The Revenant (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

The Revenant (2015)

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Fur trappers push the American frontier against brutal environments and hostile natives to find their fortune in pelts.  Hugh Glass has lived in this frontier for years, tending to his son and still in mourning over his wife's death.  After a violent encounter with the wild Glass is left for dead and must rely on his frontier knowledge to push his body to vengeance.  Alejandro G. Iñárritu directs The Revenant from a screenplay written by Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith, and stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy.

I'll be reborn before longThere's a direct correlation between my interest in Alejandro G. Iñárritu's movies and how placid they are.  Birdman wasn't the brilliant film many of my contemporaries thought but it was an excellent way to spend an afternoon.  The same goes for Amores Perros, which hurtles into layers of Mexican society with such passion every scene feels vital.  With The Revenant Iñárritu is continuing his respected artist / insane genius act Birdman began but to diminishing returns.

The Revenant is an impressive piece of craftsmanship.  I don't want to diminish the film-making itself as Iñárritu and company went through absolute hell to get the story committed to film.  Tom Hardy is on hand to provide the superb supporting work he's excelled at and Leonardo DiCaprio gives a heart in hand physically and emotionally naked performance.  Then there's the climax, lord that climax, which sees two men battle each other in so brutal a fashion the closest analogue I have is from the bloody knife fight from David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises.

The craftsmanship is superb, but the end that craftsmanship serves is one I can't support.  Iñárritu is a deeply spiritual director and The Revenant is at once an exorcism of dark impulses and optimistic glimpse into the unknown.  However, the glimpse comes from delving into deeply troubling storytelling tropes and Iñárritu's willingness to flaunt the artificiality of the movie he so desperately wanted to be free from.  Iñárritu may be the only person on earth other than Werner Herzog who could have made The Revenant but he turns out to be his own worst enemy.

There's no shortage of gorgeous landscape shots which were absolute hell to film.

There's no shortage of gorgeous landscape shots which were absolute hell to film.

My growing discomfort with the artificiality of The Revenant began with an early swerve of the camera to avoid hitting a tree.  Sure there's a logical reason for swerving the camera as it would have collided with the tree.  But it reminded me of a shot from the Coen Brothers' Blood Simple where the camera lifts over a drunk passed out on the counter.  There's an inherent wink to the audience with those shots and, while that's fine on its own, is still a subtle reminder what we're seeing isn't "real".

Then those reminders come more frequently.  We see steam fog up the camera lens from the bear whose mouth is parked over the wounded Hugh Glass (DiCaprio).  There's always a reminder that the camera is a third-party and this makes some of Iñárritu's decisions odd.  Iñárritu starts cutting different shots of the landscape in as Glass begins his hellish journey home as almost a reminder that what we're seeing is taking place in the wilderness.  But from his previous camera movements and subtle reminders we know this isn't in the wilderness, and if DiCaprio were really about to die the lens of the camera would easily shut down before he would be airlifted out in a hurry.

Since Glass' peril is highlighted as a self-aware fictional construct I have to think about The Revenant more as a spiritual parable then a wilderness survival tale.  This is exactly where The Revenant is both despicable and successful.  My disgust comes from the overwrought way Iñárritu and coscreenwriter Mark L. Smith deploy the noble savage trope.  There is a lot of quasi-spiritual dialogue in The Revenant, and most of it comes from the indigenous tribes who are sacrificed to save Glass' life.  One galling sequence has a tribesman stop and give Glass a lift before sealing him in a cocoon to bring him back to life.  When we've returned the man has been hung, so his sole narrative function is to serve the white man with spiritual advice, heal him, then die.

This is pathetic storytelling deployed all throughout The Revenant.  Even when the tribes aren't interacting with Glass directly they're dying noble deaths or giving speeches about the whims of the Creator.  When we watch a French hunter rape a native woman the only reason we know her name is because of the bold spiritual nobility one of her kin gave in a speech earlier.  The natives aren't a force of nature but individuals whose bodies are presented as stepping stools to serve the white man.  Considering so much of The Revenant from the mid-point on is about Glass' spiritual quest for vengeance, and in light of our history of genocide against Native Americans, every part of The Revenant involving their presentation left a bad mark on my experience.

The best parts of The Revenant focus on the clash between Glass (DiCaprio) of the barely tamed frontier and Fitzgerald (Hardy) of cunning civilization.

The best parts of The Revenant focus on the clash between Glass (DiCaprio) of the barely tamed frontier and Fitzgerald (Hardy) of cunning civilization.

And yet - DiCaprio gives a performance so singular in focus and intensity it may be his best.  His desperation and anger seem directly at odds with the spiritual goings on of the visuals.  Had Iñárritu's storytelling delved more in this conflict of the raw violence of survival with the spiritual aims of the characters The Revenant might have been transcendent.  As it stands DiCaprio's character is written in a way which reinforces the noble savage as he is not as "corrupted" by civilization like his eventual nemesis John Fitzgerald (Hardy).

Hardy, for his part, embodies Fitzgerald with all the qualities Glass is not.  Fitzgerald is a man of desperate pragmatism in a world where his hunting guide is a quasi-spiritual mostly mute man.  His frustration with Glass was the most reasonable aspect of the movie and Hardy recites Fitzgerald's dialogue like a man who can't believe he has to lie or misdirect his companions just to survive.  In a way Hardy makes Fitzgerald the most honest character because of the deepening disdain in his voice.  He is vile, no mistaking that, but hints at another direction The Revenant could have gone as Fitzgerald has no time for the noble savage when he needs food more than the Creator or Jesus.

In the end, The Revenant meant little more to me than Hard to Be a God did.  The Revenant requires me to rewrite my ethical system to ignore the horrid tropes in play, much like Hard to Be a God forced me to empathize through film in a way I was not capable of.  Both are works of genius artists whose dreams are supplied with the resources needed to craft their worlds.  But I want no part of the noble savagery and profound disappointment of The Revenant.

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Tail - The RevenantThe Revenant (2015)

Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu.
Screenplay written by Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith.
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy.

Posted by Andrew

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