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The Hateful Eight features the most ominous jelly bean I have ever seen in a movie. Samuel L. Jackson’s Major Marquis Warren already suspected that something was afoot when his stagecoach arrived at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a well-liked coach waystation/general store/hotel run by its much-loved namesake proprietor, and she was nowhere to be seen. In her place was an odd, standoffish Mexican man named Bob (Demián Bichir), a man who claimed to be looking after the place while Minnie and her partner Sweet Dave visited Minnie’s mother, despite his shaky knowledge of Minnie’s policies and practices. The Haberdashery’s door was broken, requiring it to be forced open and then nailed shut every time anybody needs to go outside for any reason. Those signs were weird, no doubt. But, when Warren finally gets inside and goes for some coffee (or coffy, as Tarantino spells it in the screenplay), his foot brushes against something. He looks down. It’s a jelly bean. A single, lonely, red, jelly bean.
Warren looks up at Minnie’s candy shelf. There’s taffy, red beans and two colors of butter mints. But no jelly beans. Warren’s suspicion becomes certainty. Something terrible happened at Minnie’s. His traveling companions, bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell and his Splendiferous Moustache), captive outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), definite ex-Confederate and alleged sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) and their sweet-hearted river O.B. (James Parks) have a range of agendas. Some are mundane (O.B. wants to do his job), some are fraught (Ruth wants to bring Domergue to justice, Domergue wants to escape and kill everyone) and some are complete enigmas (Mannix is, initially, a giant question mark). Those goals, plus the mysterious men they’ll meet in the Haberdashery, all but ensure something will go sideways. Something will. And before the long, cold night is over, before the blizzard breaks, more terrible things will happen. The Hateful Eight is many things. It’s an astoundingly bleak comedy. It’s a bonafide Grand Guignol movie. It’s a howl of rage at America’s long-lived and desperately denied systemic racism. It’s an homage to and riff on some of Tarantino’s favorite movies. And, in the way it uses space and pushes its tensions ever higher, it’s a darn fine movie.
The space and feel of Minnie’s Haberdashery is critical to The Hateful Eight’s success as both a movie and a horror movie. Consider this description in The Hateful Eight’s screenplay:
We… take in the inside of Minnie’s Haberdashery. As has been reported by Bob, sadly no Minnie. Even without meeting Minnie, we feel her loss to this building. With Minnie’s big presence this place comes alive and is homey and warm. Without her, it’s a cold shack full of junk.
For a place that should be a haven from the blizzard railing outside, everything about the Haberdashery is just a bit off. The busted door (which everyone in the Haberdashery will come to loathe) is the most obvious, but it is hardly the only thing askance. A half-plucked chicken rests in the kitchen area. There’s the most ominous jelly bean in the world, sitting by its lonesome near the stove, its brethren nowhere to be seen. But above all else, the Haberdashery is unsettlingly empty. Bob is the only staff. His three guests, hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), roving cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) and Confederate General Sandford Smithers (Bruce Dern) sit well apart from each other, each in their own little world. Minnie’s is a big place, but it isn’t a private one. It’s a single large room split into rough sections; a kitchen, a dining area and a fireside lounge with some beds. People can stand aloof from each other, but there is nowhere to hide, or so it seems. There’s no place in the Haberdashery that has not been touched by whatever happened there. There’s no way to defuse the tension that will inevitably brew between a small group of people trapped in one place during a blizzard. But at the same time, Minnie’s is a big building. It’s big enough that, should something dramatic happen at the right time, the right person in the right place could do something catastrophic totally unnoticed. They might, say, poison the coffee.
Minnie’s Haberdashery is, in other words, a great place to set a horror movie. It’s isolated. It’s mysterious. It forces both tense interactions and moments where someone will miss something crucial. But what gives the horror side of The Hateful Eight its punch is the way it distributes information. Given their races and their affiliations during the Civil War, conflict between Warren and Smithers is inevitable. They snipe at each other, and make insinuations. And those insinuations steadily escalate until the revelation that enmity between the two men isn’t merely due to their diametrically opposed moral systems; it’s due to personal, bitter wrongs. The audience learns about the poisoned coffee before anyone but Domergue and the poisoner. And in the grips of an endless blizzard, it is only a matter of time before someone takes a drink and inadvertently melts their internal organs. It happens fast, but not so fast that the audience hasn’t had a chance to process the reality of the poison. We know what’s going to happen, and that it will be bad. We don’t know when it will, or exactly how bad it will be.
Conversely, the single most horrifying sequence in The Hateful Eight is set up mere moments before it hits, with a sudden expansion of the Haberdashery’s known space and an answer to any questions about why a certain actor was mentioned in the opening credits the way they were. It’s unexpected and startling, and then the context is immediately provided. We learn what happened to Minnie and Sweet Dave. We learn why it happened. We learn the truth about the most ominous jelly bean in the world. The shock of the film suddenly and dramatically changing its established rules feeds into the dread and despair that the answers to its questions bring. Good people die. And they die in ways no one should have to die. Most of The Hateful Eight is a rough watch. Its penultimate chapter is absolutely punishing. It’s good that it is, both because of how hard and consequential its violence is, and because it beautifully expands and feeds into the movie’s investigation at the moral rot America has always lived with and always had to be dragged into facing. It bottles the cruelest and most shameful parts of the nation’s identity and shakes them so hard that an explosion is inevitable. And when the explosion hits, it sears itself into your mind and leaves you to grapple with what you have seen and what it means. It’s exemplary filmmaking and very, very fine horror storytelling.