Saturday, January 9, 2016

"The Revenant" is a brutal, beautiful experience

There are movies that are meant to be enjoyed.  There are movies that are meant to be endured.  There are movies that are meant to be admired.  It is entirely possible for a movie to be one, a combination of any two, or all three at once, and still be great.  In my particular case, I found all three to be applicable to The Revenant.  

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s follow-up to last year’s Oscar-winning Birdman is an even better film.  It is a survival story, a revenge tale, and travelogue all rolled into one, and would serve as an almost-perfect example of each.  We’ve all seen the shots of the battle scene in the trailer and television spots, and yes, those are incredible, but these moments from the first ten minutes of the film are not indicative of the whole.  If you choose to see this film, you may think you’re going to see a Western.  You may think you’re going to see a thriller.  You may think you’re going to see a revenge yarn.  In a manner of speaking, you may be right, but you’d also be totally wrong.  

The story opens in the 1820s, and explorer and frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo Dicaprio) is helping other Americans get through the unchartered Dakota territories as they collect pelts, but are soon attacked by natives and reduced in number from a hundred to a mere twenty or so. The survivors, still followed by the Indian leader in search of his daughter who was kidnapped by other fur trappers, leave the sure path of the Missouri River to civilization to instead trek overland and hopefully lose their pursuers.  As they escape the terrain, Glass is furiously mauled by a wild bear protecting her cubs.  With a couple of hunters left in charge of caring for him, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), not only stabs Glass’ son to death in front of him, but buries Glass alive, leaving him for dead.  Glass survives his wounds, however, and begins a superhuman journey to find Fitzgerald and exact revenge.

This film is an endurance trial, for both DiCaprio’s character and the audience viewing it.  I don’t believe I’ve seen any character suffer so much throughout the course of a story since The Passion of the Christ, although that suffering certainly had a different impact. DiCaprio conveys Glass’s hardships with nary a spoken word, as he may only have a couple dozen line of dialogue throughout the film (I didn’t count, so don’t quote me on that). Considering DiCaprio never seems to take a role that doesn’t require him to do some yelling at some point, this is definitely a change of pace for him. With so many of his scenes being shot in close-up, looking deep into his pain-wracked face, or staring into his revenge-filled eyes, Leo shows us yet again why is he one of the best film actors of this generation.

The movie’s other lead, Tom Hardy, is almost unrecognizable as Fitzgerald, and is even unintelligible at times, too, but I thought that to be probably historically accurate - Hell, education is supposedly better now than it was a hundred and ninety years ago, and people can’t speak English worth a toot NOW, so imagine how bad it must have been back then!  But I digress…

With all that said, one must be aware that this is not a Leonardo DiCaprio movie, nor is it a Tom Hardy movie.  Sure, those names are what will appeal to general audiences and possibly lead them to buy a ticket, and their performances are out-of-this-world.  Make no mistake, however - this is an Alejandro G. Iñárritu movie.  This is an instance of a great artist creating his Magnum Opus.  Iñárritu has crafted a film that, on the exact opposite end of the spectrum, is as visually stunning as David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. His astounding camera movement - around moving horses, over and under water - is something I’m yet to figure out for myself.  Every frame of this film is beautiful, and a still of any shot would make a lovely piece of art to grace anyone’s wall.  The film was shot entirely in natural light by Emmanuel Lubezki, Oscar-winning cinematographer the last two years running (for both Gravity and Birdman), a technical feat that I will not attempt to describe here, but take my word for it - shooting an entire movie in natural light is incredibly difficult.  

Some may call Iñárritu’s pace of the 156-minute movie slow, but I would disagree.  A short-and-sweet hour-and-three-quarter movie would not do justice to the ordeal the main character must suffer in this story.  The movie’s pace is deliberate, steady and unrelenting, following Glass’s efforts at survival not only with great detail in HOW he survived, but with sequences of dreams and delirium that provide insight into WHY he survived.

We often sit in a darkened theater or our living room and watch characters suffer through physical and emotional pain that most of us can’t really comprehend.  Too often, these endurance tests feel manipulative or, even worse, false.  We’re smart enough to “see the strings” being pulled, and the actor and set never fades away into the character and condition. What’s remarkable about The Revenant is how effectively it transports us to another time and place, while always maintaining its worth as a piece of visual art. You don’t just watch The Revenant, you experience it.  You should walk out of it exhausted, impressed with the overall quality of the filmmaking, and a little more grateful for the creature comforts of your life.