomes its own character, Tarantino strips the setting of any mystique, leaving fewer tools to shock and surprise.
Another one of the great joys of The Hateful Eight is that its very existence defies the logic of its time. It is everything a 21st-century movie is told not to be: a single room, Western epic, with a “roadshow” version lasting more than three hours (not to mention the extended edition now on Netflix). As he is perhaps the most famous devotee of the Western genre alive, it is no surprise that Tarantino would make such a film, especially one that differs so much from his other Western, Django Unchained. Tarantino is also a man obsessed with sub-genres. He told IGN at the time of the film’s release, “I do like dealing in genres, but I also like dealing in sub-genres. So there are Westerns, and then there are Spaghetti Westerns. In this case, there’s also the sub, sub-genre of Snow Westerns. And Snow Westerns — there’s not that many of them, but they’re there.”
There are, of course, many ways to categorize a Western, but one of the distinctions that has most shaped my thinking of the genre is one made by the great Howard Hawks (one of Tarantino’s heroes), who said there are two types: those set before the establishment of law and order, and those set after. Hawks’ two great Westerns (both masterpieces) — Red River (1948) and Rio Bravo (1959) — are perfect examples of this dichotomy. Whenever I watch a Western, I try to place the film I’m watching in one of these two categories. It is usually pretty easy, but with a film like The Hateful Eight, it is a little more tricky.
The film begins as almost an homage to Stagecoach (1939), one of John Ford’s best films and a quintessential example of the pre-law-and-order Western (this reference is ironic coming from Tarantino, a known Ford hater).
As the stagecoach makes its way to Minnie’s Haberdashery, the snow and landscape place us in the typical lawless, frontier Western. However, once the stagecoach gang enters the Haberdashery, law and order slowly begin to enter. Ruth’s decision to bring Daisy (who is wanted dead or alive) into the town of Red Rock to hang is a reminder that law and order have been established and prompts debates among the haberdashery’s patrons on the relative advantages and disadvantages of hanging her. When Major Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) kills the Confederate General Smithers in “self-defense” (Warren uses Smithers’s racism to provoke him into attacking), another legal debate ensues.
Minnie’s Haberdashery, therefore, seems to be suspended between the two Western worlds Hawks identified. This limbo is only heightened by the presence of Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins), who has been elected to replace the murdered sheriff of Red Rock. Throughout the film, he tries to exercise his ambiguous authority as “Sheriff-elect,” like when he tells Ruth that leaving him behind in the blizzard would be equal to murdering the sheriff. Mannix’s undefined role and authority serve as a stand-in for the limbo of the film’s own genre. Plus, Minnie’s Haberdashery literally acts as a waypoint on the way to Red Rock, a bridge between law and order and the frontier.
The interior of the haberdashery too extenuates this feeling of a divided world. With candy, coffee, armchairs, and a roaring fire, Minnie’s seems like the perfect place to brave a blizzard. Call me naive, but I remember when I first watched the film, for a brief moment I thought that the haberdashery would merely be a stop on the way to the story’s main place of conflict — how could it be anything other than an oasis?
But, we soon realize that it is just as much a part of the frontier as it is the world of law and order. We feel that because of all that I have previously mentioned: the single room and the formal and thematic tension it creates, and the limbo of the world itself. There is one more element (and presumably many others that I have not covered) that is essential to understanding the mastery of The Hateful Eight: the blizzard.
Of all of Tarantino’s films, The Hateful Eight may have the best sound design. Yes, he abandoned popular music for an Ennio Morricone score, but I mean the sound of the natural elements, of the snowstorm constantly roaring in the background throughout the film. In a Hollywood Reporter director’s roundtable, Tarantino speaks of his commitment to the blizzard aesthetic, saying, “And one of the things that prepared me for that was watching a documentary about Apocalypse Now and hearing [cinematographer Vittorio] Storaro talking about creating an aesthetic: ‘Once you do, you can’t go back.’ I told that to the crew, I go: ‘We’re going to create this thing, and we can’t go backward. If that means it takes us three months to do this scene, because we have to match that snowfall, then that’s what we have to do.'”
And it is that very commitment to consistency that makes The Hateful Eight such an achievement. I feel like I am with these characters, that we are all surviving together in close quarters at Minnie’s Haberdashery on this one day, engulfed by the sound and feel of the blizzard. Are these characters particularly compelling? No. Do I care about them in the same way I do the characters in, say, Rio Bravo? What an absurd question. But, I’m there with them. I love being with them, in their world, hanging out. Shit, maybe this thing is a masterpiece.