Monday, January 11, 2016

On the Big Screen: THE REVENANT (2015)

Going into the new year, I felt pretty certain of which film would be the best western of 2015. The commercials for The Hateful Eight were awful, highlighting some of the film's most inane moments, while the trailers for The Revenant were epic and revelatory. One film looked profound, the other moronic. Now that I've seen them both, I'm relieved to report that both are good movies. As for which is better, ... I'm not sure. On many levels Revenant is a more accomplished or at least more innovative picture, though it's arguably a remake of 1971's Man in the Wilderness, being based on the same true story as that Richard Harris vehicle. But when it was over, I had an unexpected "is that it?" feeling that hints at a certain emptiness to Revenant that I didn't perceive in Hateful Eight.

Alejandro G. Inarritu's new film, his follow-up to the Oscar-winning Birdman, is more a mountain-man movie than a western. To the extent that there's a mountain-man genre, it's a phenomenon of the 1970s and its revisionist, deglamorizing tendencies. Mountain-man movies are grimy and visceral, in some eyes a more honest representation of the pioneer experience. They stress the ordeal of settlement, but in the case of Revenant that ordeal has been upstaged somewhat by the reported ordeal of filming the picture under the exacting conditions set by Inarritu and two-time-defending cinematography champion Emmnauel Lubezki. Some of the film's early box-office success -- it has far outpaced Hateful Eight -- may be a matter of curiosity over exactly what Leonardo DiCaprio endured on the long location shoot, for which he has just earned a Golden Globe award. If any doubt remained that DiCaprio had transcended his pretty-boy past to become a mighty man of cinema, Revenant should eliminate it once and for all. Whether he deserves the awards he's gotten or will get for this picture is another matter, but that's no reflection on the actor, even though he was outclassed, in my opinion, by Tom Hardy's villainous turn. Once again Hardy requires headgear to make him stand out -- from the front it looks like a do-rag, but it's a cloth patch covering where his character had been partially scalped in the past -- but he's able to invest his character with more personality, not to mention more bile, than was required of him, to be fair, in Mad Max: Fury Road. If Hardy has the advantage over DiCaprio -- and if Leo is a favorite for Best Actor Hardy should be a lock for Supporting Actor -- it's probably because his character, Fitzgerald, stands for something that inspires characterization, while DiCaprio's Hugh Glass is just the good guy by comparison.

Fitzgerald represents raw materialism and pure acquisitiveness. Disgruntled because his trapping party must stash their pelts away in the wilderness and flee for home due to Indian attacks, thus delaying his payout, Fitzgerald is not consoled by this boss's observation that at least they'll still have their lives. Fitzgerald has no life, he bluntly admits, unless he has money. He disdains spirituality, making a joke of an old partner's sighting of God in a squirrel -- the punch line is that Fitzgerald killed the squirrel and ate it. He may demand his due for the pelts, but self-interest overrides any impulse toward reciprocity or responsibility. Volunteering to stay with Glass after the already-immortal sequence in which Glass is mauled while fighting (and killing) a bear -- and, yes, I can see why it looked to some people like the bear was raping Glass -- and then only after their leader has increased the monetary incentive, Fitzgerald reneges, as soon as he thinks he can get away with it, on his obligation to care for Glass until he dies and then bury him properly. He's never liked Fitzgerald, assumes he's a goner anyway, and is more worried about his own skin with Indians supposedly near.

I spoil nothing to note that Glass does not die, though the character himself states otherwise in a line quoted in the advertising. He has the same relentless endurance he's tried to inculcate into his half-breed son, whom Fitzgerald stabs to death when the lad protests the abandonment of his dad. But while the film emphasizes Fitzgerald's selfish materialism in a way that seems to set Glass up as his opposite, presumably a more spiritual person, the screenplay never really sells the opposition despite the occasional delirious vision Glass experiences. If there's a real, grave weakness in the story, it's that Glass undergoes any number of rebirth experiences -- from clawing out of the shallow grave Fitzgerald dumps him in to forcing his way out of a frost-stiffened, disemboweled horse carcass -- he never really seems to change. That's because Inarritu and co-writer Mark L. Smith have stacked the deck in Glass's favor by making him a squaw man, a literal Indian lover who is already a priori a more spiritual person and more in harmony with nature than the bigoted Fitzgerald, for whom Indians are "tree niggers." There is no need and no room for Glass to undergo a spiritual transformation or any other sort of transformation during his long journey. The most the writers try to say, or so I infer, is that Glass comes to realize that his survival is a matter of grace, dependent not on himself alone but any number of chances or interventions, from the ministrations of a lone wandering Pawnee to the availability of that horse carcass, which Glass himself had ridden off a cliff. Such a realization, I suppose, is supposed to explain the clunker of a climactic moment when Glass at last has Fitzgerald at his mercy. We can imagine Fitzgerald saying lots of things at this ultimate moment, but probably not the comic-book level line he utters about vengeance not bringing Glass's boy back to life -- to which Glass answers, with equal inanity, "Vengeance belongs to God."

At that point the film tries to wrap up some of the subplots trailing behind Glass, most notably an Indian chief engaged in a Searchers-in-reverse quest for a daughter who'd been kidnapped by white men. I'm not sure what the point of the subplot was other than to provide more people to chase Glass around and someone to possibly give Fitzgerald what he deserves. The script had attempted to draw a parallel between the chief and Fitzgerald earlier, the chief ranting about whites stealing everything and Fitzgerald ranting while looting a ruined camp about Indians stealing everything, but that's really as far as it went. In the end, Fitzgerald is held accountable for something he didn't actually do -- unless I missed something -- which presumably is preferable to Glass taking personal vengeance on the brute. But if Revenant ends badly, you shouldn't hold it against the remarkable two hours or more that come before the end. Lubezki is clearly after a three-peat at the Oscars and has a solid shot; the only knock I can give him is that there was something distractingly mechanical about some of his 180-degree pans. If anything, Lubezki is more a show-off this time than he or Inarritu was in Birdman with his no-cut policy, but the cinematography works to give the story the visceral and atmospheric realism it requires. Some of Robert Richardson's outdoor footage for Hateful Eight may be just as impressive, but that picture goes indoors too soon for Richardson to really compete with Lubezki. DiCaprio deserves praise for his rugged physical performance, but it's not as rich as, say, Robert Redford's endurance test in All Is Lost. Despite that, Revenant is definitely a must-see for anyone who acknowledges spectacle as part of the essence of cinema, even if it shows that spectacle isn't everything. It's a very good film, but not so great as it could have been.

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