THE REVENANT C-
USA (156 mi) 2015 ‘Scope d: Alejandro González Iñárritu Official Site
USA (156 mi) 2015 ‘Scope d: Alejandro González Iñárritu Official Site
A bloated and largely overrated film about the wretched and the damned, where in the world of Hollywood bigger is better, so this existential tale of survival, which could resemble Robert Redford’s minimalistic effort in J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost (2013), is blown up to elevate and heighten its own sense of importance, literally plagiarizing Terrence Malick cinematic techniques to provide a sense of worldly transcendence, all of which makes this more than it is. While there is a behind-the-scenes backstory about how difficult it was to make this film in the raw, wintry elements of Alberta, Canada, moving to the mountains of Argentina when there was insufficient snow, where the director is quoted as having indicated, “Every molecule of this film was absolutely difficult.” Well that was by choice and by design, as this director intentionally makes the overall film experience as brutal and difficult as possible, enlarging and exaggerating a real-life endurance story from Michael Punke’s 2002 novel The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge to near mythological proportions, but in the process, the landscape is so overwhelming that humans are reduced to a near primitive state, as if living in the Stone Age. While there is literally no story whatsoever expressed in the film, where we don’t understand the men’s connection to one another or what their mission is actually supposed to be, as events simply spiral out of control from the outset when we are introduced to them in the midst of a raging Indian battle, where the majority of their party is lost, forcing them to retreat by making their way onto a giant boat and heading down river, where they believe they are sitting targets for more Indian attacks. At least partially based on the real-life fur trapper explorations of frontiersman Hugh Glass, the subject of Western lore often noted for its frequent embellishment, who was part of General Ashley's expedition of 1823 following the Missouri River through South Dakota into Montana, there is dissension in the ranks which develops into the overriding story throughout the film, as whatever strategy is suggested to accomplish their mission is fiercely contested. But when Glass is mauled by a grizzly bear, the severity of his wounds are so dire that he is left for dead by the members of his party, taking his weapons and essential supplies, only to crawl out of the grave they left him in, trekking 350 miles through the wilderness alone in the dead of winter, literally clawing his way back to civilization, resurfacing at the nearest military post in Fort Kiowa, South Dakota.
According to historian Jon T. Coleman, author of Here Lies Hugh Glass: A Mountain Man, a Bear, and the Rise of the American Nation, one of the attributes of American mountain men was their inherent ability to engage in hyperbole, as they were actively involved in stretching the imagination in the making of their own myths, where fabricating stories was woven into the actual history of the American West. These men were “marginal people laboring in far-off places,” who came to be America’s heroes by working in such dangerous situations and placing themselves in harm’s way.
Calamity preyed on Glass because he was vulnerable. His employer and his nation couldn’t protect him. He never established the alliances with the Indian leaders that safeguarded previous generations of European traders in the West. He bet his life on a poorly conceived scheme: that Americans thought they could sneak into the region, harvest furs with their own labor, and get out before the Native inhabitants punished them for their trespasses. This strategy worked for some—William Ashley emerged golden—but the majority of employees and free trappers slogged through the majestic scenery gaunt, scarred, and busted. The West beat them to pulp.
While this bit of background information at least frames the film, the director’s unwillingness to do the same results in a freefall into a narrative abyss, a hole the viewer is never able to crawl out of, as there is never anything resembling an actual story or any clear understanding of what brought these men together, as they are led by a military commander, engage in an unending war with the Indians, but they’re not soldiers, or even hired mercenaries, but simply hunters and fur trappers sent on an unknown mission, where one would presume Indians are among their trading partners, yet all this is lost in the psychological extremities of the film itself. The opening twenty minutes or so are among the best scenes of the film, as the disorientation plays into the chaos of the battlefield, where the roving camerawork by Emmanuel Lubezki mixes an uncontrollable panic with painterly compositions and the visceral experience of death, offering something of a shock to the senses right from the outset. In the aftermath, as the men drift away to apparent safety on one of their rafts, that panic-stricken mood only grips them deeper, as they are a divisive group led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), who defers to Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) acting as their guide, as he has the most experience working in the area, recommending traversing an inland path away from the river and away from the Indians, where they would have to hide much of their gear and come back for it later, as it would simply be too much to carry, a thought immediately contested by John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who finds it foolhardy to leave the river and all that they collected, which amounts to abandoning their earnings. Throwing it all away does not sit well with him, so he engages in a battle of vicious verbal warfare targeting Glass as untrustworthy, as he’s spent time living among the Indians and is traveling with his own half-Pawnee son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), who dresses and identifies as an Indian. This kind of racist venom may be typical of the times, but it’s brutally ugly, putting everyone on edge, where it soon becomes clear that the resentment is so deep that Fitzgerald would just as soon kill Glass than follow his orders. The severity of the bear attack gives him that opportunity, as it becomes too burdensome carrying Glass through the wilderness, so Henry, fearing another Indian attack, leaves a small attachment behind to give him a proper burial, as his death appears imminent. Fitzgerald volunteers for the assignment and undermines the mission from the start, fabricating a story of having seen Indians nearby, claiming they can no longer wait, secretly murdering his son Hawk, claiming he’s gone missing, then burying the gravely wounded Glass alive.
What follows is an existential resurrection of epic proportions, grim and foreboding, becoming a story of Odysseus enduring what God, man, Mother Nature, and the elements could throw at him and somehow he still manages to survive. A “revenant” is a ghost returned from the grave, often to terrorize the living, but what we’re witness to is an example of torture porn, as there’s some question whether DiCaprio is even acting. Instead he’s forced to endure every notion of physical hardship the director could batter him with, growing ridiculous after awhile, where we’re forced to witness a series of grunts and groans and moaning to the heavens with close-ups on a bloodied face, going to excessively showy and gratuitous heights, literally piling on the misery, becoming narcissistically brutal, where the primitive conditions feel like a return to Neanderthal times, forcing DiCaprio to plunge into frozen rivers, stagger half-naked through the frigid cold, jump off a hundred-foot cliff while riding a horse yet surviving with all his limbs intact, sleep in the carcass of a dead animal, grab fish out of water or meat from a freshly killed animal and eat it raw, blood dripping from his mouth. It becomes pathetic when a filmmaker feels obliged to wring every ounce of anguish and abomination out of the situation, intentionally bombarding the audience with just how dire and destitute his situation is, turning wretched after awhile, reminiscent of Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004), piling on the gloom and doom, so that the mindnumbing effect on the audience feels overly sadistic and tortuous, as if the intent of the director is to literally pile on every vile aspect of human torment, which has the effect of intentionally pummeling an audience into submission. Perhaps even worse, the film is so blatantly moralistic, all good or evil, and goes to such extraordinary lengths to copycat the cinematic style of Terrence Malick in The New World (2005) or 2011 Top Ten Films of the Year #1 The Tree of Life, from the vastness of primeval landscapes (shot by the same cinematographer) to the spirit voices of the dead that accompany Glass’s journey, an offensive tactic to cinephiles, as the eloquence of Malick’s transcendent films are so uniquely reverent and sacred, yet here it feels so meaningless, as his characters are one-note throughout, without an ounce of progression throughout the storyline. Tom Hardy was lauded for his performance, becoming the personification of evil, yet it sounds like he has rocks in his mouth, as you can’t understand a word he says throughout the entire picture. While this over-indulgent effort is hailed for its brutality, garnering 12 Academy Award nominations, yet it’s another Hollywood exercise of excess and exaggeration, feeling stupefying empty for a nearly 3-hour experience, clearly becoming one of the most overrated films of the year.
Guest review by Jonathan Dabian
So, I love the film, actually. And I kind of hate it. But I’ll get to that later.
So, I love the film, actually. And I kind of hate it. But I’ll get to that later.
I think you have misjudged the film. Rather harshly...and a little inaccurately. You don’t like violence and brutality in film. That’s ok. I get that. Unfortunately, I think that kind of blinds you to certain films.
This film exists in the realm of Ernest Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy. For these authors, life is about the interplay of simple animal survival with higher concepts and masculine ideals like responsibility, duty, self-actualization, and engagement with society. Malick plays in this realm too, particularly in The Thin Red Line. I’m not referring to the “nature photography” you were talking about, but about the ways that Elias Koteas’ & John Cusack’s characters handled their duty in leading their men in assaults. They knew the costs would be monstrous, but they had their objectives, and they were determined to honor their duties and fulfill their responsibilities.
I do not think the film resides in the Manichean black & whites you see. Pretty much every character is grey. The American and French trappers aren’t purely victims. They’re ravaging the environment by killing all of the animals the local Native American populations relied-upon for survival. And they’re doing it simply to obtain furs for the fur trade. The Arikara warriors are one of the two main antagonists in the film (from Glass’ perspective), but they aren’t unreasoning. Their rampage is motivated by the willful destruction of their environment by the French and American trappers, the assault upon their tribe by American soldiers, and the kidnapping of their Chief’s daughter by the French trappers. More specifically, Glass is defending himself and his son against the Arikara and Fitzgerald, while simultaneously being party to the destruction of the environment committed by the American trappers and soldiers (see also the destruction of the buffalo herds, which is referenced in at least two shots with the piles of buffalo skulls). Fitzgerald is in the same position being a party to the destruction of the environment and the murderer of Glass’ son. Glass and Fitzgerald are also, however, fighting for their own survival in their own Western/American/Capitalist world. While we can judge them negatively for their destruction of the environment that the Arikara and Pawnee rely upon to survive, we can’t judge them negatively for their desire to survive within their own worlds. EVERYONE has the right to survive (but not at the expense of someone else’s survival). Neither of the main characters, or the four cultures portrayed in the film (American, French, Pawnee, Arikara), are purely black and white (well, maybe the Pawnee).
In fact, the only people in the film who aren’t portrayed negatively in some way are the Pawnee who are victims of both the European colonials and the Arikara. They’ve been driven from their homes by the assault upon the environment, and Arikara depredations (the Pawnee man who saves Glass mentions that his family and village were massacred by the Arikara), assault by soldiers (Glass’ wife was killed by soldiers, and his son nearly so as well); and those Pawnee left are stuck living in a slum outside the fort. Their women are used as prostitutes inside the fort by American trappers.
You mention the “spirit of Terrence Malick.” In many ways this is due to both of them using Emmanuel Lubezki as their shared Cinematographer. However, I maintain that while there’s certainly a lot of “natural beauty” and landscapes in both films, the use of natural settings is thematically VERY different for the two directors. Malick focuses on making his natural scenes quasi-religious and philosophical. Iñárritu uses these big natural vistas in the background, but he doesn’t elevate them to the level of poetry like Malick does (outside of a handful of scenes). Iñárritu uses nature as the background. Malick uses it as the subject. Lubezki just happens to be driving the camera for both.
Glass’ journey is driven due to, initially, his commitment to duty (his job as lead tracker and guide); and then after Fitzgerald’s betrayal and murder of his son, commitment to his son/family. His journey is filled with horrors, but it is necessary, even with the massive threats to his own survival, to fulfill his duty to his son and repay the debt due to Fitzgerald. To abrogate this responsibility would be unthinkable. He might as well be dead otherwise. This is the same dilemma that motivates Koteas’ & Cusack’s characters in The Thin Red Line. Koteas’ character abrogates his responsibility. He disobeys his orders and loses his command and his place among his men. Essentially, he loses his life and his place in society. Cusack’s character does his grim duty. He sees some of his men die. He kills many others (the Japanese). However, he fulfills his duty and preserves his place in society and his ability to continue leading, and protecting, his men. (Actually, I’ve totally forgotten to mention Caviezel’s character too. He faces the same dilemma as Koteas’ character, initially chooses the same path as Koteas’ character, and then re-embraces his duty and pays the ultimate price for it. But in doing so, he protects the rest of the men in his scouting party and the lives of his entire Company). This is very similar to the paths followed by Hemingway’s protagonists Robert Jordan (For Whom the Bell Tolls) and Thomas Hudson (Islands in the Stream). McCarthy’s protagonists Suttree, Moss, and The Man also engage with these issues in Suttree, No Country for Old Men, and The Road (respectively).
Since seeing The Revenant, I have been haunted by the final images of Glass climbing up the hill, favoring his wounds, to see a hallucination of his gentle Pawnee wife in idyllic natural surroundings. In his eyes you can see all of the torture and pain, all of the threats to his survival that he’s endured over the last few weeks (see note below) in order to fulfill his duty. Contrasting all of that pain against an idyllic and peaceful existence with nature, the film is asking the audience: “Was it worth it? Was fulfilling his responsibility worth the horrors he committed and endured? Would he have been better-off disengaging and surrendering his agency, like Suttree, and Caviezel’s & Koteas’ characters in The Thin Red Line?”
Note: Remember, this film doesn’t take place over the course of a day or two. If I remember correctly, after they abandon Glass, the remaining scout says it’s going to take them three weeks to circumnavigate the mountains to the fort. Glass’ journey would have been even longer than that, due to his wounds, thus addressing your comment about his ability to suddenly walk. I don’t think he really regains his ability to walk again until after feeding from the downed buffalo with the Pawnee man and being placed in the make-shift, heated, healing teepee allowing his body to run a fever and burn out his infections.
Side note: As I said in the beginning, I love The Revenant. I also hate it. Mainly because this film has the “spirit” of what I think a film adaptation of the second of Cormac McCarthy’s greatest works (the other being Suttree): Blood Meridian. Blood Meridian is one of those novels that has been in perpetual script development hell in Hollywood. It’s epic. It’s violent. It’s incredibly risky, and probably unfilmable. However, the way Iñárritu filmed The Revenant is exactly how I imagine Blood Meridian. To the extent that, if anyone were to actually make Blood Meridian (and do it justice), it would probably be written off as a copy of The Revenant. That said, I doubt that Blood Meridian will ever be made. The scope of the film is simply too large and too niche.
Incidentally, another thing that makes me angry about this film is that it has MANY events, character traits, and bits of imagery that feature prominently in Blood Meridian. Blood Meridian includes a bear attack. Assaults on, and massacres of, Indian encampments. A LONG journey and manhunt across the entire SW US and Mexico, from the plains and deserts of Texas & Mexico to snow-covered alpine forests in the Rocky Mountains, to the SanFran coast. Massive brutal violent imagery, including mass scalp taking (hundreds of scalps taken for bounties). A main character who is partially scalped (Toadvine in Blood Meridian, Fitzgerald in The Revenant). The piles of buffalo skulls. (Thirty-one million buffalo were slaughtered by American settlers in the plains between 1868 and 1881 in order to protect new cropland and to deprive the Native American tribes of the animal they relied-upon most for their survival. They were nearly driven to extinction. Less than a million are alive today. The furs from the massacres were sent east. The corpses left to rot in the fields. The skulls stacked in piles. This imagery features many times in McCarthy’s various novels, and very prominently in the denouement and epilogue to Blood Meridian.) These were constant threats to the actual settlers of the period, but there are just too many similarities and overlaps between the two to avoid comparison should Blood Meridian ever be adapted to film.
I hope I’ve actually managed to say something half-way interesting, illuminating, and thought-provoking here.