Friday, January 22, 2016

The Revenant

While on vacation in Los Angeles in mid/late December I had the opportunity so see a bunch of new movies. One of which was The Revenant.  At the time I was visiting the film was only playing in theaters in L.A. and New York, so I took advantage of this in full.

All the hype about the level of violence featured in The Revenant before its release really piqued my curiosity. I know that sounds morbid, but I took the comments as a cheap way for the advertising people at 20th Century Fox to get audiences worked up about their big budget art film, because we all crave a good trainwreck once in a while. I wanted to see if the movie really lived up to what the claims were making it out to be.

Boy howdy, is this movie tough to watch. It’s also more than a little amazing.
The Revenant is based on the true story of frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his battle to survive after being left for dead by his crew due to a brutal bear mauling while on a fur trading expedition and his quest for revenge against the man (Tom Hardy) that murdered his son (Forrest Goodluck) in cold blood.

I want to get the violence aspect out of the way first. Yes, this film is horrifically violent. It’s extremely hard to watch in some spots. Specifically the scene involving the horse. However, most of the nastiest bits are left just out of view. Sure the bear mauling is disgusting, but we only really see outright gore once. It’s the sound effects and DiCaprio’s performance that really sells the brutality of the scene. The whole movie is structured like that. Some of the events that these characters partake in are disgusting in various ways, but what our imaginations conjure up in place of what isn’t fully seen is way worse. Genius move. But that horse scene is… oh, man. So gross.
But the main reason to venture out into the cold weather this winter and see this film is the outstanding performances from absolutely everyone in the cast. I feel Leonardo DiCaprio (Inception, Titanic, The Beach) will finally win that much deserved Oscar for his portrayal as Glass. He gives his part such a quiet intensity since his character doesn’t talk much and has to sell all his pent up rage and sadness through facial expressions and body language. He is phenomenal in the part, and even had to forgo his vegetarianism at one point to eat a fresh bison liver on camera. Because dedication. Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road, Bronson, Star Trek: Nemesis) is good at playing rotten assholes, and as John Fitzgerald he goes for broke and plays him as the sleaziest, most dislikable and self-centered bastard of all time. You just love to hate him. I also enjoyed Domhnall Gleeson and especially Will Poulter in their parts. Who knew that the kid who was bitten on the nuts by a tarantula in We’re the Millers had dramatic acting chops like this within?!

I really wanted to discuss the look of the film, because I had no idea that it was shot completely with natural light while I was watching it. I thought there was some kind of post-production filter added to give the footage a bleak, cold feeling. Nope. Overcast days in the winter were all they needed to pull that look off and it adds so much to the atmosphere of the piece. All the locations are starkly beautiful and the way Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Children of Men) shoots them with the natural light actually immersed me in the film more than usual. It made it more realistic feeling because that’s what I see day to day during the winter, not some super bright and perfectly lit wonderland. I hope more filmmakers adopt this style of lighting in the future. I’m sure it’s a bitch to work with, as nature usually is, but it's immensely impressive when utilized correctly.
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman or [The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance], 21 Grams) sounds like an absolute madman the more I read about him. Framing his previous movie as one continuous shot (broken up by various undetectable means) is impressive, and there is another excellent example of this during the native's assault on the trading camp at the top of the movie, but wanting to shoot his big budget wilderness film with all natural light during the winter when the days are shorter, then uproot your entire production from Canada because you are behind schedule and summer is approaching all the way to southern Argentina where it is still a winter wonderland is more than a little cray cray. But I suspect there is a method to his madness, because he keeps impressing me with every movie he unleashes upon audiences. He has yet to repeat himself like most directors seem to nowadays (I like Michael Bay and all, but can he please make a movie that isn’t a super contrasty explosionfest for a change?), and seems to want to up his game with each new project. We all know he wrangles fantastic performances out of his actors, but he also knows how to tell stories that are both visually stunning as well as thematically moving. I might not have been a big fan of his in the last decade (I found 21 Grams and Babel to be boring in the extreme), but he’s really hit his stride in the teens. I look forward to what he does next for sure.

The script by Mark L. Smith and Alejandro González Iñárritu, based off Michael Punke’s novel of the same name, changes a lot of the details of the true story of Hugh Glass (i.e. the story took place during the spring and Glass had to contend with his mauled flesh rotting in the sun), but it works spectacularly for the film. We really get to see what makes the two main characters tick, why they are the way they are and what motivates them to do the things they do. We understand why Fitzgerald wants to leave Glass behind, because sitting around waiting for help isn’t going to get him paid. Especially if the natives hot on the party’s trail catch up to them and make them dead. Can you really blame him? How he goes about it ends up being one of the most heinous acts of douchebaggery I’ve seen on film. And he continues to keep digging a deeper grave for himself the further the story progresses due to his self-destructive nature and selfish ways. In the case of Glass, even though he’s on a quest for revenge he still manages to discover how the disrespect of nature will ruin you, like Fitzgerald, and sometimes revenge is the best motivation to persevere and never give up. Not even when you’re knocking on death’s door. And then sometimes you just need to straight up merc the motherfucker who murdered your son. I liked all the parallels drawn between the protagonist and the antagonist, and how each had a completely different outlook on life and how they benefit from it/suffer for it in different ways.
Sure the movie gets a little long in the tooth in the middle with long drawn out shots of DiCaprio staring blankly out into the wilderness. Yeah, I get it. He knows he’s fucked. Stop ramming it down out throats. I also don’t think that Glass’ wounds would heal so fast. In the real story it took Glass months to crawl back to civilization. The film makes it look like a matter of days. And all the stuff that happens to him on the trip back to the fur trader camp would have reopened and reinjured him multiple times over, yet it never seems to happen. Gotta call BS.

Minor issues aside, The Revenant is one of the best movies I saw in 2015. I wasn’t sure if it would be my cup of tea, but sometimes you need a movie that’s as reflective as it is brutal. The Revenant certainly qualifies in that regard. It’s fantastically engaging and I now sing its praises to anyone who will listen. Although I don’t think it’s a movie I will want to watch again any time soon. It’s that heavy.

4.5 out of 5

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