By Sergi Sánchez
When William Munny left behind the rainy night after having perpetrated his revenge, he did so like a zombie abandoning a place he had once considered his home. The last violent episode in Unforgiven, illuminated from a darkness so linked to Eastwood’s films –and already rehearsed with the deliberate obscurantism of Pale Rider–, managed to disconnect westerns from Peckinpah and his acolytes’ crepuscular hyperrealism to take it precisely to the other side of the mirror, the fantasy side. From his visionary legacy arises a contemporary approach to westerns, between extravagant and ghostly, that seems to be here to stay.
Eastwood found the way, from the standpoint of his usual neoclassicism, not to re-create the genre -it’s clear that it would never be what it had been-, but to resurrect it, to turn it into a revenant, someone coming back from the dead. It isn’t strange, thus, that González Iñárritu, with his typical thirst for transcendence, has entitled his last movie The Revenant. This isn’t the moment to discuss the quality of his effort, but the links that his main protagonist, a wild trappers’ guide, has with the other world, not only in the shape of recurrent mystic visions but, literally, because he’s back from the dead. Thus, if westerns tell the story, by definition, of the origin of America as a myth, the interest of The Revenant comes precisely from choosing a zombie as the genetic code of its story. Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) has had a child with an Indian woman and all his hallucinations have to do with her; that is, Glass becomes the bridge between natives and colonisers at the same time that he intermittently projects the film over the trompe l’oeil of a strange universe, inappropriate for an ecological western such as Jeremiah Johnson, to which it seems to refer to naturally.
Something similar seems to happen with The Hateful Eight, in which Quentin Tarantino transforms his adoration for sub-genres into an unexpected combination between the most political dimension of the western with the most demented giallo (we’re not that far from Mario Bava’s Reazione a catena) and the low cost splatter (take as an example the generous bloody vomits and the basement’s trap door in The Evil Dead). Not in vain, the film starts like a classic from Hammer, with a long shot of a carriage advancing through a frame presided, at first term, by a crucifix half-buried in the snow. A lover of spectacular structures, Tarantino divides the film in two halves, one focused on the word, and the other on an ineffable explosion of explicit violence the excesses of which tie the film to a space that is closer to horror movies -that devil-coloured Jennifer Jason Leigh!- than western. It doesn’t matter whether The Hateful Eight takes place at an inn and deprives the spectator from the typical majestic landscapes of the genre, and that in it we find ransom bounty hunters, gunmen, diligences and new sheriffs. The second half is a celebration of irrationality, a supernatural invocation of the monsters of the Id of America’s foundation myth that Tarantino brilliantly synthesises in a (fake) letter by Lincoln stained in blood, a true MacGuffin in this lunatic western.
Indeed, it would seem that contemporary westerns are ruled by the Moon’s erratic behaviour, the symbolic value of which unites the feminine with the fierce dynamics of madness. We shouldn’t be surprised, thus, to see that Imperator Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road completely steals the place of Max Rockatansky in the film’s gravity centre, since it’s an apocalyptic western in its own right, although it could be seen as well, why not, as a darker than petrol version of Westward the Women. The extravagances of George Miller’s film can be counted by the thousands, but what’s left in his hyperbolic fusion of genres is, precisely, its marked femininity, understood as that lunar zone in which tenderness and irrationality find a solid balance. We’ve just mentioned William A. Wellman’s classic, which will be handy as well to talk about the undermined and excellent The Homesman, in which Hillary Swank interprets what could be an ancestor of Imperator Furiosa, with a more prudish aspect but no less determination. Tommy Lee Jones’ film includes few creepages and they all come from the same fertile ground, the one of female madness taken to its maximal expression, typical of a Brönte sisters Gothic novel. The first part of the film is marked by several incursions to the other side of reality, where there’s no padded rooms to suffocate your screams, and the prevailing nightmarish atmosphere permeates the whole length of the movie. If Tarantino’s revisionism dyes the American myth with blood, Jones’ turns it into a hopeless and travelling loony bin.
It’s an unusual way to project an essentially materialistic genre, the multiple revisitations of which have been advertised in many occasions by taking the name of neoclassicism in vain, in a weird, phantasmagoric and deliberately ahistorical atmosphere. Before the explicit derivation towards cannibal horror cinema, as if the mis en scène of the “return of the repressed” in The Hills Have Eyes made sense again far from 1960s America, a film like Bone Tomahawk, by S. Craig Zahler, expresses continuous digressions on topics as eccentric as flea circuses to stylize the story and break the western’s rigid model. This is what does too, for example, Slow West, by combining the brutal violence bursts with a mise en scène of a Martian lyricism starred, by the way, by another, revenant who full of bullets finally becomes the only survivor of a brutal massacre and who by being present restores the possibility of a family order.