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The Remaking of the American West

‘The Hateful Eight’ and the ‘Revenant’ upend the racial politics of the Hollywood western.

The Weinstein Company

American cinema has dealt with the Confederacy by giving its former soldiers guns and free reign to kill Native Americans. Quentin Tarantino doesn’t think that’s quite right.

The Western genre, Tarantino understands, has always been about race—specifically, about this country’s relationship with Native Americans. It’s curious, though, that Westerns seldom feature black people. Look at The Searchers, for example, perhaps the most prominent and prototypical film in the genre. John Wayne plays a former Confederate soldier, but the only characters in the movie are white or Native American.

Tarantino wants to change the Western. His past three films—Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, and now The Hateful Eight—all belong to the genre, exploded and assembled according to Tarantino’s vision. He knows all of the genre’s components expertly, and the lawlessness of the frontier and occupied Europe are perfect places for him to invent his own universe on screen—with an extra splash of blood. With just three films, he has made perhaps the greatest mark on the Western genre of the twenty-first century.

The Hateful Eight takes place a few years after the Civil War and in Wyoming, with a snowstorm blotting out the sun. Samuel L. Jackson, who played an Uncle Tom in Django Unchained, plays Major Marquis Warren, a former Union major. He’s now a bounty hunter, and hitches a ride with fellow bounty hunter John Ruth—played by Kurt Russell with a languid drawl that recalls John Wayne’s—to the town of Red Rock. Ruth has a captive, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, in tow. He’s bringing her to Red Rock to be hanged, and while she’s alive, she functions as both a nuisance and some weird conduit of the twisted morality of the West. It’s not okay to mercy kill her—that’s the law’s job—but it is okay to rough her up when she opens her mouth.

On their way to Red Rock, the bounty hunters and their stagecoach driver take shelter from a blizzard at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a travelers’ lodging. It’s populated with all the sorts of characters you expect to see in a Western: a hangman, a former Confederate general, a sheriff—but they all seem to be harboring their own secrets.

The Reconstruction-era west, of course, is the terrain of the Western. But already, Tarantino subverts expectations. Instead of using his much-ballyhooed 70mm film print for sunny vistas, we’re snowed-in in a cabin, watching things play out like an Agatha Christie story.

But shirking expectations is a superficial way to understand how Tarantino so thoroughly capsizes genre. A Western movie isn’t just a posse of cowboys and bounty hunters assembled into a story. It’s a movie that has cowboys and six shooters and is about the taming of the frontier. In human terms, that usually means killing Native Americans, fighting their savagery so that the white man can civilize the land. In The Searchers, for example, Native Americans scalp and steal white people. One tribe pillages a family’s home and kidnaps one of their young girls. John Wayne spends years tracking the tribe down, looking for his niece, viewing every Native American he meets with contempt or suspicion. When they are not violent, they’re mocked as being “other,” present to be the victims of cruel jokes. (Whether John Ford understood Native Americans the way his characters did is a more complicated matter.)

Quentin Tarantino’s racial concerns lie elsewhere. He leaves Native Americans out of his Westerns. It’s an almost perplexing decision for someone who’s known for challenging genre conventions. One would expect that he’d follow up Jewish and black revenge fantasies with a Native American one. But no matter, he still has two movies left to make.

Seemingly by dint of coincidence, Alejandro González Iñárritu has his own frontier movie this year. And while it denies the trappings of a genre film more vehemently than The Hateful Eight, The Revenant is a movie set in the west and it, too, is about race. Remarkably, it deals directly with American Cinema’s Native American problem, though not with the Western genre.

The Revenant’s main character is Hugh Glass. His son is half Native American, and he’s either hated or met with ambivalence by everyone he meets except for his father. As in John Maclean’s Slow West—another Neo-Western released this year—the sole Native American character serves as a question: What if a Native American could be integrated into a white family? The answer never turns out well.

Instead, Tarantino’s movies have what John Ford’s didn’t and what Iñárritu’s doesn’t: black people. The savages who need to be civilized aren’t Native Americans, they’re the people who are supposed to be doing the civilizing, those formerly allied with slavery, the remnants of the Confederacy. Tarantino demonstrates this dynamic most plainly in “Django Unchained,” where Django plays the noble warrior and Calvin Candie and his goons are the wicked people corrupting society. Django is there to do the civilizing. It ends in a spectacular explosion of bloodshed.

The dynamics aren’t too far off in The Hateful Eight. With Django Unchained, Tarantino played the racial dynamic plainly by setting the story on a plantation in the antebellum south. He calls it a “Southern.” The Hateful Eight, on the other hand, takes place in Wyoming, and after the Civil War. Slavery is over, but former members of the Confederacy still live in America, and they’re not happy to be locked in a cabin with a black man who killed dozens of their fellow soldiers. As in Django Unchained, the dynamic can’t hold. Something needs to explode. But this is a Tarantino movie. So before the guns are drawn, shots are fired with words. According to the hangman in the room, played by Tim Roth, true justice can only be meted with the dispassion of the law, not the wildness of the West. Tarantino is up to the challenge. The tension starts bubbling as soon as someone places the kettle on the stove.

In terms of their racial preoccupations, Tarantino’s Westerns aren’t in line with other recent Westerns— the so-called Neo-Westerns—which discard the question of racism in explicit terms, or omit the subject altogether. Native Americans are either entirely absent—like in Unforgiven and True Grit — or have their role in the genre subverted or recast as something else. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada has Mexican immigrants, an “other” whose land is ruined, and who would prefer to join the United States if it would have them. In Rango, literal cartoon villains take their place. And in Meek’s Cutoff, the sole Native American character is an enigmatic remainder of a great nation, ultimately alien and inaccessible, and only understood through preconceived notions of his savagery. Maybe it’s a metaphor for the state American cinema left Native Americans in.

The Western, and genre more broadly, is not just a bunch of clichés waiting to be reversed or subverted or mucked up. The best definition of the term comes from Thomas Schatz who, in his essay “Film Genre and the Genre Film” defines genre as a set of narrative components that deliver meaning—something like a language. According to Schatz, a genre film celebrates its values in a particular, systematic way. It goes something like this: There’s an established system of values, characters disrupt those values, and, through conflict with other characters, intensify the disruption. The conflict is eventually resolved with the elimination of the ideological threat, and the well-ordered community is celebrated for it. Sometimes, the agent that resolved the conflict can’t stick around in the community, because he or she carries some part of the conflict. In Westerns, this means our hero needs to ride off from the town and into the sunset.

This system works from everything from Star Wars to Legally Blonde. For Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, though, Tarantino can’t let it work. The established system of values is fundamentally wrong, because it is premised on slavery and racism. Abraham Lincoln is a touchstone among the characters of The Hateful Eight, but he is also long dead. In the case of Inglourious Basterds, the community is based on antisemitism and occupation. These communities cannot stand; they need to be torn apart.

That all fits with Tarantino’s trademark artificiality—in this movie’s case, the elaborate violence and Ennio Morricone’s overwrought Giallo score. With The Hateful Eight and Django Unchained, the film’s system of values doesn’t need to be preserved. The audience’s does. We know (hopefully) that slavery and racism are bad. The movie, set within a culture of slavery and racism, disrupts our values. Our heroes disrupt the ideological threat by neutralizing the baddies who cling to the Confederacy. Django rides off into the sunset while we exit the theater, smiling now that the racists have been shot.

It’s precisely that artificiality, though, that exposes some of the problems of “The Hateful Eight. Debate about Tarantino’s use of the N-word in his screenplays may have merit, or not. But when he uses it in Pulp Fiction, it carries a very different meaning than when he uses it in Django Unchained or The Hateful Eight.

In both films, Tarantino uses it as a phrase to play with, to fit within the flow of his dialogue. When his movie is set in close proximity to slavery, though, it becomes a bit more tired. 12 Years a Slave may have merited its use for the sake of realism. Every time a white man uses it, it stings. In The Hateful Eight and Django Unchained, every character—as with every Tarantino movie—is speaking the same artificial Tarantino dialogue. There are no pretensions for realism to be made here. It’s just Tarantino saying the word, over and over again.

The usage of the word undercuts the more obvious point of The Hateful Eight and Django Unchained—to present a world where black men triumph and evil white dudes suffer. In Tarantino’s vision, there are also good white dudes, like Kurt Russell’s character in the former and Christoph Waltz’s character in the latter. In Tarantino’s view, he’s a lot like one of those guys: enlightened, on the right side of history, and here to show his support. It’s revealing, though, that those characters are also their own people with their own goals. Tarantino, too, has his own goals for his movies, and they don’t necessarily run in tandem with his black leading men. He wants to indulge in his language, to enjoy the power of his words and wield them like weapons. He doesn’t really care where the bullets land.

One state over and a few years earlier, Hugh Glass, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, trudges through the snow. The Revenant—like Django Unchained, Inglourious Basterds, and The Searchers—is a revenge movie. But unlike the others, its protagonist seeks revenge against an individual, not a society. Glass goes hunting for a man who left him for dead after he was mauled by a bear.

As Glass travels through Montana and the Dakotas, he passes through the remains of several Native American villages torched by white men. It stands in chilling contrast to the opening scene, where his hunting party is attacked by a band of Native American fighters. He tells his son, Hawk, who is half Native American, to remain unheard so that he’ll be safe among the white travelers. Hawk would prefer to speak rather than to be an object defined by the white men around him. Westerns don’t give Native Americans a chance to define themselves—they’re on screen to be tamed—but Iñárritu gives Hawk that opportunity. In several crucial scenes when his father is too hurt to do anything, he moves the story rather than letting the story move him.

Glass’s foil in the story is a Native American chief looking for his daughter, who was kidnapped by white men. He either fights bands of white men when he sees them, or tries to deal with them to make his way one step closer to her. It’s an astounding racial reversal of The Searchers, where John Wayne’s character fights and deals with bands of Native Americans to find his niece.

That is to say, while Tarantino uses the narrative components of the western genre to tackle race differently, he doesn’t address American Cinema’s Native American problem. Iñárritu manages to address American Cinema’s Native American by shirking the genre altogether. All we have is that cold expanse in the west, full of mystery. There’s a huge frontier out there, and it’s ripe for exploration. What filmmakers find if they travel there is bound to be astounding, even if the journey is a challenge.