The remit of this column does not extend to forecasting the weather. This week, though, I can say without fear of contradiction that it’s going to be a white January. Both Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant (15) and Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (18) are long, violent, extravagantly macho – and knee-high in snow. The chill in the auditorium comes not merely from the white landscapes but also from a remorselessness in the fibre of the film-making. Dogged endurance is simultaneously the subject of these movies and the only means by which they can be experienced.
The Revenant has its roots in the life of the explorer and fur trapper Hugh Glass, who was left for dead by his companions after being attacked by a bear in the American frontier region in the early 1820s. But it wouldn’t do to dwell on questions of factual accuracy. (An interview with Iñárritu in the press notes begins: “Though much of Glass’s story is apocryphal . . .”) The film’s priority is to evoke what it might feel like to be mauled, frostbitten, swept along in freezing rapids or hurled into the treetops after your horse gallops off a cliff. It will make chastening viewing for anyone who suffers psychological collapse over the merest deceleration in their broadband speed.
Glass, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is having a bad day at the office long before he meets his furry nemesis. When his trapping expedition is attacked by a Native American tribe, the film brings to the ambush the dumbfounding hurly-burly of the D-Day landings in Saving Private Ryan. Arrows whoosh into flesh with a dull thump. Warriors leap from horseback to throttle victims, only to be attacked, and for their attackers to be attacked, in a cycle of escalating grisliness. Just when you think that the bloodletting will never end, a giant blazing fir topples over with a fiery bang – as though nature itself were calling: “Cut!”
That is something Iñárritu didn’t have much cause to do in his last film, Birdman: he and the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki made us believe that this Best Picture Oscar-winner was filmed in a single two-hour take. The Revenant, also shot by Lubezki, doesn’t repeat the trick but there is no shortage of other daredevil stunts and spectacles. These would be all the more impressive if we couldn’t hear the film-makers applauding their own audacity.
Once or twice, it is possible to get lost in the displays of virtuosity. During the bear attack, all other thoughts are thrown from our minds by the frenzy of fur and claws, blood and bone, hair and teeth. So terrifying is the scene that it overshadows the meat of the film: Glass’s betrayal by his colleague John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and his stubborn efforts to defy death in order to crawl, limp and stagger home. The matter of whether he makes it – and what form his revenge will take if he does – becomes secondary to our fear that he will run into that bear’s more ill-tempered elder sister.
All too soon, we start to suspect that Iñárritu is making us do penance for the fun we had watching Birdman. Hardy’s snarling, knowingly hammy turn as the villain lifts the spirits but provides only the briefest reprieve from DiCaprio’s sanctimonious suffering. His is less a performance than a bout of prolonged wheezing: it would be accurate to say that most of his dialogue is pants.
Remarkably the movie shows no inkling that Glass’s situation – his long journey crawling on his belly, or inching along with broken bones and gangrenous flesh – teeters on the edge of macabre comedy. The whole thing recalls that old joke in which Christ on the cross beckons Peter to the top of Golgotha through untold obstacles, only to tell him finally: “I can see your house from here.” But here, there is no punchline. Mystical interludes in which Glass’s late wife materialises before him aren’t enough to quell the suspicion that the film, never less than visually magnificent, is almost entirely pointless: a shaggy-bear story at best.
Implicit in The Revenant is the suggestion that Glass’s spirituality urges him on. It also features the refrain: “Revenge is in the Creator’s hands.” There’s no such comfort in The Hateful Eight, which begins with the face of Christ largely concealed by snow. Hell has frozen over and heaven with it. Justice lies not with the Creator, but in the hands of an octet of sleazy individuals forced by the weather to take refuge in a draughty inn on a Colorado mountain pass.
Among them are two bounty hunters, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson) and John Ruth (Kurt Russell). The latter has in his custody Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an outlaw with a tendency to play sardonic, eye-rolling Gromit to her captor’s verbose Wallace. There is also a new sheriff (Walton Goggins) and a prim English hangman (Tim Roth). But as Ruth gets twitchy and increasingly protective of Daisy’s five-figure bounty, it becomes clear that not all of these people are who they say they are. Ennio Morricone’s feverish score has already promised mounting delirium. When doubts arise about the veracity of a letter apparently written to Warren by President Lincoln, the divide blurs between truth and lies, originals and forgeries.
It is a theme that has informed Tarantino’s film-making ever since his 1992 hit Reservoir Dogs, which featured a rat in the criminal ranks. The Hateful Eight is a minor conceit modelled on the single-location whodunnit popularised by Agatha Christie and filled with stock types whose self-regarding wit (“Keeping you at a disadvantage is an advantage I intend to keep”) is indulged at such length that one wonders if Tarantino is in on the bad joke. His once-sharp ear has turned to tin lately: Django Unchained, set in the 1850s, featured the phrase “no worries”, and The Hateful Eight includes multiple uses of the 21st-century addendum “not so much”. (As in: “I liked Reservoir Dogs. The Hateful Eight, not so much.”) If the characters are going to talk like that, go the whole hog and give them iPhones.
These are footling concerns compared to the three-hour running time, which renders the film nothing short of a folly. At a push, there might be enough colour, suspense and intrigue to sustain a 90-minute retelling of the same tale. And the director hasn’t completely lost his knack for choice details: a man plucking a chicken creates an accidental musical motif by striking piano keys with his elbow whenever he grabs another handful of feathers. But that’s pretty slim pickings over this sort of length. “Hateful” isn’t the word I would use. Wasteful sounds right – of our time and Tarantino’s talents.
“The Revenant” opens on 15 January
“The Hateful Eight” is on general release
This article appears in the 06 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The God issue