Friday, February 12, 2016

The Revenant

Remember when people - especially critics - seemed to look at Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's body of work and sort of assume a predilection for pretension?  In the wake of Amores Perros, he seemed to enter a spiral of stuffiness.  The projects he took on were beautiful in some ways, deeply flawed and try-hard in others.  He wasn't some kind of new century Kubrick or an experimental visionary, he was dude bro in a writing workshop who declares his intention to write a philosophical novel as everyone else struggles to smother a grimace.  For me, Birdman wasn't a significant departure from his earlier films.  It was a more entertaining, slightly lighter version on the same force feeding of heavy ideas, and one that only really worked when fully embracing the theatrical artifice of its setting.  I said it then and I'll say it now: Birdman is an entertaining film and an oddity, but suffers from an undergrad-thesis logic that suffocates it by the final act.  Damn near everyone seemed to disagree last awards season, and in the courses I teach I've sat back and listened as kids who can't figure out how to analyze The Graduate (let alone Godard) have declared Birdman a work of genius.

So, it's been interesting to see how The Revenant has been received in the wake of so many accolades and heated discussions, and to watch the cross section of what people now want and expect from Inarritu and Leonardo DiCaprio blend with what we want and expect from a movie about dudes surviving in the wilderness.  Since seeing the film, I've been trying to conduct a running tally of conversational reviews. In first place? The almighty: "Well, I wouldn't say it's not worth seeing, but you should definitely lower your expectations."  In second place? "Oh, it's a piece of shit. Everything that happens in it is totally impossible and it's just another unenlightened action movie."  These are paraphrased, of course, but both sentiments are a bit surprising.  While I certainly have reservations about Inarritu's work and probably wouldn't upvote The Revenant as an honest to god contender for Best Picture, I can say this: it's perhaps Inarritu's most solidly constructed film.  The Revenant is a good movie in the way many a revisionist epic or western tends to be. It is beautifully crafted, visually striking, and knows precisely when to exchange real world logic for fictional impossibility.

A huge part of the film's success is the involvement of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.  Lubezki has worked on some of the most visually memorable films of the last decade: Birdman, yes, but also The Tree of Life, Gravity, Children of Men, and The New World, and his fingerprints are all over  The Revenant.  We lose something of Inarritu's voice as this happens. Lubezki may be the dominant voice here (something that may also be the case with the aforementioned Malick films), and he has such a keen eye for landscape, the use of natural light, and innovative uses of the long take, that the photography takes precedence over anything in the story.  As much as we may know that The Revenant is based in truth or is about one man's (Leonardo DiCaprio) struggle to survive and seek revenge after being left for dead, it is perhaps even more so a film about man's inferiority in the face of nature.  Lubezki captures that. This nature cannot be conquered, is never friendly. It doesn't matter whether our hero succeeds or fails in his more human endeavors, he is still only ever lucky when it comes to existing in those mountains.  It's stunning stuff, so much so that we can almost forgive the illogical progression of narrative events or the truly bizarre attempt to force a secondary kind of spirituality into the film.  For example: Inarritu's forced attempts to inject a backstory involving Glass's deceased wife seem totally strained and unnecessary given the film's overall tone. It doesn't work, really, but it's hard to complain too much when the result is a wonderfully ethereal shot (however contrived) involving her as a perfectly centered floating presence. Anything we feel in this moment is spawned entirely from the force of the visuals and not from what we're "supposed" to understand about their context.

Much of the film works this way, and though the story in phenomenally implausible - again and again and again - it makes for compelling, highly visceral viewing.  All this is to say, this is Lubezki's film and - in a lot of ways - Alejandro Inarritu's take on what a heavily action-driven Terrence Malick movie (complete with whispers) might look like.  To that end, it is also DiCaprio and Tom Hardy's film.  While a little too much has been made about how difficult it was to shoot scenes and the various struggles surrounding the film's creation, DiCaprio's presence here is indeed impressive in its commitment to the physical.  He wants that Oscar gold badly and he goes for it, repeatedly, becoming something more badger than man. The same can be said of Hardy, who has lately shown us just how to play (and often subvert) traditional types of masculinity in ways that become feral, beast-like, and id-driven and which heighten our sense of a mania within his characters.

DiCaprio and Hardy become creatures capable of believably inhabiting their surroundings, who make sense crawling from the belly of a dead horse, hiding in caves, feasting on handfuls of raw meat.  They are primal, almost transplanted from a Nicolas Winding Refn film and suddenly, inexplicably, asked to perform or speak too much of their internal conflict.  That's what Inarritu doesn't understand.  Lubezki's images and the performances of the actors are all doing work enough to make a grade A action film into something that quietly suggests a deeper resonance.  Inarritu, though, keeps trying to force those readings into the narrative, to draw obvious parallels or bring in a past that's already alluded to.  It's a mistake, and one that results in an otherwise impressive film becoming bloated and a bit meaningless.

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