Mountain Dudes: The Snowbound X-Treme Cinema of The Revenant and The Hateful Eight

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The Hateful Eight
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
The Revenant
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Opening December 25

Even as the return of Star Wars sucks up all available pop-cultural oxygen this month, a mano e mano fight is about to take place, somewhere deep in the snowbound American West. Two of cinema’s showmen, Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Quentin Tarantino, seek to monopolize your mind with their attempts at making cinema a bodily experience: The Revenant, a grueling search picture with the equivalent of the DiCaprioCam, hurling us through the perils of snow, injuns, backstabbers, and bears; and The Hateful Eight, a chamber potboiler essentially emceed by Samuel L. Jackson, unfurling in Ultra Panavision 70mm, and intended to shake us awake (though marketed to critics as much as audiences).

It’s hard to fault these filmmakers much for trying to make a big noise, when downright drek routinely does the same thing, week in and week out, with far less justification. But the real face-off here pits each director against himself, caught in the death-grip of compulsive showmanship. Nothing seemed to get Tarantino’s goat so much as the leaking of the script for The Hateful Eight, preempting his whipping back the curtain on line after badass line. And sitting through the finished feature, you feel as if he re-wrote the whole thing over a weekend, to judge from its interminable first-draft speeches and grinding gamesmanship, which, like some perverse swan song, take place in widescreen within a single ramshackle interior, a saloon hangout. Even with a cast of Jackson, Kurt Russell, Tim Roth, Bruce Dern, most climactically Jennifer Jason Leigh as a prisoner, the stemwinding tale of bounty hunters and gun-point bluffing and racial banter bespeaks nothing so much as a director to whom no one said no, down to a gory yet oddly inconsequential ending.

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If The Hateful Eight feels like an unredeemably shaggy at nearly three hours, The Revenant at least seems built up with a conscientious ambition, albeit also to the point of overstuffing. The long-take stunts of Inarritu’s award-winner Birdman matched the theatricality of the Broadway setting (and a protagonist in breakdown), but the journey of DiCaprio’s left-for-dead trapper feels like an unnecessary hard-sell of pioneer country. Much has been commented about DP Emanuel Lubezki’s borrowings from Terrence Malick, which makes little sense as an actual point of comparison except that Malick’s evocations of the foreignness of the past and the conundrum of being evoke more of a feeling of being there than Iñárritu’s you-are-there efforts. The Revenant lurches among extremities and gets bogged down in setpieces that put you through the wringer while also extinguishing any atmosphere.

All of which might sound like grumpy Goldilocks gripes about two films that are not neater about how they depict deadly lawless wilderness. In point of fact both have their moments of glory, though fewer and further between in The Hateful Eight, and above all are such gargantuan all-out curiosities that their experimentation is a welcome sight at the multiplex. I’d rather live in a cine-universe where these strange mad creations prowl and lunge and preen on the screen than not.

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