“The Revenant” and “The Hateful Eight” have some things in common. Alejandro González Iñárritu and Quentin Tarantino, their respective directors, are widely considered to have “indie” credibility, pushing at the barriers of Hollywood but not breaking them. The two films are nominally Westerns but like just about all that are made nowadays wear their “revisionist” colors proudly. Finally, I came to them with low expectations since their directors’ last two films—“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” and “Django Unchained”—were major disappointments. Despite “Birdman” receiving the Academy Award for best film in 2014, I was unimpressed:
The film plays with notions of art versus commerce but only in the most superficial way. I suppose if you’ve never seen Preston Sturges’s “Sullivan’s Travels” or Jean-Luc Godard’s “Contempt”, “Birdman” might pass muster. My misfortune is to be old enough to have seen such films in my youth and being spoiled by the experience.
The less said about “Django Unchained” the better. In fact I walked out on it after fifteen minutes. When Django shows up at slave-owner’s plantation wearing a powder-blue costume that appeared to be borrowed from a low-budget production of “Don Giovanni”, my patience wore out. I guess my logic fetish got the better of me.
“The Revenant” shares the title of a good B-movie from 2009 about an Iraq war veteran who rises from the dead as a combination zombie/vampire and begins killing drug dealers in Los Angeles. The word revenant means someone who returns from the dead, a term that can apply to Jesus Christ as well, I suppose.
The revenant in Iñárritu’s film is a trapper named Hugh Glass (Leonardo Dicaprio) who is mauled nearly to death by a Grizzly bear at the beginning of the film and left for dead by John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), one of his comrades. When Glass’s son, a product of the marriage to his Pawnee Indian wife, struggles with Fitzgerald as he prepares to abandon his mortally wounded father, Fitzgerald plunges a knife into the youth and kills him.
The film is based on a true-life incident that took place in 1823 when a trapper named Hugh Glass was mauled by a bear in South Dakota and then practically crawled his way back to Fort Kiowa some two hundred miles away. Like the character in “The Revenant”, his comrades abandoned him.
Much has been made about the film’s inaccuracies, starting with Glass’s marriage to a Pawnee woman as well as the quest to take mortal revenge on John Fitzgerald. It seems that there was no evidence for such a marriage and that Glass’s interest in catching up with the man was only to retrieve the flintlock rifle he absconded with in the course of abandoning Glass.
Few critics, however, noticed one of the most egregious inaccuracies—the film being set in places utterly unlike the rolling hills of South Dakota where Plains Indians like the Pawnee, the Lakota and the Arikara (whose bloody attack on the trappers begins the film) built their nomadic settlements in pursuit of the bison and other game native to the grassy region. Instead it was set in locations such as the Canadian Rockies that were visually striking but about as distinct from South Dakota as could be imagined.
Iñárritu’s depiction of the Indians is par for the revisionist course. At one point, when the Arikara are haggling with French trappers over a trade involving hides they stole from Glass’s expedition for guns and horses, the chief is angered by a Frenchman telling him that he is asking for too much. The chief reminds him that compared to the animals and land they have stolen, they are asking for very little.
None of this has anything to do with the quality of the film, one that I found totally riveting from beginning to end. Mountains make for spectacular landscapes and having a son killed puts flesh on the revenge plot skeleton. John Ford took liberties with the story of a white girl being kidnapped and raised as a Comanche. This does not detract from the artistic quality of “The Searchers”, does it?
At least one critic complained about the weakness of the revenge angle since the confrontation between Glass and Fitzgerald is limited to about ten minutes in the finale with little build-up. But this was not a film primarily about revenge. It was about survival against impossible odds, having much more in common with the vastly underrated “All is Lost” that starred Robert Redford as the sole occupant of a damaged yacht slowly sinking in the middle of the ocean.
Or even “Backcountry”, another very good B-movie equal to the 2009 “The Revenant”, that tells the story of a young man and woman who are attacked by a bear on a camping trip in a rugged and mountainous state park. One might even surmise that Iñárritu was inspired by this film since some of his dazzling camera work looks a lot like “Backcountry”, with mesmerizing shots of tall trees seen from a camera pointed vertically straight toward the sky as if the cameraman was lying on his back.
If I admit to being not much of a Iñárritu fan, I am even less of one for DiCaprio, the overexposed perpetually squinting pretty boy. There’s nothing pretty about him in this film. He is a tortured and anguished wraith of a man with a long beard that could easily be a comfortable home for fleas and the early signs of middle age not disguised by makeup. As you sit glued to your seat wondering how he can manage to surmount each obstacle put in his path, you are reminded that this is all good cinema is about. Good story-telling with compelling characters.
They say that “The Revenant” and DiCaprio are inside track favorites for Academy Awards. I might have made other picks myself (and did) but I can recommend this film as a visceral experience that will remain with you long after walking out of the local Cineplexex where it is likely still showing.
This is a spoiler alert for “The Hateful Eight”. Since revealing the “surprise” ending (not that much of a surprise actually) is essential to understanding how Tarantino went wrong, I have no choice but to reveal it.
Unlike “Django Unchained”, I managed to stick around to the film’s conclusion. Although Tarantino’s goal was to continue in the same vein playing with racial themes (that’s the only way to describe it), the new film was relatively free of logical inconsistencies of the sort that drove me from the first. This is not to say that it was realistic, only that it operated within the framework of a given genre.
Like “Django Unchained”, bounty hunters are the lead characters in this post-Civil War Western. One is Major Marquis Warren (Samuel Jackson); the other is John Ruth (Kurt Russell) who is transporting a woman named Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) on a stagecoach to Red Rock, Wyoming where she will be hung for the crime of murder. Ruth is on his way to Red Rock during a heavy blizzard (just like one on the American east coast as I am writing this review) with his prisoner when he runs into Major Warren in the middle of a road with four dead bounties of his own. It seems that his horse has gone lame and he had to abandon it. Oh, did I say that the film was relatively free of logical inconsistencies? Here is one. How in the world did Warren ever transport four dead bodies on the saddle with him?
Once he joins Ruth and his captive on the stagecoach, they exchange shoptalk about bounty hunting in the patented Tarantino style rather like Samuel Jackson and John Travolta in buckskin. A few minutes further down the road, they run into a man named Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who is trying to hitch a ride to Red Rock where he has been hired to be the town’s sheriff. Why is he on foot? Tarantino makes no effort to explain. As it happens, Mannix is a veteran of the Civil War having fought in a Confederate militia. This leads to all sorts of combative verbal jousting between him and Warren that stops short of violence. Tarantino’s strategy throughout is to use the aura of violence to create a mood of expectation, especially against the backdrop of a blinding blizzard.
Unable to make it to Red Rock, the stagecoach stops at a lodge called Minnie’s Haberdashery where they run into a group of characters that completes the ensemble casting. One is a former Confederate General named Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern); another is a Brit (Tim Roth) who claims to be headed to Red Rock where he has been contracted to hang Daisy Domergue, a Mexican named Bob (Demián Bichir) who is in charge of the lodge in Minnie’s absence and, finally, a cowboy played by Michael Madsen. All of the actors turn in the kind of performances we expect from a Tarantino film, especially Roth and Madsen who are part of Tarantino’s stock company. Unfortunately, Tarantino directed Bichir to speak in a “I don’t have to show you my stinkin’ badge accent”, all the more regrettable given that Bichir is Mexican.
Once everybody is under the roof of Minnie’s Haberdashery, you might as well be watching a staged play. Tarantino, ever the genre-bender, said he was inspired to make the film based on TV Westerns of the late 50s and early 60s that inevitably gathered together men and women in an enclosed space such as a saloon or a ranch-house as the tension mounts. He might have been subconsciously influenced by “Key Largo”, another film (actually based on a Broadway play by Maxwell Anderson) that pulled together an ensemble cast to wait out a hurricane in a hotel.
But unlike “Key Largo”, where the tension is the result of a growing confrontation between good guy Humphrey Bogart and gangster Edward G. Robinson, there are no white hats or black hats in “The Hateful Eight”—that is until the final fifteen minutes or so when we learn that Roth, Bichir and Madsen are part of Daisy Domergue’s gang determined to free her. (Her brother played by Channing Tatum is hidden in the basement.) So for the better part of 187 minutes, we see all of these characters exchanging the typical Tarantino repartee without the slightest indication that they will eventually end up in a bloody shootout in close quarters. If you enjoy Tarantino dialog, this film might be for you.
MAJ.WARREN How’s life been since the war?
GEN.SMITHERS Got both of my legs. Got both of my arms. Can’t complain.
MAJ.WARREN Got a woman?
GEN.SMITHERS Fever took her beginning this winter.
MAJ.WARREN Me, I never went in for a woman regular.
GEN.SMITHERS In my day no one asked you if you went in for it. You just did it.
MAJ.WARREN What was her name?
I’ll stick with Maxwell Anderson:
Johnny Rocco [Robinson]: There’s only one Johnny Rocco.
James Temple [Bogart]: How do you account for it?
Frank McCloud: He knows what he wants. Don’t you, Rocco?
Johnny Rocco: Sure.
James Temple: What’s that?
Frank McCloud: Tell him, Rocco.
Johnny Rocco: Well, I want uh …
Frank McCloud: He wants more, don’t you, Rocco?
Johnny Rocco: Yeah. That’s it. More. That’s right! I want more!
James Temple: Will you ever get enough?
Frank McCloud: Will you, Rocco?
Johnny Rocco: Well, I never have. No, I guess I won’t. You, do you know what you want?
Frank McCloud: Yes, I had hopes once, but I gave them up.
Johnny Rocco: Hopes for what?
Frank McCloud: A world in which there’s no place for Johnny Rocco.