Sunday, 10 January 2016

Movie Review: The Revenant (2016)



After how much I dug Birdman last year, I was definitely looking forward to seeing more work from director Alejandro González Iñárritu. So, in prep for this release, I checked out his other filmography… and noticed something disconcerting. While I undoubtedly consider Birdman to be the best film he’s done to date, it’s also the most unlike everything else he’s made so far. Iñárritu’s usual method of story-telling is with numerous interweaving character arcs, some of them seemingly completely disconnected from each other, to convey a specific theme. Birdman, by contrast, is so linear that it is shot and edited to look like a single continuous take (for the most part) and focuses mainly on a single character. It’s kind of like claiming to be a fan of Darren Aronofsky, but saying your favourite film of his is The Wrestler; it isn’t exactly the best representation of the man’s work as a whole. With this new information, I began to anticipate today’s release more shakily than I was expecting to. However, indicative of standard oeuvre or not, I will give this film the benefit of the doubt regardless; I’m not going to just badmouth a Leo DiCaprio film purely based on principle. This is The Revenant.

The plot: Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), after a vicious attack from a bear, is torn up and immobilized. The rest of his hunting party try to carry him along with them but John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) thinks that he is doing nothing but holding them back. After being left in his care while the rest of the hunters go on ahead, Fitzgerald kills Glass’ son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) and buries Glass in a grave alive. When Glass regains consciousness, he sets out into the snow-encrusted wilderness to make it back to civilization and get retribution for what Fitzgerald did to him.

For the record, this film isn’t exactly what the trailers have made it out to be. What they depict is a more revenge-oriented story, whereas in the film proper that ends up taking a small portion of the overall film. Instead, what ends up taking place for the majority of the film is a depiction of Hugh Glass just trying to survive in the winter landscape. DiCaprio gets, rather unfortunately, remembered most as the best actor to never win Best Actor. I’d argue that that shows just irrelevant the Oscars ultimately are, but that’s just me. Instead, DiCaprio should be remembered as the best actor who never breaks character. No matter what goes on, from a drink glass breaking in his hand and cutting him to a co-star pulling a gun on him unrehearsed in the middle of a scene, DiCaprio stays in the moment. He is the king of cinematic kayfabe. This might be the best example of that in terms of an overall film; with minimal dialogue, he gets across the absolute trial of an experience it would be to traverse that terrain in the condition he’s in. This is also helped by the unnerving effects work, which reach the levels of too close for comfort when it comes to the makeup for the numerous wounds Glass and the other characters receive. I’d usually be giggling at all the gasping coming from the rest of the audience at these scenes, if it weren’t for the fact that I was soon joining them.

Emmanuelle Lubezki… you know, every time a new film comes out featuring this man’s gorgeous cinematography, I keep wanting to go back and give The Tree Of Life another chance. The man’s sense of open space gives rise to amazing scenery shots as well as outstanding depictions of isolation; after how linear Birdman was, it’d be easy to forget that that film was playing very much against his strengths as well as Iñárritu’s. However, more so than his masterful framing, what really ends up impressing here is his approach to the fight scenes, particularly when it comes to the larger gun fights. The dynamic pans here show that working on Birdman definitely rubbed off on him, as his grand sweeping movements end up capturing a lot of energy in a single shot. Doing action scenes in long shots isn’t easy; you could accidently show the actors waiting for their cues like in The Last Airbender. Here, by vast contrast, it makes the impact of every gun shot, arrow fire and tomahawk slice hit even harder because it is all happening in real time. In fact, this film is so visual that I almost question if the dialogue was even necessary. It mostly devolves into frontier gibberish when it is used, primarily by Tom Hardy as Fitzgerald, and the grandeur of what is captured on camera starts to override whatever details are spoken before too long. Not that I’m complaining, though; rather than just being pretty pictures, the visuals are at least being used to further the story.

For as much as I’ve gone on about how Iñárritu has changed his style of storytelling since Birdman, he has still kept consistent with his subject matter to a certain degree. Every one of his films, to varying extents, have dealt with the worth of human life; how heavy that 21 grams actually feels to different people for different reasons. Considering his familiarity with the topic, making a film set in the harsh West is the most natural progression he could make as a filmmaker. What fuels Glass as a character is his need to survive in spite of what Fitzgerald has done to him, as well as getting restitution for his son. Now, with this framework, it would’ve been dead simple to make Glass out as the out-and-out good guy and Fitzgerald as the out-and-out bad guy. What changes this is how the conditions of both of their travels are shown. Even for an able-bodied person going alone, it is a perilous voyage to make through the wilderness. Add to that an injured hunter who can’t actively move on his own, and all of a sudden that voyage becomes even harder to make. As much as we see the admittedly selfish motives of Fitzgerald as evil, the weather and adversaries he and the other hunters face mean that sympathy isn’t exactly a luxury that they can afford; if they want to survive, that is. So here, in keeping with the question of how much a life is worth, it brings up how much one’s own life is worth in comparison to someone else’s when both could so easily be lost.

Something that has become increasingly prevalent in post-Leone Westerns is a more sympathetic tone taken when it comes to the Native Americans. This film follows in that tradition, only it looks at their attitudes towards the frontiersmen on a more universal level. Specifically, the idea of theft as it applies to everyone on various levels. A running subplot alongside Glass’ survival is a group of Arikara natives, who are hunting down two men who kidnapped the chief’s daughter. They trade with travelling French soldiers for weapons and horses, all so that they can retrieve what has been taken from them. And yes, they mention theft of land as well in a few exchanges. This ends up mingling with the ‘worth of life’ aspect and looks into how Glass had something precious stolen from him… that he can never get back.

All in all, this is an impressive visual experience. The cinematography is absolutely stunning, the action scenes are amazingly staged and executed, the acting is very intense, particularly from DiCaprio being pushed to his breaking point and while the writing isn’t so strong in terms of dialogue, its treatment of the seemingly ruthless attitudes of the western frontier fits with just unrelenting the brutality on screen can get. Definitely not a film for the faint of heart but still a film I whole-heartedly recommend. It shouldn’t even need to be said but, yeah, this is better than Point Break. I’d probably rank this as Iñárritu’s second best effort to date, just behind Birdman, and I definitely like that he’s kept on with this new approach he’s taken of late.

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