Thursday, January 14, 2016

A savage is a savage


Go west, young man—and get yourself right torn to shit by a fucking bear.

Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Written by Mark L. Smith and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (based on the novel by Michael Punke)
With Leonardo DiCaprio (Hugh Glass), Tom Hardy (John Fitzgerald), Domnhall Gleeson (Capt. Andrew Henry), Forrest Goodluck (Hawk Glass), Duane Howard (Elk Dog), and Melaw Nakehk'o (Powaga)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Still hot from his Best Picture win last year, Alejandro Inarritu didn't miss a beat, beginning work on his next film as soon as he was done with the last.  In the further reaches of Canada and Argentina, The Revenant's infamous production stretched on until the shoot—heavy on real locations, light on any kind of movie magic but the most primitive kind—came to mirror, in its distant way, the travails of the story that it told.  According to Inarritu—a notable jerkoff, but an awfully talented one—it was practically planned this way.  He wanted his cast and crew to suffer, and use their suffering to infuse their film with something unfaked and timeless.  Without getting into any game of superlatives, which The Revenant's boosters started weeks ago, he was successful—not beyond any reasonable expectation, mind you, given that only grave incompetence could have ever screwed up a film this excitingly elemental and tantalizingly conceived.  Still, very little about the picture can be fairly said to not be positively great.  Thus it's only the slightest pity that The Revenant doesn't fully achieve the ecstatic heights of perfection that Inarritu, alongside his champion cinematographer/secret quasi-co-director Emmanuel Lubezki, and stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, were so clearly aiming for.

The story is simple enough for a paragraph: on a fur-trapping expedition in 1823, a group of white fur-trappers are attacked and overwhelmed by Arikara Indians.  In the aftermath, their guide, Hugh Glass, accidentally comes between a mother grizzly and her cubs.  If the bear does ultimately get the worst of their exchange, Glass doesn't fare much better—it's only his soul's stubborn refusal to vacate his body through that giant hole in his throat which keeps him in the world at all.  Unable to move or speak, Glass becomes an instant liability to the trappers, still in retreat from the Arikara.  Thus the main body of their party moves on, leaving John Fitzgerald and Glass' half-Pawnee son, Hawk, to bury the man when he finally dies.  Fitzgerald probably wouldn't have been Glass' own first choice, given their preexisting frictions—not to mention Fitzgerald's previous suggestion that they just finish him off quickly—and, inevitably, the untrustworthy half-scalped Indian-hater does indeed make a move upon Glass when he thinks no one is looking.  He's wrong, and when Hawk naturally intervenes, Fitzgerald kills him, too, right in front of his frothing, groaning father.  Then he shovels a few patches of soil upon Glass' body and heads back to the fort, where he reports that everything went as well as possible under the circumstances.  Of course, we don't have much of a movie—or at least, we have a very different movie—if Glass were truly dead, and did not rise from his shallow grave.  But rise he does, crawling halfway across North America to find the man who left him for dead and killed his son.

True, this leaves out several important components of the film: Glass' long-suffering recovery; Fitzgerald's unwitting accomplice, an easily-scammed adolescent who has no more business being out here than Glass' own son; Glass' visions of his dead wife; the details we learn about the Arikara leader, who's been desperately pursuing the Anglos because he has cause to believe that they're the ones who stole his daughter away.  But it's not too reductive to say that The Revenant is mostly about Glass replacing an acceptance of death with a thirst for vengeance, and whether or not a wrathful brute is the kind of man he wants to be.  Of course, that's not just the man he wants to be, it's the man we want him to be, too; but at least the question is raised early enough that it doesn't seem completely unsatisfying the way it gets answered in the end.

And yet it is a somewhat mystifying ending, ambiguous to a fault about the motivations of our hero (and peppered with some unnecessary dialogue from Fitzgerald, punched-up with an anachronistic swearword and serving principally to ruin the complexity of his character).  This leaves for our consideration the greater bulk of The Revenant's vast runtime—fully two hours and thirty-six minutes—and, happily, my major objections to the tale it tells operate solely within the last two or three.  Although the film's epic length and the use it finds for that length has divided audiences, I don't rightly suppose that even a moment is truly wasted.

Thus The Revenant, bearing as classical a screenplay as it's possible for a movie to have, is so neatly divided into three parts that it could be taught in writing classes: the sequence establishing our hero's goals literally bleeds into the extended second act, amounting to a dire survival film; only at the extreme of its third act does it at last truly come into its own as "tale of revenge," as the novel's subtitle puts it.  For the most part, then, the battle Glass fights is largely against nature itself, beginning with that stunning bear attack—and it turns out that those early reports of Leo getting raped by the bear could easily have been an honest mistake.

Although it's hard to say that things get even worse, they certainly don't get much better, and the encompassing length of The Revenant lets you really come to terms with the horror of primordial nature.  Months of hardship pass; late summer freezes into a hellish winter; and Glass' ingenuity, stamina, and grit are tested in the cruelest possible arena there is.  And, as if to make sure that Glass' preestablished survivalist credentials don't give him any unfair advantage, Inarritu makes sure to load his gauntlet with the deadliest possible traps.  In the midst of this, Inarritu—and by "Inarritu," I obviously mean "Lubezki"—takes great care to capture his all-natural world with the same kind of ethereal beauty of a Terrence Malick picture, particularly with a motif stolen straight from the Malick style guide (indeed, a motif which Lubezki helped invent and perfect), namely those prayerful movements of the camera up toward a circle of trees framing the eye of God.  The yen for meaning is strong in The Revenant, and yet, in true Malickian fashion, the universe cannot give us one, beyond its own incomprehensible, violent beauty.  (And this is also why when CGI does invade the pristine wildernesses which Inarritu and Lubezki and production designer Jack Fisk found, the fact that it is not the toppest-of-the-top-notch animation hurts The Revenant a little bit, in much same way that those budget-CG dinosaurs in Tree of Life hurt it.  It's clear that this $60 million production lavished most of its attention and money upon the bear, and this didn't leave quite enough left for giant herds of buffalo or—as seen in the trailer—a less-than-perfectly-rendered horse leaping off a cliff and vanishing into a less-than-believably-ruffled tree.)

Anyway, this comes mostly to a halt when the plot walks back in, gently nudges the film in the ribs, and asks if its third act can at last begin.  You see, the compartmentalization of modes that defines The Revenant isn't entirely to its benefit, and the immediate requirements of Glass' broken body far outstrip the needs of his wounded soul.  Thus we spend over an hour with few reminders of Glass' actual mission—the signs he carves along his path, "FITZGERALD KILLED MY SON," being the most forceful.  With DiCaprio fittingly distracted by his own physical discomforts, reflecting his character's, Glass' vengefulness curdles beneath the existential struggle.  Thus, with the film's necessary thruline rendered more like a series of dashes, it's ever-so-slightly jarring to get to the part where Glass' pursuit of Fitzgerald actually begins in earnest.  Here, the film becomes rather more conventional, surprisingly straightforward, and even rushed.  Now, it's surely never bad—indeed, it's still never really less than amazing (up until the very last shots, anyway)—but it's also not much more than a standard modern Western, albeit one made with especially superb technical construction (and, happily, one bitchin' final fight).

So let's talk about that construction: Lubezki means long takes, and long takes is what we get, and with even more pageantry than Children of Men—for here, we finally get to see a movie that demonstrates that the long take format might actually have a weakness.  We begin with a smooth, professional tracking shot that—within a conventional montage—would not be so terrifically transparent about the deliberate, meticulous blocking of every little thing within the frame.  Please don't get me wrong: only in a movie committed to The Revenant's brand of near-feral verisimilitude would this kind of elegant staginess not be our best introduction to its world—but verisimilitude, after all, is exactly what The Revenant's after.  However, it's known that it was shot in script order; Lubezki finds a better, more naturalistic groove quickly.  By the end, there's not a single damned thing you could criticize about the gorgeous brutality of his unblinking camera or his godlike mastery of campfires, torches, and solar light.  (And that aforementioned bear attack, in particular, is horrifyingly unforgiving.)  Lubezki finds an ally in Fisk's production design—and an even better friend in Jaqueline West's costumes.  But that's hardly surprising, since they've all worked together before, and you can probably guess where (The New World, Tree of Life, and To the Wonder, in case you couldn't—and who else might unify those films, but the man, myth, and legend, Terrence Malick?).  Fisk and West work to recreate the past as a living object, rather than a museum piece, and it works utterly—like Lubezki, they've been nominated for Oscars, and like Lubezki, they deserve it, particularly West, who has convinced me with The Revenant's wonderful moccasins that our shoe technology has only degraded in the two centuries between 1823 and today.

As usual, though, the talk surrounding The Revenant has centered predominantly upon its performers, and DiCaprio comes close to eating literal shit to earn his plaudits.  Yet despite his labors, he's still perhaps not quite as good as Hardy, who conjures a perfect anti-villain out of Fitzgerald—obviously, he's totally right about Glass—all while doing his Usual Hardy Thing, which is to handicap himself with a fantasyland accent and then fight his way completely out of it with his substantial, almost-peerless charisma, ultimately turning the voice into something compelling about his character.  (On a side note, I don't think I've ever seen a Domnhall Gleeson performance as out-of-step with his usual type, nor one as completely, quietly successful, as his rendition of Captain Henry, the trappers' leader.)

The only moving part in Inarritu's production that I can identify as outright undermining the effectiveness of the whole is the score: to the extent that The Revenant is a dark, wintry adventure, it's difficult to say that its atonal, unpleasant dirge is inappropriate, but the primal emotions pushing Glass through hell to get to the precipice of heaven deserved more than just mood-setting noise.  I can't even imagine the power The Revenant might have achieved if it had been armed instead with the kind of soaring compositions that push, for an obvious example, The Last of the Mohicans into the highest tier of cinema.

Meanwhile, I've noticed a tendency (perhaps encouraged by Inarritu) to put more metaphorical weight upon this scenario than it can bear, with talk of how this character or that event refers to the extermination of Indians, the destruction of the wilderness, or the closing of the frontier—where, if anything, The Revenant argues for the taming of nature, and its Indians are just one more group of people living and struggling in the unpleasant milieu of the past, with reference to the great European land-grab interwoven only to the extent it's actually relevant.  (I'm looking at you, Slow West.)  Ultimately, The Revenant is a film about what it says it is: survival, revenge, and the small measure of significance a human being can find through fighting against the vast, indifferent universe he unfortunately inhabits.

Score:  8/10


  1. Do you think movie endings are Iñárritu's kryptonite? He doesn't seem to have a handle on anything within three paces of a credits sequence.

    1. --Spoilers--

      Now, you've seen more of his stuff than me--Birdman was my introduction to Inarritu's work, and as far as I've been told I've gotten the best part of the deal.

      But, if Birdman and The Revenant are any indications, yes. His endings are kind of broken. Birdman's ending is more severely broken, I suppose, but that movie's got such a surfeit of charm and heart it kind of doesn't matter; plus while it could have stood tightening, Birdman simply ends twice, on (more or less) the same note each time.

      The Revenant, meanwhile, may be more damaging to the whole. My approach has been to try to interpret it as poetic revenge--Glass sends Fitzgerald to the kind of death he fears most, namely scalping by some narratively-convenient Indians--rather than what it appeared to be while I was watching it (and, indeed, what it almost certainly is) a rules-lawyering way for Inarritu to have his cake (awesome super-murder) and still eat it too (vague redemption for Glass).

      I hope this interpretation holds up on rewatch, because the alternative is 1)kind of eye-rolling, since Glass has crippled his enemy and his sending him to a certain death and 2)faintly crypto-racist, insofar as the judgment of God/Nature is manifested in the form of a band of previously-mentioned convenient Indians, who had previously been laudably well-characterized rather than reduced to metaphors in service of the white man.