Early in The Hateful Eight, John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) encounters Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), warning him to move slowly – “molasses-like” – while keeping his firearm fixed on the stranger. You could say that the film itself is comparably molasses-like; dense and dark in its substance while deliberately unhurried in its stride.
We greet each despicable character that populates The Hateful Eight with an equal degree of caution, questioning their motives and carefully observing their demeanour. The film is structurally and situationally close-knit in a way most Tarantino films aren’t; the snow globe setting confines the narrative to only a handful of set-pieces, allowing carefully-paced moments to distil until they eventually ferment. This is the essence of The Hateful Eight, which is drip-fed a diet of deceit and malice until it can no longer contain its gluttonous appetite for debauchery.
The film is set in post-civil war Wyoming; more specifically, in a haberdashery and the surrounding road to Red Rock, a small nearby town. A blizzard forces a collection of eight nefarious types to hunker down in close quarters until it passes. Within this gathering are the bounty hunters John Ruth and Major Warren, Ruth’s prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), sheriff-to-be Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), silver-tongued Englishman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), reticent cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a Mexican innkeeper named Bob (Demián Bichir), and ex-Confederate General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern).
Daisy has a sizeable dead-or-alive bounty on her head, but John Ruth is determined to personally see her hang for her crimes, a point he vociferously announces to his co-occupants at the haberdashery. Though generally untrusting, Ruth senses that one or more of these fellas are there under false pretences, instigating the film’s vertebral ‘whodunit’ scenario.
From there, The Hateful Eight embarks on a volatile trajectory, with the threat of a typically macabre Tarantino exit hanging over each individual. It’s odd then that no character in this ensemble piece is classically likeable or heroic. Sure, some have their redeeming features, but for the most part, they’re either dishonest, selfish, misogynistic, racist or just plain unfriendly. The closest resemblance to a protagonist is likely Samuel L. Jackson’s character, who relishes in playing the cunning gunslinger and again demonstrates his remarkable fluency in the Tarantino dialect.
The supporting company are also impressive: Russell stomps around with amusing bearishness, Leigh is peppery and wickedly crass, while Goggins integrates perfectly, providing perhaps the most surprising character. Mannix is constituted by his naïve and obstinate devotion to a Southern familial heritage and the innate politics of the Civil War’s aftermath, which prompts an interesting arc. The remaining cast members are well suited, though somewhat disadvantaged by their characters’ one-dimensional temperament.
As an unmistakable long-time fan of Ennio Morricone, Tarantino finally teams up with the great Western film composer (his music has dominated Tarantino’s catalogue since Kill Bill), and it’s expectedly brilliant. Morricone’s score is foreboding and atmospheric, evoking the snow-blanketed hell in which the film takes place. It’s minimalistic yet terrifically imposing, imbuing the film with poise and a musical consistency that is atypical for Tarantino films.
In terms of its ‘Tarantino-ness’, there’s plenty to revel in here, including cinematic homages and influences, structural chapters, borderline cartoonish violence and, of course, extended character monologues. It’s these wedges of dialogue that often define Tarantino’s writing style, although they’re consciously purposeful and narrative-driven here rather than random and mundane (conversations like those about cheeseburgers are notably lacking). His auteurist idiosyncrasies typically work in extraordinary harmony, and aside from his own brief voiceover narration here – which feels incompatible with the rest of the film – The Hateful Eight is another confident expression of his aptitude. Tarantino’s camerawork is increasingly becoming his greatest strength, demonstrative of a deft understanding of how to stage a scene and build tension. He draws out long shots of the snowy wilderness and the cabin’s interior here, acclimatising the viewer and exacting attentiveness. Robert Richardson’s Ultra Panavision cinematography is precise and rich in these instances.
As with recent Tarantino films like Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, social issues are prevalent here – predominantly racially charged – and he again uses the Western genre to reflect those era-specific America values. His treatment of female characters in The Hateful Eight may make you feel uncomfortable, but Tarantino sees gender as irrelevant here; Daisy is just as despicable as the men. He’s not interested in redemption or compassion for his characters, only frontier justice.
Like a spoonful of molasses, whether The Hateful Eight goes down smooth or makes you queasy depends on your palate for unrepentance, but it’s perfect to satisfy a sweet-tooth craving for Tarantino.