Skip to main content

He's afraid. He knows how far I came to find him.

The Revenant
(2015)

(SPOILERS) Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest Oscar contender is a gruelling, man-against-the-elements – and mauling grizzlies –  gore-fest, a technically astonishing piece of work with quite incredible cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki amid the blood, bile and phlegm. The Revenant also features a deeply committed performance from Oscar contender Leonardo Wilhelm DiCaprio. Such an adherent to his art is he, he even ingests, and regurgitates, a piece of raw bison liver. What the picture lacks, though, is a profound engagement in his character’s plight, a plight that extends from the visceral to the ridiculous as unfortunate incident after unfortunate incident piles upon him.


Indeed, on several occasions I wondered if I hadn’t wandered in on a slightly soberer, better lensed version of The Naked Gun, one focussing on O.J. Simpson’s hapless officer Nordberg, such is the crescendo of disaster that dogs Our Leo at every turn. Mauled and stamped on by an enormous animatronic bear (twice – how unlucky is that?), Leo’s shit-hot hunter Hugh Glass is left in a state of extreme disrepair and, with the Louisiana Purchase wilds ill-disposed towards his colleagues (he’s their tracker/guide), it’s decided to leave him to his inevitable demise. Glass’ Native American son (Forrest Goodluck), young lad Bridger (Will Poulter) and disreputable mercenary Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) stay behind to see him off and provide a decent burial. Unfortunately for Fitzgerald, however, Glass just won’t die, dammit, so the former takes it upon himself to curtail his suffering, at which point the son intervenes and Fitzgerald kills him. From whence, Glass is abandoned buried alive, Fitzgerald persuading a reluctant Poulter that the fearsome Arikira Indians are poised to descend upon them. Glass, of course, wants revenge for his dead son, and nothing’s going to stop him!


And when I say nothing, I mean nothing. Not an inability to walk (he’ll just drag himself across the wilderness), not an inability to breathe (he’ll just burn that gaping hole in his throat shut), not what must surely be a fatal case of blood poisoning (constantly sodden, all his wounds are infected in no time at all, as one might expect), not what one would reasonably expect to be the loss of any number of extremities through frostbite, not a series of encounters with the aforementioned scalp-happy Arikira (these include Leo surfing rapids – why not, it’s evidently the way to travel if you can’t walk – riding a horse off a cliff, and then embedding himself in said horse for a cosy night’s sleep, or a homage to The Empire Strikes Back, I’m not sure which). That Glass is a remarkably resilient fellow.


This is a basic, simple story, one with minimal dialogue for much of the proceedings (Glass can’t even speak for much of the time), and as such it’s a showcase for Iñárritu’s filmmaking prowess. Which is undeniably virtuoso, from the incredible brutal opening raid, in which the camera moves to and fro from attacker to attacked, staying with some characters until their sudden deaths, leaving others and returning to them, to Glass’s horrific bear bludgeoning, to his beyond-determined crawl, where you feel every clawed inch and reverberating cough.


But we don’t really have much investment in this character. We’re invested in him because Leo is playing him, not because we care about Glass. His love for his son is told rather than felt, no matter how many rather ham-fisted flashbacks Iñárritu provides (and lets not forget his rather risible embrace of the metaphysical, with Glass on the brink of death, hearing his dead wife’s voice, even seeing her floating above him in an unintentionally funny moment). Somewhere between this absence and the ludicrousness of Glass’ unfeasible survival, the picture began to lose me. While I was continually re-engaged whenever Iñárritu pulled out the stops with another giddily compelling sequence, I was left with that slightly distasteful feeling one gets from an especially gory horror movie, where the purpose is purely to gross the audience out rather than to relay an overarching idea or theme. Too often in The Revenant, it feels like Iñárritu’s craft is wagging the movie dog.


As the ostensible thematic content goes, though, despite delivering a prodigiously unlikeable character, one can see Fitzgerald’s point of view. Iñárritu has painted a harsh, inhospitable environment, and it would be more of a surprise to pay a second thought to leaving Our Leo to die when death is accustomed to delivering daily greetings cards and you have an entirely reasonable dread of being scalped again. Hardy fully embraces his character’s grungy self-preservation instinct along with a typically curious cadence, and Poulter and Gleeson are equally strong as the innocent and morally earnest leader respectively. As with the technical specs, this isn’t a picture one can fault for performances. Leo may have been more impressive in earlier roles, but one wouldn’t begrudge him what looks like an inevitable Oscar for his hirsute wilderness man.


Still, though, one is left wondering what Iñárritu really wanted to glean from this material, to immerse himself in such a slog of freezing entrails. If the point is an existential one, it’s rather lost in that, rather than finding resonant the pointlessness of Glass’ quest for revenge (which FItzgerald even goes and spells out right at the end; it didn’t need two and a half hours of etching it in the landscape to then have it wrapped in a bow, compounded by its dovetailing with the parallel revenge plot of the Arikira chief rescuing his daughter; it’s so neat, it’s an OCD nightmare), one is left shrugging. Was it worth eating all that bison liver and getting hypothermic? Well, it makes for good dinner party tales and awards acceptance speeches.


And surely, if the idea was to hone Glass’ quest down to its essentials (a bit like a mangled version of Walker in Point Blank), the encumbrances of his wife and son would have been discarded at the script stage (so aligning the film more closely to the account of the real Glass); for all that The Revenant presents an unretconned vision of its Arikara antagonists, you can be quite sure Glass’ family situation comes from exactly that process of nervousness over depiction and content, such that he’s a thoroughly tolerant, modern-thinking man (bar his festering bent for vengeance) and is even helped by Arthur RedCloud’s friendly Pawnee (Kevin Costner would be proud).


I liked Birdman, albeit I don’t think it deserved Best Picture Oscar, but I liked the ensemble and found it frequently very funny. Probably the latter aspect ensured its philosophical pretensions didn’t become a drag (indeed, it seemed quite self-aware in that regard). Here there’s no such insulation. Iñárritu has fashioned an endurance test for audience (it’s loooong) and his actors, and appears to be striving for something affecting and profound, but he’s no Terrence Malick, for whom the relationship between the searching soul and the profundity of the natural world are second nature. On The Revenant’s evidence, Iñárritu doesn’t really have anything he passionately wants to say, so we end up with an amazing piece of filmmaking it’s difficult to care much about.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

It’s like an angry white man’s basement in here.

Bad Boys for Life (2020)
(SPOILERS) The reviews for Bad Boys for Life have, perhaps surprisingly, skewed positive, given that it seemed exactly the kind of beleaguered sequel to get slaughtered by critics. Particularly so since, while it’s a pleasure to see Will Smith and Martin Lawrence back together as Mike and Marcus, the attempts to validate this third outing as a more mature, reflective take on their buddy cops is somewhat overstated. Indeed, those moments of reflection or taking stock arguably tend to make the movie as a whole that much glibber, swiftly succeeded as they are by lashings of gleeful ultra-violence or humorous shtick. Under Michael Bay, who didn’t know the definition of a lull, these pictures scorned any opportunity to pause long enough to assess the damage, and were healthier, so to speak, for that. Without him, Bad Boys for Life’s beats often skew closer to standard 90s action fare.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Still got that nasty sinus problem, I see.

Bright Lights, Big City (1988)
(SPOILERS) A star’s quest to buck audience – and often studio – preconceptions is invariably a dangerous game. You can quickly flame out the very thing that made you an attractive prospect in the first place. Or you can plod on, entrenching yourself determinedly in a style that doesn’t suit you (Robert De Niro in most broad comedy, Bruce Willis in most straight drama). Michael J Fox wanted to be taken seriously – being adored for Family Ties, Back to the Future and, yes, Teen Wolf just wasn’t enough – and it took him three attempts to realise no one really wanted to come along with him on that journey, whether he was serviceable in those roles or not. Bright Lights, Big City arrived after the John Hughes teen wave had peaked and a more cautionary tone was being taken towards youthful 80s abandon. It’s major problem, however, is that it’s all cautionary; the excess never looks like it’s fun, even for those partaking.

Welcome to the future. Life is good. But it can be better.

20 to See in 2020
Not all of these movies may find a release date in 2020, given Hollywood’s propensity for shunting around in the schedules along with the vagaries of post-production. Of my 21 to See in 2019, there’s still Fonzo, Benedetta, You Should Have Left, Boss Level and the scared-from-its-alloted-date The Hunt yet to see the light of day. I’ve re-included The French Dispatch here, however. I've yet to see Serenity and The Dead Don’t Die. Of the rest, none were wholly rewarding. Netflix gave us some disappointments, both low profile (Velvet Buzzsaw, In the Shadow of the Moon) and high (The Irishman), and a number of blockbusters underwhelmed to a greater or lesser extent (Captain Marvel, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Terminator: Dark Fate, Gemini Man, Star Wars: The Rise of the Skywalker). Others (Knives Out, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum) were interesting but flawed. Even the more potentially out there (Joker, Us, Glass, Rocketman) couldn…

So the moral of the story is, better Red Riding Hood than dead Riding Hood. You read me?

The Fortune Cookie (1966)
(SPOILERS) Despite its pedigree – director and writer Billy Wilder reteaming with Jack Lemmon, the first teaming of Lemmon and Walter Matthau, a clutch of Oscar nominations – The Fortune Cookie isn’t up there with the best of Wilder’s Lemmon collaborations. Which were, at this point, in the past.

Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998)
An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar.

Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins, and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whether the audience was on …