This article contains spoilers for The Revenant and The Hateful Eight.
The Revenant and The Hateful Eight—both currently expanding to thousands of theaters after a limited release—are about as close to being “the same movie” as two fundamentally different movies are likely to get. What we’re talking about are two very long films about revenge in the snowy mountains of the American frontier, set in macho industries (fur trapping, bounty hunting) that are isolated and generally old-timey. The so-called civilized world is glimpsed only in outposts (a fort, a stagecoach stop) where men gather to drink, lie, and steal. Both movies are disgustingly gory in spots, and both push some kind of aesthetic extreme: The Revenant is a mood piece shot almost entirely outdoors using natural light, in which a lot of dialogue is unintelligible, and The Hateful Eight is a talky whodunit, set mostly in one barroom.
Both are artistic statements of the kind that happen when filmmakers are given carte blanche to do their thing. Both end with symbolic acts of retributive justice and flirt with nihilism. There’s only one major female role in each, and in both cases, there’s a band led by a close relation (a father, a brother) that’ll stop at nothing to get her back. And so on and so forth. There are little things, too: Both movies prominently feature lynchings, images of Christianity abandoned in the wilderness (a church, a cross), and scenes where characters catch snowflakes with their tongues. In both movies, bad guys speak French. A critic could knock out a half-dozen more paragraphs just running down all of the conceptual and cosmetic both ares, which might be fun to write and would be a breeze to read.
But what’s genuinely interesting about this twosome is how they’re really nothing alike. They are going into the same mythic American past, and passing by a lot of the same markers, but for very different reasons. And that’s the way it is with Westerns, which tend to be more similar than not, the side effect being that whatever makes a given movie special or unique gets highlighted. Westerns deal in individualism and community, lone figures and landscapes. They stage acts of principle against backdrops of rock and desert. Movies don’t have to be about anything, but it’s better when they are, and in a best-case scenario, Westerns are about how the people making them feel about the fundamentals of justice, moral sense, and the whole business of how people relate to and tolerate each other.
What’s frustrating about The Revenant—a mind-bogglingly expensive art film greenlit on the success of director/co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Best Picture winner Birdman—is that it doesn’t seem to be about much of anything, aside from an anti-humanist vision of the frontier landscape. Its Herzog-by-way-of-Tarkovsky viewpoint and transcendentalist overtones paint nature as equal parts cruel and metaphorically charged. This is a place where no man—and Iñárritu is working in that tradition where men stand in for humanity and women for everything else—is meant to survive, but which also serves as a gateway into the mystical unknown.
The title posits trapper Hugh Glass—who crawls hundreds of miles to kill the man who murdered his son—as an avenger returned from the afterlife. And what is Minnie’s, the tavern where most of The Hateful Eight is set, if not writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s version of hell, where badmen are trapped by snow, with only their worst urges, past misdeeds, and itchy trigger fingers to keep them company? Being a genre of myths, the Western is also a genre of demystification, and both The Revanant and The Hateful Eight look to the vaunted frontier past and find nothing but torment. Theirs is a cold and inhospitable West of racism, sadism, and sexual violence, where sin roams. This is the hell of the American past.
It’s possible to chart the development of film as an art form through visions of hell—which is to say, its evolution from a medium that showed audiences what they wanted to see to one that could confront them with what they didn’t. And the only reason someone would go to hell would be to find something there, except in the case of The Revenant. Despite its superb action set pieces and its metaphors of transformation (e.g., a bizarre re-birthing scene in which Glass crawls naked in and out of a dead horse), it reaches its end goal somewhere around what used to be called the opening reel. It takes viewers to a place, and keeps them there. Which brings up one of those ironic inversions that critics can’t resist: The Revenant is a movie about a journey of hundreds of miles that is basically one sustained mood, and The Hateful Eight is a movie about people literally going nowhere where just about everything constitutes a step toward the final scene.
What Tarantino’s Western drawing-room mystery does is take two of the most debated plot points of Pulp Fiction—the bogus Bible verse recited by hitman Jules and the mystery briefcase that he and his partner retrieve at the beginning of the movie—and combines them into one prop. This is the so-called “Lincoln letter,” purportedly one of several sent by Honest Abe to a bounty hunter named Marquis Warren. As a writer, Tarantino is what you’d call a dialogue guy, but he has a thing for visual aids (Old Ben’s skull in Django Unchained) and gag props (Hans Landa’s pipe in Inglourious Basterds), and The Hateful Eight has plenty of both. In a way, the movie is all props, given how much of it turns on clues both present (a broken door, an arm chair) and missing.
And the most important of these is the Lincoln letter, which provides the movie with its clearest through-line. If The Hateful Eight is about anything, it’s about this letter. It figures prominently in the dialogue, bringing out both the misty-eyed idealism of Warren’s colleague in the bounty trade, John Ruth (Kurt Russell), and serving to discredit the promise of America. This is, after all, a relic of Lincoln, the closest the United States has to a secular saint (and, by extension, a glint of godliness in The Hateful Eight’s hell), and it turns out to be a hoax. It symbolized the lengths Warren has to go to be treated civilly in a world run by white men’s fears, which is something The Hateful Eight doesn’t take the easy way on, given that Warren is the embodiment of those fears. It’s such a tricky rhetorical device that it comes as something of a shock that the text of the letter, which remains undisclosed for nearly three hours of screen time, gets read out loud in the final moments of the film.
It’s almost as though Pulp Fiction had ended with the briefcase being turned around to reveal its glowing contents. And it’s a credit to how much Tarantino’s sensibilities have developed over two decades that The Hateful Eight not only pulls this off, but that the reading of the letter ends up cinching the film. It’s the point that the film has been building to, much the same way as The Revenant spends its whole running time looping back to its first impressions of the frontier landscape as alien and mystical. The letter has a religious aura, not unlike the Old Testament pastiche that Jules (played, not coincidentally, by Samuel L. Jackson, who also plays Marquis Warren in The Hateful Eight) refers to as “Ezekiel 25:17” in Pulp Fiction.
Both the Lincoln letter and Jules’ passage—which comes nearly verbatim from the Sonny Chiba movie The Bodyguard—are aspirational: The letter describes the good and heroic man Warren knows he isn’t, while Jules’ passage positions him as a vengeful badass. And though The Revenant and The Hateful Eight are both death Westerns that set out to put the lie to some myths of the West, only The Hateful Eight finds something beyond meaninglessness and cruelty in its backstabbing and suffering. Having proven every word of it false, The Hateful Eight still takes the Lincoln letter as a source of comfort.
The world is ugly and mean and America isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but isn’t it beautiful that it can still bring itself to believe in things as pure as the idealized image of Lincoln? Both films take viewers to the underworld of the damned, but only The Hateful Eight ends by turning it eyes back up to the world of the living—which is to say, the present—having found a perverse sense of hope.