“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.