Reel Rumbles: “The Hateful Eight” vs. “The Revenant”
Westerns never went away, but they haven’t had a year like 2015 in a long time. December of the lately elapsed year saw the release of two visually ambitious “snow Westerns,” Quentin Tarantino‘s The Hateful Eight and Alejandro Iñárritu‘s The Revenant. The films’ settings and A-list pedigrees are similar, but in execution they are almost polar opposites. Neither the bear-fighting Hugh Glass (Revenant) nor the gunslingers of Minnie’s Haberdashery (Hateful Eight) would shy away from a good old-fashioned duel, though, so here’s a Flickchart-style head-to-head.
Round 1: Stories (SPOILERS)
Both movies are part of storytelling traditions other than the Western. The Revenant is a wilderness survival story and a revenge story. After an unfortunate encounter with a bear (or fortunate, since he survives it), Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) drags himself through a gorgeous wintry landscape in pursuit of a man called Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Fitzgerald had left Glass for dead after killing Glass’s half-Native son (Forrest Goodluck). There are shades of Gravity by Alfonso and Jonás Cuarón when Glass, like Gravity‘s Dr. Ryan Stone, careens from one lethal danger to the next and escapes each one through superhuman force of will. Glass’s career as a trapper and his prior time with the Pawnee tribe taught him how to eke out an animal-like subsistence from icy mountains, woods, and rivers. Through visual and sound clues Glass is frequently paralleled with the animals he fights, eats, wears, and shares the land with, including bears, wolves, elk, buffalo, horses, ants, hawks, fish. He also has a parallel within the Native American tribe pursuing Glass’s fellow trappers: a man (Duane Howard) searching for his kidnapped daughter (Melaw Nakehk’o). If The Revenant is guilty of mythologizing Native Americans, viewing them sentimentally and in almost magical terms, at least it does the same with Glass. While The Revenant is based on true events, the extent of Glass’s wounds as Iñárritu depicts them seem too severe for anyone to survive. Yet the story of his dogged persistance is cringe-inducing in the best way. We cringe at his wounds because we share his humanity, and we share it all the more keenly because he is our species’ lone representative in a wild land.
Having established its characters, The Hateful Eight chews them up in a maelstrom of mayhem. The point is not to watch them persevere, but to see how and why they die. Tarantino’s story therefore has commonalities with the grindhouse genre he loves so much, and with the closed-room mystery tradition. His protagonists and antagonists (the distinction is minimal) are snowbound in Minnie’s Haberdashery and trying to suss out each other’s dark secrets, probing for vulnerabilities and then going for the kill. It’s a consciously postbellum movie, with unreconstructed Confederates (Walter Goggins and Bruce Dern) and ex-Union soldiers (Kurt Russell and Samuel L. Jackson) taking opposite corners of the building and affording Tarantino ample opportunity to engage in his politically-incorrect brand of racial revenge fantasy. Female revenge, another theme of Tarantino films, is present to some extent in the person of captured outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is being taken to the nearby town of Red Rock to hang. While Domergue gets some comeuppance for the disorienting treatment she receives at the hands of Russell’s now-rough-now-gentle bounty hunter, the blood that increasingly covers her face also comes at her expense. Her on-screen behavior is no more hateful than that of her captors, but she is subjected to the worst abuse. A quick female-revenge subplot in The Revenant uses a more conventional dynamic (rape, then castration) but is marginally more satisfying.
Winner: The Revenant
Round 2: Scripts (more SPOILERS)
Even three hours is not enough time to do justice to the Western, the postwar social dramedy, and the murder mystery embedded in The Hateful Eight. Each possibly-great film crowds out the others as they jostle their way to the top of Tarantino’s cineaste mind. His script introduces questions it is unwilling to resolve: who poisoned the coffee? is Goggins really the sheriff of Red Rock? it doesn’t matter, but maybe it should. At times the dialogue is inspired. Though probably anachronistic (did people talk and think like this in the late nineteenth century?), Jackson’s “Big, Black Johnson” speech will take its place alongside Pulp Fiction‘s Ezekial recitation in Tarantino lore. At times, though, there is no depth to the catechism, just a mindless flurry of “b—-“es and “n—–“s — Tarantino the provocateur, not the artful pusher of buttons that he is at his best.
The dialogue in The Revenant comes in at least three languages, but is spoken infrequently. The dead-eyed, compulsively self-justifying Fitzgerald gets a couple of good monologues, but in general this is a movie where the visuals do the talking. When characters do speak, they speak as archetypes, even more so than Tarantino’s motley crew of Western types. Their sentences are simple, which befits their elemental desires and their desolate setting. Penning a script as quiet as The Revenant‘s is no doubt a challenge, but even a flawed Tarantino script still piques the ears and begs analysis.
Winner: The Hateful Eight
Round 3: Acting
It’s anybody’s guess what did more damage to the Minnie’s Haberdashery set: the squibs or the actors’ teeth. Overacting, though, is exactly what’s called for with a script as over-the-top as Tarantino’s, and Jackson, Leigh, Goggins, and Tim Roth deliver. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before from the Tarantino stable, but it’s a welcome new helping of a favorite cheesy dish. Dern is by far the most restrained, acting more with his eyes than with his body and voice, but there is as much emotion in a glance from him as there is in a rant from Jackson. Among the more boisterous characters, Russell does an especially good job of vanishing into the character of John Ruth, the naive, hide-clad brute who captured Daisy.
There can be very little in an actor’s background to prepare him for the job of simulating a bear attack. That event, an intense mauling achieved through goodness knows what sleight-of-hand, informs the rest of DiCaprio’s performance in The Revenant, from Glass’s lopsided limp to his damaged vocal cords. An arguably even more thorough performances comes from Hardy, who in addition to widening his eyes and hunching his shoulders creates a rich, throaty accent for the villainous Fitzgerald. It’s hard to place it exactly; it seems to run the gamut from the Appalachians to the Pecos, but I’m a Texan and I couldn’t do a better all-purpose American Redneck than the London-born Hardy does. Domnhall Gleeson‘s role as an upright captain is small, and he is outshone by Howard, Nakehk’o, and Arthur RedCloud as the natives, but it is another solid performance from Gleeson in a year that also saw him feature in Ex Machina and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Winner: The Revenant
Round 4: Directing and Cinematography
Tarantino, the great student of film, became the first director in two decades years to achieve a wide release of a 70-millimeter movie. It has been even longer since that format was commonplace. Not only the wide film stock but the lenses themselves were special: Tarantino and his frequent cinematographer Robert Richardson managed to obtain the exact glasses through which Marlon Brando, Henry Fonda, and Robert Ryan were captured in their Panavision glory. The Hateful Eight opens with some fine, remote landscapes and snowy plains, but soon it confines itself to interiors where the width of the film is most evident in the positioning of the actors. They glare at each other from opposite benches on a stagecoach or from opposite corners of a shack, the rustic sets yawning between them. A fundamentally claustrophobic movie, The Hateful Eight may not have needed to be shot in 70-mm, but it was good to see it back in theaters. A new generation of projectionists learned how to fire up the old, pre-digital equipment, and hopefully not for the last time.
Iñárritu’s cinematographer for is Emmanuel Lubezki, who won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography for his work on 2013‘s Gravity and 2014‘s Birdman. He should win a third in a row for The Revenant. It was filmed using only natural light, a decision that significantly lengthened the shooting phase of production. Backgrounds and foregrounds are crystal clear, interiors feel authentic. There is a sensation of being in virtual reality — the camera floats centimeters from the actors’ faces, then slowly rotates 180-degrees, arriving just in time to catch the action coming from behind (we often hear the action before we see it; the film should be watched with full surround sound). Luzbeki has worked often with Terrence Malick, and several moments in The Revenant would slot perfectly into Malick’s dreamlike pictures: a comet breaking up overhead, a stand of trees seen dizzyingly from directly above or below. The Revenant is a movie of gasps, with both horror and beauty provoking that response.
Winner: The Revenant
The Revenant, then, is the best Western of 2015 in three out of four categories.
But where do these movies fall on your Flickchart? The global chart, so far, favors the Tarantino with the following stats:
The Hateful Eight
- Global rank: #738
- 520 users have ranked it
- Wins 60% of matchups
- 7 users have it at #1
- 43 users have it in their top 20
- Global rank: #1910
- 259 users have ranked it
- Wins 62% of matchups
- 3 users have it at #1
- 19 users have it in their top 20