Monday, December 28, 2015

THE REVENANT Is a Visually Stunning But Thematically Hollow Adventure


- The trailer for THE REVENANT was straight-up awesome. In the span of a few minutes, it was clear that, if nothing else, this would be a film filled with jaw-dropping visuals and visceral action. As it turns out, the trailer didn't lie. THE REVENANT is a visual stunner - with scene after scene of immense beauty, and several brutal, vertigo-inducing, brilliantly-filmed action sequences. But I have to say ... I'm starting to wonder a bit about director Alejandro G. Iñárritu. The guy is clearly an immensely talented visual stylist. And I give him credit for working on out-of-the-box, narratively-ambitious movies. But what I keep seeing from him are films that feel ever-so-slightly hollow, as if the director isn't quite sure what point, exactly, he's trying to make with his stories. I felt this about last year's Birdman - a movie that received widespread critical acclaim, but to me was sort of thematically vacant. THE REVENANT is similar. It's a revenge movie and a survival movie, but it's got little of interest to say about either revenge or survival. Instead, there's a lot of star Leonardo DiCaprio crawling through the wilderness hand-over-foot, caked with some quasi-spiritual moments. The movie features such great acting and such incredible visuals - so why did it leave me feeling sort of empty as the credits rolled?

Based on a purported true story, the film - set in the 1820's - follows a group of frontiersmen on a hunting expedition, collecting pelts that they will later sell off. The group includes DiCaprio's Hugh Glass, an expert when it comes to the local terrain. We don't get a ton of Hugh's backstory, but we do know that he was married to a Native American woman (very taboo at the time), who was ultimately killed in a military raid on her village. But not before she gave birth to a son, Hawk, now a teenager. Hawk accompanies his father on the hunting expedition, where he's got to deal with the prejudices of the other hunters. Chief among those who look down on him is Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a short-fused Texan who bares the disfiguring scars of a Native American attack - in which he was nearly scalped. He wears an ever-present bandanna to cover his head, and he holds a long-simmering hatred for Native Americans. Fitzgerald's hatred only burns brighter when the expedition is ransacked by a roaming Pawnee tribe, on the warpath after their tribe-leader's daughter is kidnapped. The attack leaves the group in disarray, but things only get worse from there. Following the attack, a further series of unfortunate events occurs - leaving Glass separated from the group and near death. The group thinks he has died, and abandons him in the wild. I won't spoil what happens from there. Suffice it to say that a severely wounded but still-breathing Glass makes it his mission to track down certain parties that he holds responsible for the ills that have befallen him and seek bloody vengeance for the wrongs that have been committed.

DiCaprio is put into a difficult position as Glass. For much of the film, the character is unable to speak, but is in severe pain. And so DiCaprio spends much of the film grunting, wheezing, and breathing heavily as he slowly claws his way across the wilderness. I think DiCaprio is pretty fantastic here, but the script sometimes fails him a bit. It's not the no-talking thing, it's that the film oftentimes seems to lose some of its narrative drive. This is at its core a revenge film, but Glass' burning desire for that dish best served cold seems to come and go. The film becomes so in love with giving us these serene, sweeping, ponderous shots of nature that it sometimes seems to forget what kind of movie it actually is. With its at times glacial pacing, the sense of urgency is occasionally lost. And that waters down DiCaprio's performance a bit. But he's great overall, and he certainly makes us feel every cut and abrasion and pain-point that Glass must suffer through during his long journey.

Meanwhile, Tom Hardy nearly steals the film as Fitzgerald. Hardy is a complete badass here - a grizzled hunter who does what he has to to get by in life. Fitzgerald harbors a perpetual mad-on, resentful of their group's leader, Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson - always great, apparently in every other big movie of 2015) for his privileged background, annoyed by Glass' half-Native American son, and just generally looking for a fight. Fitzgerald gets all of the movie's best lines, and Hardy seems to really relish playing the loose-cannon antagonist. He's got such a great physicality and sense of menace to him. Plus, the dude is quite simply one the best actors working today. Hardy pretty much owns this one.

Gleeson is also very good, as mentioned (he's once again playing the virtuous leader here, following his flirtation with the Dark Side in The Force Awakens). There's also a really great supporting turn from Will Poulter - who I've been a fan of since Son of Rambow - as the junior member of the group, who becomes a bit of a protege to Fitzgerald.

THE REVENANT has a great cast, and it also benefits hugely from Iñárritu's unmatched ability to shoot both chaotic action scenes and quieter scenes of the untamed wilderness with an immersive, eye-melting, you-are-there style. The single-take style of some of the big action set-pieces reminded me of the work of Fukunaga on True Detective and the recent Beasts of No Nation. And the more serene scenes of nature call to mind the work of Terence Malick. The movie oftentimes feels, quite simply, epic as hell from a visual standpoint. If ever they were to make a Skyrim movie, THE REVENANT's snowy expanses, rocky mountain stretches, and out-of-nowhere spurts of shocking violence make a strong argument that Iñárritu would be the right guy to direct it.

But as memorable as scenes like the film's holy-$%#&-this-is-insane bear attack are in and of themselves, the thematic linkage between them often seems not-quite-fully-formed. And that's a sizable problem in a two-and-a-half-hour movie. The film never expends the energy to make Glass into a great character, and that hurts it. I think of the great revenge films, and what makes them great is, in large part, that their protagonists are iconic. Glass ... well, he's just a guy. At least as far as we know. What's odd is that Hardy's Fitzgerald seems much more well-defined. The film gets a jolt of life whenever it shifts its focus to Hardy. As good as DiCaprio is here, his character is sort of blah. And by extension, the film's message feels muddled and ill-defined. The movie ends with a really intense, amazingly-shot action scene. But then, after a brief coda, the credits roll, and you're left wondering what it all means. Again, there's that hollowness to the story that keeps it from being great. A movie about an epic journey across the wilderness by an injured/dying man seeking revenge? That is a story that should leave us with some sort of profound takeaways -- right? In this case, we're left kind of scratching our heads.

THE REVENANT is well worth checking out for its top-notch performances and absolutely stunning visuals. But I also hesitate to say that it's the Oscar-worthy masterpiece that some may proclaim it to be.

My Grade: B

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