After seeing The Revenant and The Hateful Eight, I feel underdressed. Got to get me one of those bearskins, preferably straight from the bear. Ain't seen so much fur since Fess Parker killed "a bar" with his knife in Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter (1954). Parker wore a coonskin cap made from actual raccoon, with face and tail still on, in the five-part TV serial that was then recut to make two movies. Every kid in America wanted that hat – and most got one if the National Museum of American History, which has the original, is correct. They say the simplified boys' version, with faux fur and real tail, sold 5000 units a day at the height of the Davy Crockett craze. Parker went on to star as Daniel Boone in another show in the 1960s, wearing what looked like the same hat. More raccoons untailed.
I grew up watching those shows, learning the ways of the red man and the white, so I've been looking forward to the return of the frontier film. Even so, The Revenant was a bit of a shock. Never has one man endured so much pain, so many wounds, so many setbacks, privations and ornery behaviour in search of an Oscar. If Leo DiCaprio doesn't win this time, well I'll be double-dog damned, as Sherriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins – now there's a name) says in The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino's three-hour long, 70mm wide, chamber-piece of a western.
Say what? Those words don't sit right. A western that's more like a drawing-room comedy of manners? Bad manners, it's true, but Tarantino's eighth film is so much like a play as to warrant the comparison. There are eight men and one woman marooned in a wooden cabin in the mountains by a blizzard. Jennifer Jason Leigh is Daisy Domergue, a foul-mouthed killer who's on her way to the gallows, if Kurt Russell, as a bounty hunter, lives long enough to get her there. She gets punched in the face at least four times, plus an elbow in the nose. By the last reel, covered in blood and gore, she looks like a toothless version of Sissy Spacek in the original Carrie (1976). Most of the others look worse. The hatefuls include Samuel L Jackson, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen and Bruce Dern in a script that mixes Reservoir Dogs with the plot of Stagecoach, John Ford's classic from 1939. The only thing missing is a pregnant woman and Thomas Mitchell, as the drunken doctor, calling for "coffee, black coffee, bring lots of it".
Even for Tarantino, The Hateful Eight is a gore-fest, but it's cartoonish violence. QT is still at least partly a teenager who loves splatter movies. He uses violence as a stick to beat us with, while building up layers of accusation about the real violence of American culture, borne out of its history. The Hateful Eight is at least as political, especially on the question of race, as Django Unchained. As that film was about slavery, this one is about the legacy of the civil war, which has ended not long before. "Only time black folks are safe is when white folks are disarmed," says Jackson's character, Major Marquis Warren.
The striking thing about these two films, arriving a week apart, is the similarity of purpose. They're both about a loss of backbone in American life. The Revenant, directed by Alejandro Inarritu (Birdman), is set in 1823 in Montana and Dakota, out beyond the frontier. Neither bear nor the Arikara Indians give quarter. In the opening scene, the "Ri" attack a quasi-military trapping party beside a river. The ferocity and clarity is terrifying and convincing: this is probably what it was like to be attacked by Indians, and it's a long way from Dances with Wolves. A few minutes later, DiCaprio's character Hugh Glass is shredded by a giant grizzly bear – another scene of unparalleled savagery. From there it gets really bad.
Tarantino makes no pretence at historical accuracy. His movie is about westerns, more than the west. But Inarritu's film is based on a famous story of survival, and he wants it to be more accurate than any western ever was. In both cases, the message to the audience is stark. You think your life is hard? Harden the f&^% up!
Both movies give the great American public a kick in their soft, ever-spreading XL buttocks. The Revenant isn't about conquest of the west or Manifest Destiny; it's about retaining your scalp. Glass wants revenge on the man who left him for dead, played by Tom Hardy, but that's just an extra motor for the survival story. His real adversaries are the weather and the terrain, followed by the Indians, wolves and bears. The wild, in short. As in, the opposite of tame, comfortable and safe. I suspect both films are aimed at the generation that has grown up with mobile devices and the inflated sense of safety they encourage. Inarritu said as much in an interview with The New York Times: compared to these people, we are wimps. The two films may even be an unconscious response to the threat posed by the new savages, the terrifying groups who behead people on YouTube. Either way, the message is the same: the bears are still out there.