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American Nightmares, Part I: Old Frontiers… (The Revenant/The Hateful Eight)

Trying something new. Or rather something old. Been a while since we published an old-fashioned thinkpiece on here, and been thinking a lot about America as filtered through film in 2015-2016. We’ll be publishing a series of these articles in the coming week. If you’d like to see more of this sort of content, please comment or share or facebook or tweet, so we know you like it.

The United States of America is a relatively young country.

Like all other countries, it has its own history and mythology. As with many of those countries, that history and mythology intertwine. The European settlers may have inherited some of that mythology from their ancestors across the Atlantic or appropriated some from the indigenous population, but a lot of that history and mythology was cultivated wholesale. The American Dream. Manifest Destiny. The idea that this was a wild continent to be tamed through the sheer strength of will of those rugged early settlers.

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Britain has knights. Ireland has rebels. America has cowboys. It is tempting to look upon these archetypal mythic figures as something far removed from the modern day, something so far in the distant past that they may never have existed as all. Particularly given the historical decline of the western genre in recent decades, it is easy to consider the cowboy a historical artifact covered in centuries of dust and disconnected from the modern world. Billy the Kid does not seem so far removed from King Arthur, Wyatt Earp from Brian Boru.

Of course, the reality is much more complicated. The overlap between the history and mythology is striking; these stories seemed to be mythologised before they were allowed to fad into history. The Great Train Robbery was released in 1903, and generally considered to be the first cinematic western. Although past its prime, the era of the American frontier was still in progress. Oklahoma would only become a state in 1907, with Arizona and New Mexico would become states in 1912. There is a sense that the country was still forming as the mythology coalesced.

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Non-Review Review: The Revenant

The Revenant is a beautiful and visceral piece of work.

Sporting a troubled production history, The Revenant is surprisingly straightforward film. Based on the tale of famed fur trapper (and tall-tale-teller) Hugh Glass, The Revenant charts one man’s journey from near-death back to civilisation against the harsh and unforgiving American wilderness. The Revenant is essentially a journey in a straight line, as Glass struggles to find a way back to security and revenge himself upon his colleagues who left him for dead. The film’s biggest structural issues lie in a desire to distort or convolute that straight line.

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However, the fairly linear and straightforward plot is really just a framework for director Alejandro G. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to present the audience with striking vistas and symbolism that ranges from blindingly obvious to wilfully obtuse. The film is absolutely stunning, capturing its tone perfectly and presenting any number of memorable images and moments. Even when the visual trips sideways or backwards feel indulgent or unnecessary, they are still beautiful.

The Revenant is perhaps a little too fixated on over-complicating what is a fairly straightforward narrative, with a script that can seem unexpectedly obtuse for what is basically a single long chase movie crossed with a classic “man against nature” survival film. Nevertheless, the result is a striking piece of work that is awe-inspiring in visual (and visceral) terms.

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