Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Revenant

Alternate Title:  The Montana Tourist Board Welcomes You...

One sentence synopsis:     After being horribly mauled in a vicious bear attack, a frontier trapper is abandoned to die by his comrades, and must find a way to survive long enough to take revenge.

Things Havoc liked: Another year is gone (quite a ways gone by the time you're all reading this), but as always, January leaves me in something of a pickle. On the one hand, I want to close the books on 2015's movies as soon as possible, the better to get started on another sterling round of Doldrums-season offerings (A Michael Bay movie about the Benghazi attacks? It's like Christmas stayed an extra month!), and the better to produce my yearly lists of praise and pain that I know some of you are waiting for. But on the other hand, with the glut of movies released at Christmastime, I always feel bad about drawing the year closed before I've had a chance to see some of the major films within it. I can't wait for all of them of course, that would push my end-of-year lists to March, but with the proviso that there are still a handful of films I have not seen that I probably should have (The Danish Girl, Brooklyn, and The Big Short among them), there was one in particular that I felt I had to see before I could credibly start making claims about what the "best" or "worst" movies of the year was. And for that movie, it's time to turn our attention back to Alejandro González Iñárritu.

Those of you who have been reading my reviews for a while know that Iñárritu was one of the first directors I ever watched for this project, when a Spanish-language film called Biutiful starring Javier Bardem rolled through my multiplex. Biutiful was a well-made, well-acted, horrifyingly-depressing film that I would have liked more had it not engendered a desire in its audience to go home and drink bottles of Percocet. His more recent film, Birdman (Or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), was a much better offering, a stylish, quirky actors' film showcasing a number of people I like and even a few I customarily don't. I liked Birdman, perhaps not as much as the Academy did, but it was a piece that grew in my mind as I thought about it more. And so when Iñárritu came back not a year later with a dense, atmospheric piece straight out of the Last of the Mohicans playbook, starring a couple of actors (Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy) that I love, and promising to place them in situations where they are allowed to "act" in the wider sense of the term, I was stoked. Also there's bears.

It is 1823, somewhere in the endless wilderness that will one day be called Montana, and Leonardo DiCaprio is a fur trapper and mountain man named Hugh Glass whose expedition is nearly massacred by a vengeful war party of Arikara indians. After a narrow escape by boat with a handful of men, DiCaprio tries to lead the remnants of the trapping party as well as his half-native son (newcomer Forrest Goodluck) back to the safety of a fort, only to accidentally stumble on a mother bear protecting her cubs, falling victim to one of the most gruesome and realistic animal attacks I've ever seen in a movie. Iñárritu is a nutcase, and this movie nearly turned into a Heaven's Gate-style disaster, when he insisted on not only filming on location but chronologically, weather and the tolerance of actors be damned. As a result, the bear attack in question featured a real, trained bear, proving once again that Leonardo DiCaprio is completely insane, and has been denied his recognition at the Oscars for long enough that he is willing to do literally anything to finally reach the mountaintop.

In fact, the whole movie could be subtitled "willing to do literally anything", as following the gruesome bear assault, Glass is left barely-alive (zing!), and entirely dependent on the rest of his party. With hostile tribesmen pursuing them, he winds up being abandoned in the woods by Tom Hardy, playing another mountain man, who callously leaves Leonardo to die of exposure and kills his son before his eyes when he tries to stop it. The movie then becomes a two-and-a-half hour festival of pain as DiCaprio painfully drags himself back to life and civilization, enduring one horrific necessity after another from cauterizing his own wounded throat with gunpowder, to ripping a horse carcass open to take shelter within it, to sudden ambushes by (and of) hostile natives or rival fur trappers, to a smorgasbord of all of the disgusting, raw, bleeding offal meat that one can encounter in the wilderness, with nothing but his own gritted teeth and matted beard and raving crazy-eyes to sustain him through. It's a transparent attempt at an Oscar grab by DiCaprio, who famously threw one of the great Hollywood tantrums of our time when the Academy (deservedly) snubbed him for Titanic, and has been trying to act his way back into their good graces ever since. But lest I sound too cynical, it's also one of the best performances of the year, if only for the evident misery that both character and actor went through to film it. Whatever else he might be, DiCaprio is a great actor, after all, and so is Tom Hardy, playing another veteran frontiersman desperate to get his money and get out of Montana in that order, and utterly unconcerned with who he might have to kill to do it. The character isn't evil so much as totally amoral, willing to kill to survive and get what he feels he needs, but never in a way that feels needless. Apart from an extended racist rant at the beginning of the film (something that would not make the character stand out at all in 1823), Hardy plays his character like someone who might well be a decent guy were he not stuck in wintertime Montana, trying to escape both a horde of righteously-angry natives, and Leonardo DiCaprio's inhuman rage-and-revenge-fueled survivalism.

I mentioned before that Iñárritu is insane, and he is, but he's also a sharp, visually-inventive director addicted to long-takes (Birdman was done up entirely as one of these) and gorgeous cinematography. For this purpose, Iñárritu works here, as he has in previous films, with legendary cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki Morgenstern, one of the most prolific art-cinematographers in the world, who regularly collaborates with Alfonso Cuarón, Terrence Malick, and the Coen Brothers. The result is a stark, beautiful film, bleak and evocative, with gorgeous, atmosphere-laden shots of the vastness of Montana's plains and mountains and forests and rivers, along with extended dream sequences showcasing tripy imagery, like the repeated motif of a bell still ringing defiantly within a ruined, abandoned church lost somewhere in the wilderness. Battle sequences, which are sparing but unreservedly brutal, are shot in close quarters, with the cameraman running through the proceedings as though trying not to get hit by the flying arrows and bullets (which may be true), while the hideous brutality of combat with knives, tomahawks, arrows, and muskets is showcased throughout, as blood stains the snow and gruesome injuries are lingered upon. A haunting, atonal score by experimental composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, with whom Iñárritu worked on Babel, completes the package, resulting in a film that has everything the Academy could ever want, except maybe a scene wherein an old white filmmaker saves the universe (those always help).

Things Havoc disliked: Back on the temporal plane though, Iñárritu has a habit of making movies that, whether or not they are actually too long, sure feel that way when you're watching them. Birdman, despite coming in at barely two hours in length, and despite the services of actors I love and material I respect, felt like it took half the night to finally end, and Iñárritu's earlier films, Babel and Biutiful in particular (does he have a thing for 'B' names?) felt even longer. The Revenant, meanwhile, actually is a long film, more than two and a half hours, and given the paucity of action (a couple of standout scenes) and lack of characters to follow or journeys for them to take (metaphorically-speaking), we spend a hell of a lot of time in this movie watching Leonardo DiCaprio suffer in the snow. I know that's the point of the movie, more or less, but the revenge element, played up so heavily in the marketing of the movie (the film's name is "Revenant" for God's sake), while present, really takes a back seat until the very end of the film. Granted, there's good reason for that, as merely surviving the Montana wilderness is a task and a half, but despite everything, the best actors of the cast and crew and a director who is legitimately insane in very interesting ways, the film is... inescapably boring, at least for long stretches.

And part of the reason for that is that DiCaprio's character, whom we are following through this awful ordeal, never gets the same opportunity to characterize himself the way Tom Hardy's does. Part of that is the unavoidable fact of being stuck alone in the wilderness for most of the runtime, but there's also the extended flashback and dream sequences I referenced earlier, which while pretty, really clarify nothing. This speaks to a larger problem with Iñárritu as a director, which is that he has no idea how to actually tell a story in ways that mortals are supposed to comprehend, leaving everything up to interpretation that requires the audience to do most of the work. So it was with Birdman, wherein the main character was occasionally insane, possibly hallucinating, or perhaps actually possessed of magical superpowers that nobody else knows anything about, or Biutiful, which had an extended Magical Realism sequence in the middle of the film that made no sense, alongside a weird conceit that the main character worked as a spirit-whisperer who talks to presumably-real-ghosts, all in the middle of a bitingly-real story of a man dying of cancer, illegal immigration, and the criminal world. Granted, both of those movies worked, despite or perhaps because of the lack of specificity, but Revenant, at least in part, represents a step too far. Instead of characterization of the man we are spending most of the movie watching suffer, we get disjointed scenes of moments from his past wherein he met a native woman, had a son, killed a man, and perhaps did other things I couldn't quite figure out. It's not that these scenes are totally abstract (though a recurring image of a pyramid of buffalo skulls feels like a Tarsem-style director jumping up and down begging for people to ask him what it means), but they reveal nothing about the character beyond what we already knew, that DiCaprio is mad because his son is dead, and because dying alone in the wilderness sucks, conceptions that I'm confident most audiences can figure out for themselves. Contrast this to The Grey, 2012's movie about Liam Neeson fighting wolves in Alaska, which was a movie that got a lot more out of similarly-stark imagery, surreal flashbacks, and limited characterization. It also had Liam Neeson punching wolves.

Final thoughts:    The Revenant is a movie that I expect will earn DiCaprio his long-awaited Oscar, which he deserves. I also expect it will earn Iñárritu another round of Academy accolades, including Best Director and Best Picture, which if I am being honest, neither of them do. It is a good, solid movie, by a talented, visionary director, but the stuff of best of the year it is not, though whether the old white men of the Academy see things that way is a question we shall have to postpone a little while. That all said, I enjoyed watching Revenant, though some of you with more squeamish tastes may not, and I can't complain overmuch if a bunch of good actors and a good director get together to try and make an Oscar-caliber film. Not even if they fail.

Besides, I've gotta have something to complain about during this year's awards.
Final Score:  7/10

Next Time:  The Best Films of 2015

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