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Wilder West

Combine two films released on Christmas Day, Quentin Tarantino’sThe Hateful Eight” and Alejandro González Iñárritu’sThe Revenant,” and what have you got? Five hours and thirty-eight minutes of malice and mistrust, in which the characters—mostly men—are trapped in extreme weather conditions and settle their differences with extreme violence. So much for peace and good will. If I said that my thoughts, during those long and bloody hours, didn’t stray now and then to Bing Crosby, I’d be lying.

“The Hateful Eight” takes place in postbellum Wyoming. The film is of epic duration and, like “Lawrence of Arabia,” includes an intermission, yet its settings could not be more cramped. Much of the first half is spent in a stagecoach, and the rest—barring brief trips to a stable and an outhouse, plus a few flashbacks—is spent in Minnie’s Haberdashery, a lonely hangout, which also serves coffee and stew. As for Wyoming, we see it in fits and starts: icy plains and peaks, whose purpose is less to dazzle us than to wall in the dramatis personae. At selected theatres, the movie will be screened in 70 mm., which sounds grandiose, but, as with Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” in the same format, what absorbs the director is the ever-changing landscape of the human face. Nothing was as daunting in Anderson’s film as his closeups of Amy Adams, and Tarantino grants an equal honor to Jennifer Jason Leigh. She plays an outlaw, Daisy Domergue, and one slow look that she gives, raising her face, with a black eye and a crinkled grin, to fill the screen, may be the most convincing portrait of wickedness—and of its demonic appeal—in all of Tarantino. With that smile alone, Leigh possesses the film.

To say that Daisy is going to meet her doom is not quite right, because her doom is travelling beside her, in the person of John Ruth (Kurt Russell), a bounty hunter. He is bringing her to be hanged in the town of Red Rock, where he will collect a handsome reward. En route, they pick up a couple of wayfarers—Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), who is in the same trade as Ruth, and Mannix (Walton Goggins), who says, “I’ll be double dog damned!” and who will soon be assuming the post of Red Rock’s sheriff.

The coach arrives at Minnie’s, where the rest of the lineup is assembled: a Mexican named Bob (Demián Bichir), an old Confederate general (Bruce Dern), a near-wordless hulk (Michael Madsen), and a fussy little Brit, who introduces himself as Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth). They are said to be random strangers, but we have our doubts. From the start of the film, there’s a creepy—not to say ridiculous—sense of everybody, wherever they hail from, being cuffed and tied by circumstance. “Considerin’ there’s a blizzard goin’ on, there’s a whole lot of fellows wanderin’ around,” Ruth says, on sighting Mannix. The line gets a laugh, but it’s a ruse: Tarantino is palming off the convolutions of his plot as a knowing gag. Not content with mustering his suspects, as if they were the snowbound passengers in “Murder on the Orient Express,” he needs to be sure that we appreciate his cunning—even addressing us in voice-over, after the intermission, and showing us a clue we may have missed. What a wag.

The movie, billed in the opening credits as “The 8th Film by Quentin Tarantino,” is a beastly brew: a blend of Agatha Christie and Sergio Leone, spiked with postmodernist poison. We get an Ennio Morricone score—sadly, no match for “Once Upon a Time in the West,” where his musical glories washed in sadness against Leone’s array of sombre deeds. We get a lot of talk about Civil War treachery and payback; as in “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained,” history is something to be toyed with, not explored—a chance for boyish fantasies of revenge, as if enormous crimes could be undone, after the event, by lone and wanton acts of humiliation. We get plenty of ripe performances, with Jackson and Russell enjoying a tight battle of whiskers and pipe smoke. Above all, we get confirmation of the director’s preëminent perversity: patient and elaborate in his racking up of tension, he knows only one way to resolve it, and that is through carnage, displayed in unmerciful detail. To be fair, the more blood is spilled, the more some people lap it up; the audience at my screening howled with glee as Daisy’s face was showered with the contents of someone else’s head. Chacun à son goût. By the end of “The Hateful Eight,” its status as a tale of mystery and its deference to classic Westerns have all but disappeared, worn down by the grind of its sadistic vision. That is the Tarantino deal: by blowing out folks’ brains, he wants to blow our minds.

There you are, somewhere near the Missouri River, on a freezing day. You’ve got no place to stay, so what do you do? You check into a horse. If you’re Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), the hero of “The Revenant,” that is your preferred method, and it’s hard to quarrel with, though it can’t be much fun for the horse. You slit open the belly, tug out the guts, strip naked, crawl inside, read a little light fiction for a while, and nod off.

The basics of life—clothing and food, as well as accommodation—are much to the fore in “The Revenant,” which is set in the eighteen-twenties. Glass’s principal outfit is a shaggy animal pelt that he wears as a poncho. For nourishment, he sucks marrow from the skeleton of something horned; catches a writhing fish and tears the flesh off with his teeth (all in a single shot); and chows down on a nameless hunk of bison, also uncooked. You can experience that type of cuisine nowadays, but only if you order the foraging menu at a restaurant in Copenhagen, whereas Glass is dining, for free, on the borders of civilization.

Not that Iñárritu’s movie has much faith in the civilized. Glass belongs to a motley band of hunters and fur trappers, ravaging the land and its fauna for profit. They number forty or so, in a rough hierarchy, with Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) just about keeping charge. Also present are a cussed crook named Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy); Bridger (Will Poulter), who’s barely more than a kid; and another youngster, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), who is Glass’s son by a Native American woman. The whole plot is impelled by Glass’s paternal loyalty to Hawk, but that is thinly sketched, and I never quite believed in them as father and child.

The first twenty minutes are the best. As we contemplate the hides stretched out to dry, or baled up for shipping downriver, the hunters are suddenly ambushed on every flank by Arikara, who resent the rape of their country. When one of them, on horseback, rides into the frame, we stay with him, galloping onward until he is felled, whereupon we switch our attention—our sensory allegiance, as it were—to the man who brought him low. Then he is downed, too, and the camera is trained on his aggressor; and so forth, in a roundelay of horror that feels as if it could go on forever. Thanks to that fluency, the scene becomes a savage sequel to Iñárritu’s “Birdman,” which also ducked and darted from one figure to the next.

The survivors of the fray take to the river, in a graceless boat that resembles a log cabin, and then continue their trek, to the fur traders’ camp, on foot. Glass, out on a morning foray, falls afoul of a bear, who is protecting her cubs: an astounding sequence, not just because her claw swipes are so murderously fierce but because the ferocity rises and fades—she stops mauling, sniffs him, licks his face, ambles off, and then, just when you think the onslaught is over, comes back and swipes anew. Once it is over, at last, Glass is in shreds, strung between life and death. Henry decides to carry on without him, leaving him in the care of Bridger, Fitzgerald, and Hawk. That arrangement falters, and soon it is Glass alone who must, like a tattered Odysseus, make his way home.

The hitch with tales of endurance, onscreen, is their unfortunate habit of becoming endurance tests for the viewer, and, after a while, “The Revenant” turns into a slog. Make no mistake, it’s a very beautiful slog. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography summons a wealth of wonders, and there is one image, of a Pawnee warrior arcing his bow beside a fire, in a whirring squall of snow, that I will not forget. But some of the beauty has a willful air, and seldom do we feel that the moments of transcendence have been happened upon, as we do with a film like Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre, the Wrath of God.” What Iñárritu has created is less an adventure than a solemn pilgrimage, suppressing the giddy flights of “Birdman,” and, as for DiCaprio, his forte—a comic impishness, last released in “The Wolf of Wall Street”—is sternly curbed. Awed reports of what he went through, on the set of “The Revenant,” cannot disguise the fact that his character is a moral monotone, who suffers great afflictions but no change. Although the wild world is thrown at him, how much really stirs in the heart of Glass?

Source: The New Yorker, January 4, 2016 issue


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