Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Movie Review: The Revenant

The Revenant
Directed by: Alejandro G. Iñárritu.
Written by:  Mark L. Smith & Alejandro González Iñárritu based in part on the novel by Michael Punke.
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio (Hugh Glass), Tom Hardy (John Fitzgerald), Domhnall Gleeson (Captain Andrew Henry), Will Poulter (Bridger), Forrest Goodluck (Hawk), Paul Anderson (Anderson), Kristoffer Joner (Murphy), Joshua Burge (Stubby Bill), Duane Howard (Elk Dog), Melaw Nakehk'o (Powaqa), Fabrice Adde (Toussaint), Arthur RedCloud  (Hikuc), Christopher Rosamond (Boone), Robert Moloney (Dave Stomach Wound), Lukas Haas (Jones), Brendan Fletcher (Fryman), Tyson Wood (Weston), McCaleb Burnett (Beckett). 

The Revenant is a brutal and bloody – a film that works best when it sticks to its genre roots, as a violent revenge saga, and stumbles when it tries to be about more than that. The director is Alejandro G. Innaritu, whose filmography may just be the most miserable of any director working today – I don’t mean that his films are bad, just that his view of life seems to be that’s its just one horrible thing after another. His debut, Amores Perros, is probably his best – it’s as dark as the rest, but has more energy – and seems to embrace its own ridicilousness. From there, things got more dire with 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful – even last year’s Birdman, a comedy, was once again about the horribleness of life – something that only brave artists (like say Innaritu) are able to explore. Yes, it was pretentious – but damn it, if the film wasn’t a visual marvel – and a brilliantly acted on at that, so it’s easy to forgive its excesses. The story in The Revenant is a relatively simple one –man gets wronged and goes to great lengths to get revenge. But in the hands of Innaritu the film becomes an epic of survival, and a confused examination of the white man’s relationship and exploitation with Native Americans. It is one of the best looking movies of the year – with amazing cinematography – and a film that has moments as great as anything you will see at the movies – and demands to be seen on the big screen – yet is also way overlong, muddled and confused – a movie that adds up to much less than the sum of its parts.

The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass – who is working with a group of fur traders on the American frontier in the early 1800s alongside his son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), a “half breed” – a product of Glass’ tragically short lived marriage to a Pawnee woman, seen only in flashbacks that strain for Terrence Malick like dreamscapes. Things look beautiful for all of about 3 minutes, before the Arikara Indiains attack them, in a brilliantly executed, bloody as hell battle sequence – that kills many of the white men, and send the rest of them running. To make matters worse for Glass, he is soon mauled by a bear (another brilliant, bloody sequence – although this one probably goes on too long) – and is eventually left behind by the rest of the group in the hands of Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who already hates Glass and a cowardly kid (Will Poulter) – alongside Hawk. Needless to say, things get even worse – but Glass refuses to die, not matter how sensible it would be for him to do so – and is instead hell-bent on revenge on Fitzgerald.

The film is based on the historical novel by Michael Punke, but certainly takes liberties with the novel – Hawk for example was not in novel. By giving Glass a son, the movie makes him an even more sympathetic character, which is somewhat understandable, but also makes him a proxy stand-in for the evils the white man did to the Native Americans, which is less forgivable. This is a movie that pays lip service to the plight of the Native Americans – but that doesn’t extend to making any of them a three-dimensional character. To be fair though, DiCaprio’s Glass isn’t much of a three-dimensional character either. His performance is essentially one misery after another after another – he spends almost the entire movie by himself, saying little, and surviving one damn thing after another that should kill him. DiCaprio gives a committed, physical performance to be sure – but it’s kind of sad to think that one of the great actors of our time – who has delivered many legitimately great performances (Catch Me If You Can, The Aviator, The Departed, Revolutionary Road, Shutter Island, Django Unchained, The Wolf of Wall Street, etc) is probably going to win an Oscar for one his least complex performances. The best performance in the movie is clearly by Tom Hardy, who embraces the racism and violence of Fitzgerald – who is the only character I feel the audience really gets to know and understand by the end of the film.

I have problems with The Revenant to be sure. The film adds some magical realism to the mix, and is prone to blowing up little moments into the grandiose moments that don’t really add much to the film. The film runs nearly three hours, and not a whole lot happens in it. Yet, there are moments are great as anything you will see this year – and the cinematography by the great Emmanuel Lubezki truly is stunning – favoring long tracking shots that often remain close to the characters face, it truly is amazing. Yet, when the film goes grandiose and strains for larger meaning, it loses its way. The presence of Lubezki cannot help but recall another movie about the White Man and Native Americans – Terrence Malick’s brilliant The New World (2005), which earns its larger themes because it takes them seriously. Innaritu has grafted them onto a simple revenge story that cannot support it.

I still think you should see The Revenant – especially on the big screen, where the best moments will work better than on even the best home theater system. The film is hugely ambitious, and though it comes up far short of those ambitions, and at times can be a difficult slog to get through, what works about the film makes up for what doesn’t. A little helpful hint though – leave with a couple minutes left in the film – the final shot in the movie is so ridiculous, I couldn’t help but laugh. That isn’t precisely the note the film was going for.

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