Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Revenant

2 Stars

In folklore, a revenant is a reanimated corpse that rises from its grave in order to torment and drink the blood of the living. It is some hybrid of a vampire and our modern conception of a zombie. The Revenant is like the reanimated corpse of its director's (Alejandro G. Inarritu) last film, Birdman. Like Birdman, The Revenant features a highly mobile camera capturing long unbroken takes of extensive scenes. Unfortunately, The Revenant's story doesn't fit this style of camera work which makes it incredibly distracting.

The Revenant purports to be based on the true story of actual historical frontiersman and fur trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio). Glass was mauled by a bear sometime in the 1820s, abandoned by his men, Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Bridger (Will Poulter), but rallies. He manages to not only survive, but hunt down the people who abandoned him. The Revenant is the story of his vengeance quest.

Except that it really, really isn't. The Revenant has no interest in telling the story of Hugh Glass. It is more important, and exists only for the purpose, of winning its lead actor a golden statue. This truth can most clearly be seen in two consecutive scenes that appear about halfway through the film. In the first, Glass catches a fish and eats it raw, while standing right next to a crackling campfire. He then passes out from pain or exhaustion, or just because the scene needs to be over. When he awakens, he hears a noise a little ways up hill. He crawls/drags himself up the hill and encounters a Pawnee man who has killed a bison. The Pawnee man gives him a raw bison liver. Glass eats it raw while lit by the light of a HUGE crackling campfire!!!! Now, why would Glass do this? Does he enjoy his meat raw? No, he actually vomits when the raw liver touches his lips. So, the only possible reason for Glass to eat his meat raw while standing next to two campfires was so that the actor who plays him could brag about how hard this movie was to make in order to win an Oscar.

And that's the problem with this whole movie. The Revenant should be called "Leonardo DiCaprio will now do literally anything to win an Oscar. Seriously, anything." And that leads to a bigger question - why? Why was it necessary for Leonardo DiCaprio (and presumably the rest of the cast) to endure such bitter cold and harsh conditions in order to make this movie? Isn't DiCaprio one of our great actors? Shouldn't he be capable of conveying his character's ordeal without actually living through it? Or, more to the point, why was it necessary for him to actually endure bitter cold rather than to actually be mauled by an actual bear? My mind was filled with these questions as The Revenant flicked across the screen.

It's even more unfortunate. The legend of Hugh Glass is not well known, but it's been told and retold hundreds of times since the 1820s. In my favorite version, Glass tracks Fitzgerald across the plains, forests, and mountains of the American frontier only to learn that Fitzgerald has enlisted in the military. Killing a member of the military would almost certainly mean capture and apprehension for Glass, and so, after all of that effort, he is forced to forego his vengeance because it has become impractical. Imagine that, for a moment, surviving all those terrible, impossible things - only to be denied vengeance because exacting it would virtually guarantee that you would be hung by the neck until dead.

The Revenant does not quite tell this version of the legend (so I've spoiled nothing). The Glass depicted by Inarritu and DiCaprio has nothing to live for beyond his vengeance. They make that much clear, so it is incredibly puzzling at the end of the film when Glass chooses to forego his vengeance because a Pawnee man said something spiritual to him one time. (Okay, now I've spoiled something). Of course, there's a story there too. Glass has an encounter with the Pawnee man who teaches him that there is more to life than vengeance. The very fact that he survived must mean that his life should be about more than killing those who abandoned him? This spiritual journey could have been powerful. It could have given DiCaprio something to act out - a character arc to bring to life - instead the decision about whether to seek vengeance is confined to a single moment - mere frames in this long monstrosity of a film. Instead of a character to play, DiCaprio is given a test to endure. Which will make it a huge crime if he wins the Oscar for this.

There were some positive aspects to The Revenant. It looks gorgeous. I mean it. It is absolutely stunning, filled with dramatic vistas and frightening frozen forests. The camera work is predictably stellar, and I particularly liked the much praised sequence near the beginning of the film where a band of Arikara warriors ambushes Glass and his companions (even if I thought the CGI horses that did not react to the fact that arrows were being shot right past them was a bit distracting). Tom Hardy gives a great performance here, and Will Poulter who younger viewers (if there are any) will recognize from The Maze Runner was excellent as Bridger. I also admired Ryuichi Sakamoto's score with its crying strings.

Unfortunately, Inarritu never found a story worth telling in The Revenant, which I suppose is something of an achievement given that The Revenant is a story that Americans have been retelling to one another for literally generations. I can't recommend The Revenant. The 2 Star rating I've given it is merely a recommendation of how competently this mess was photographed.

From Out in the Void


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