Why Westerns Are Tragically More Relevant Than Ever

'The Hateful Eight' and 'The Revenant' may be set in the past — but they're stories about today

Samuel L. Jackson in Quentin Tarantino's new Western 'The Hateful Eight.' The film is part of a new wave of Westerns that reflect on our nation's violent present. Credit: Andrew Cooper

Where life had no value, death had its price."

So begins Sergio Leone's For a Few Dollars More, the film's opening title card succinctly setting the scene for the carnage to come. And yet, for all of its ominous portent, the preface betrays a certain shortsightedness: Just because the film is set in the past doesn't mean that it should speak in the past tense. More than 40 years have elapsed since that spaghetti Western first hit theaters — and more than 100 since the twilight of the late 19th Century frontier that it depicts. But life still has no value. Death still has its price. 

We live in a country where there are officially more guns than there are people, where gun violence seems nearly as prevalent in movie theaters as it is on movie screens, and where a significant portion of the populace is subject to so much acquitted violence that a national movement is required just to reinforce the fact that their lives matter. Life is tenuous, and death is a closed circuit of ritualized forgetting. In a Leone film, a saloon shooting would be followed by a short hush before a sharp look from the proprietor would urge the piano player to resume hammering away at the keys. Today, we wait for the news to churn through 24-hour cable networks and be regurgitated through the "thoughts and prayers" of Presidential candidates.

In searching for a narrative through-line to connect our nation's recent spate of violent tragedies (i.e. the murder of Michael Brown, the assault on the Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, etc.) and the political sideshow that provokes and perpetuates them in equal measure, there's only one thing that more fundamentally binds them together than guns: genre. 

It's 2015, and the United States of America is more of a Western than ever.

As if on cue, a swell of new oaters has tumbled into view this year to prove as much, and each of them in their own way plays less like a period piece than it does a mirror. In addition to spirited indies like Slow West, The Keeping Room, and Bone Tomahawk, the two most significant new contributions both galloped into theaters on Christmas Day. Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight is a microcosm of modern America: A racially diverse and morally ambiguous coterie of suspicious characters are stranded together in a log cabin during a fierce Wyoming whiteout, each paranoid about their safety in a shared spaced that ultimately doesn't belong to any of them. As the tense and tangled stalemate between them is inflamed by suspicion, racism, and residual dramas from the recent Civil War, the brittle crust of harmony starts to crack. An armed society begins to seem less like a polite society than it does a recipe for mutually assured destruction.

America is the only country in the world that was founded upon an idea, rather than an ethnicity (though it's one of many countries that was founded over an ethnicity). That idea — some people may need to be reminded — was to establish a place where all people, regardless of race or creed, could live together in peace as equals. Time and again across its three hours, The Hateful Eight reflects on how Westerns have always hinged on the idea that justice cannot exist without equality, and equality cannot exist without justice. The category is too big and unwieldy to unify with a single thesis, but from landmarks like The Searchers to off-shoots like Bad Day at Black Rock, these films have consistently argued that when only some lives have value, no lives have value (and death has its price).

Naturally, Tarantino's protagonist in The Hateful Eight is a bounty hunter. The film's only black character, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) is a hero on one side of the Mason-Dixon line and a boogeyman on the other. His unlikely ally is a rabid racist named Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) who claims to be the new sheriff of Red Rock, even if he doesn't yet have the star to prove it.

Mannix is such a fascinating character because his growth into someone worthy of a badge hinges on the realization that there are no good guys and bad guys in Minnie's Haberdashery, only people who've deluded themselves into thinking that they know the difference. Without capitulating to the prejudiced horse shit of #AllLivesMatter, The Hateful Eight insists that a country predicated on tolerance cannot possibly be maintained through murder. Tarantino is cinema's reigning poet of stylized violence, but he nevertheless understands that America wasn't intended to be a country where everyone needs a gun, but rather one in which nobody does.

In a recent New York Times article titled "White Debt," writer Eula Biss confronted the guilt of her racial privilege in a personal essay that could be used to explain Tarantino's own controversial preoccupation with blackness, and help affirm the sincerity of the director's participation in an October protest against police brutality. At one point, Biss quotes from Bettina Bergo and Tracey Nicholls' I Don't See Color: "When the laws that bind a community apply differently to different members of the community, then privilege undermines the solidarity of the community."

That logic, that emphasis on the value of every single life, is also at the grizzled heart of Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu's The Revenant. The story of an early 19th Century fur trapper named Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) who's mauled by a bear and left to die by colleague John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), the film is fascinating for the careful escalation of its stakes. In the 2002 Michael Punke novel on which the movie is based, Fitzgerald simply steals Glass' stuff; he's too much of a coward to kill the guy, so he merely deprives our hero of his hope for survival. In Iñárritu's more topical version, Glass is accompanied by his half-Pawnee teenage son, who is dismissively stabbed to death in the name of moving the plot forward.

The Revenant is a formative American story by virtue of how it balances the scales between the privileged and the dispossessed. Fitzgerald is Donald Trump insisting that we stop allowing Muslims to enter this country. He's Marco Rubio saying that he would overturn Obama's executive orders on LGBT nondiscrimination. He's the Republican Party refusing to call Robert Lewis Dear — or any white mass-murderer — a terrorist. He's the St. Louis County grand jury acquitting Darren Wilson. He's people in power deciding that the Constitution only applies to them. The history of the United States teaches us how easy it is to get away with murder, but its future hinges on making it more difficult, even for men like Fitzgerald.

"It ain't so easy to kill a man," cautions Gene Hackman in 1992's Unforgiven, the veteran actor playing the sheriff of a 19th Century Wyoming town in which guns and criminals are equally unwelcome. Those words sound like the stoic pronouncement of a Western hero resigned to the violence he knows is heading his way, but "Little" Bill Daggett — who agrees to pardon two cowboys for disfiguring a prostitute so long as they pay a petty sum to her pimp — is hardly the paragon of morality that his chintzy badge might suggest. On the contrary, he's a virulent sadist who, like so many American men who have fancied themselves fit to execute the law.

Of course, Daggett lived in the time of six-shooters — he couldn't imagine assault rifles. He could never have imagined Sandy Hook or San Bernardino. He knew that while killing a man may not be easy, it sure as shit ain't that hard, neither. But he could never have imagined just how easy it would become; just how easy we've allowed it to be.