Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Revenant (2015)

Rating:  **

About a half-hour into Alejandro Iñárritu’s film The Revenant, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Hugh Glass, is mauled repeatedly by an 800-pound grizzly bear, and survives.

And I’m thinking, there is no way, there is absolutely NO WAY he could’ve survived such attack.

In fact, it’s not even a question of whether he’d be alive, but rather how many pieces he’d have been torn into.

This moment requires such an outrageous suspension of disbelief that there’s simply no way any sensible viewer can buy what comes after (and there’s still a good two hours of the film to go). But Iñárritu makes it easy to sustain said incredulity; he drags his half-alive main character through all manner of peril, ranging from a free-fall, river-rapids plummet to the riding off a cliff where his fall is broken by a towering evergreen (his horse is not so lucky). And all of this amid freezing winter temperatures and the extreme likelihood that the wounds he incurred would surely become fatally infectious.

This is the main issue that dogs Iñárritu’s wildly overpraised film, but there are others. It dreams of being a stark, spare historical epic, but in reality it more closeky echoes a made-for-History Chanel telemovie, exploiting its brutality in the name of historical veracity, and wallowing in ugliness for nearly three hours in the name of art. The Glass character is meant to be a lone, suffering protagonist who’s meant to make a statement about revenge with his ultimate decision not to kill (only after a prolonged, bloody hatchet fight during which he almost slew his nemesis). But ultimately there s no point, no message, no purpose, and if there is it’s buried under about three feet of blood, snow and mud.

We know we’re in trouble at the outset. At some point in the early nineteenth century, somewhere in the wooded Northern Plains of America, a band of wooly fur trappers are ambushed by Indians. It’s a bloodbath, and Iñárritu directs it like Spielberg’s opening D-Day battle in Saving Private Ryan: deadeye arrows piercing throats, muskets shot in retaliation. Even a horse buys it to show how unthinkingly brutal these unwashed heathens were (never mind that horses were a valuable commodity, and neither side would’ve demonstrated such wanton waste).  The survivors leave to trundle on, led by Glass and a bearded crumb named Fitzgerald. You can tell this guy is bad right away, and Tom Hardly’s portrayal of him is as lacking in subtlety as it is intelligibility – I dare anyone to decipher and more than three consecutive words of his dialogue.

[If you’ll allow a brief digression, let me tell you my biggest pet peeve in a historical work: inaccuracy. In addition to the aforementioned Indian assault, staged too much like a scene of modern warfare (woodland tribes’ fighting more closely resembled sniping and guerilla attacks), I was bothered by Fitzgerald’s profanity, particularly his liberal dropping f the f-bomb and references to female body parts – words not part of common parlance until the twentieth century. This is screenwriter’s laziness: it reveals their cynical assumption that most viewers either don’t know or care about history, as well as their readiness to juice up as much scatology as possible for fear that audiences won’t find the story interesting otherwise (and for this can the writers truly be blamed?]

And now, back to the story. The bear attack, of course. DiCaprio’s pretty messed up. Fitzgerald wants to finish him off, but DiCaprio’s half-breed son, Hawk, demurs, as does some other dude named Bridger (sort of the apple-cheeked naïf whom we know will represent the good to Fitz’s evil). But Fitz kills Hawk, with DiCaprio watching but helpless to do anything. Fitz and Bridger slog off on their own, distrusting each other, until they get to a fort. DiCaprio slogs off on his own (albeit far more slowly), encounters more brutality involving settlers and Indians until he finally confronts Fitz. They wrestle, slash each other’s limbs, bleed in the snow, and generally have a messy time of it all until DiCaprio frees Fitz from his clenches, and discards him mercifully to the Indians, who do the stereotypical scalping thing before serving up his just desserts. DiCapio winsomely slogs some more, seeing a vision of his wife in the ether.  

I must say that my distaste for The Revenant surprised me, given that I lauded Iñárritu’s previous film Birdman. But that film had a spectacularly literate screenplay, cowritten by Iñárritu and his Biutiful scribes. Iñárritu co-adapted Revenant with Mark L. Smith, the writer of the two horror films Vacancy and Vacancy 2, and that makes sense. The Revenant, despite its well-mounted look, has the heart and soul of a slasher film: I haven’t seen this much carnal abuse masquerading as art since a tsunami-soaked Naomi Watts wandered half-dead for the near entirety of The Impossible (also written/directed by horror talents). But this may even be doing a disservice to horror: unlike most good examples of the genre, The Revenant wallows in its misery for no good purpose, and exploits its brutality with little or no justification outside mere entertainment.

Much praise has been heaped upon the cinematography of the film, and, yes, many shots look good, reminding me of the works of Terrence Malick and the way he captures the majesty of the American landscape in all its towering glory. But for what do these photographic compositions serve, given the unsavory characters who people them? Sure, Doctor Zhivago captured snow-laden trees and icy vistas with sheer magnificence, but what drove those images was the romance of Lara and Yuri, and their life’s development over the course of three decades. The Revenant has barely discernable characterizations, let alone their development, and so the look of the film all but becomes an entirely moot point.

DiCaprio appears to be the front runner for Best Actor – I suppose voters applaud actors who get down and dirty (literally) for their craft. But with minimal dialogue and limited physicality, his performance is all manner; there’s nothing there to occupy the mind, and certainly nothing to engage the emotion. And with a Golden Globe win for Best Picture, the actual film looks to be favored to win as well. That part mystifies me. With so many worthier contenders, and a few that weren’t even nominated, a win for this overhyped exercise in drudgery would be a real downer come Oscar night. Yes, even more of a downer than watching the film itself.

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