By Adam Nayman
Dir. Alejandro GonzĂˇlez IĂ±Ăˇrritu, U.S., Twentieth Century Fox
It begins with an actual sea of trees, a ground-level tracking shot describing a forest floor covered in cascades of water flowing freely over roots and rocks so that the terrain appears partially submerged. Itâ€™s an amazing sight, and itâ€™s held for a strategically elongated series of beats, just long enough to take the full lay of the landscape. If beauty in cinema is as much a matter of how things are seen as the subject of that gaze, then this shot is doubly gorgeous. Through a combination of planning, patience, and camera placement, the director and his cinematographer assert their symbiotic co-authorship even as they bow to Nature. By humbly capturing an image, they have also created one.
The Revenant peaks early in this interlude before the intrusion of human forms, who bring with them chaos, corruption, and the sort of pummeling melodrama and significance-mongering that is Alejandro GonzĂˇlez IĂ±Ăˇrrituâ€™s stock-in-trade. Emboldened by the critical and popular success of Birdmanâ€”that ostensibly invigorating, hugely irritating statement of artistic and aesthetic principlesâ€”the director has gone chasing after Herzog, Coppola, Friedkin, and all the other mad, corporate-backed visionaries whoâ€™ve dragged movie stars into the jungle, or in this case, the Rockies. In interviews, IĂ±Ăˇrritu and his actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy have dutifully discoursed on how insanely, dangerously difficult the naturally lit, expensively intercontinental shoot proved to be, and how the crewâ€™s struggles with their environment and each other mirrored the action onscreen. They suggest, helpfully, that this long, punishing movie about an onerous questâ€”a stranded trapper tracking down the man who left him for deadâ€”could, just maybe, be some kind of allegory for itself, and thus a pretty important venture, all things considered, for all involved, not to mention for journalists, audiences, and Oscar voters as well.
The main difference between The Revenant and, say, Apocalypse Now or Fitzcarraldoâ€”two flawed epics that were, indeed, allegories of themselves and pretty important ventures, all things consideredâ€”is that thereâ€™s no real madness in it. Thatâ€™s surely to IĂ±Ăˇrrituâ€™s credit in a practical sense: nobodyâ€™s going to seriously criticize a director for not ruining careers or nearly getting people killed. But the overall impression is of a film that plays by the rules even as its director made an on-set fetish of flouting them. Shot for authenticityâ€™s sake in chronological order at outposts in Western Canada and Argentinaâ€”meeting in the middle to approximate America circa 1823â€”and, supposedly as sans CGI as possible (â€śif we ended up in green screen with coffee and everybody having a good time . . . most likely the film would be a piece of shit,â€ť crowed Herr Director), The Revenant is indeed an allegory for itself, but maybe not in the way it was intended. If IĂ±Ăˇrritu means this story of a noble, mortally wounded hero surviving and conquering on his own uncompromised terms as a self-portrait, then itâ€™s one steeped in arroganceâ€”so much that the widescreen can barely contain it.
In Birdman, IĂ±Ăˇrritu (and his coscreenwriters) inveighed against, among other things, the lack of originality that turned audiences into passive consumers; their hero was a hack actor clinging to a scintilla of principle and, in the process, transforming himself into a transcendent performer. What does it say, then, that so much of the putatively audacious and outrageous spectacle of The Revenant feels borrowed from other movies? An extended set piece showing a raid by Ree Indians on a troupe of American fur traders is straight out of the Saving Private Ryan playbook, with the mobile camera catching sudden-death atrocities at the corner of the frame. Technically, the aesthetic is differentâ€” extended 360-degree perspectives instead of frenetic editing. The basic atmosphere of hysteria and dread is identical, however, which probably says less about universals of combat and mortality than the influence of one serious Hollywood entertainer on another, with the latterâ€™s work looking short-stacked in comparison.
And so it goes, with almost every aspect of the film. The sinuous long takes are an Emmanuel Lubezki specialty, and canâ€™t help but evoke the cinematographerâ€™s work on The New World, an appropriate reference point, perhaps, but also one whose deep, ineffable strangeness on a shot-to-shot level exposes the conventionality of IĂ±Ăˇrrituâ€™s aesthetics. Contrast Malickâ€™s fleeting magical realist flourishes at the end of The New Worldâ€”the jarring, quick-cut montage to symbolize Pocahontasâ€™s death and her spiritâ€™s progress from civilization back to the elementsâ€”with IĂ±Ăˇrrituâ€™s imitative imagery of a bird escaping a mortally wounded womanâ€™s chest. The difference is one of speed and subtlety, but also trust, between the director and audience and also for himself and his powers of suggestion. In The New World everything in creation is made to appear hallucinatory; in The Revenant we get bracketed-off hallucinations to delineate the feelings of its main character, and if the shots of mysterious, skeletal structures and levitating earth mothers (Malick, by way of Tarkovsky) are diverting within the surrounding context of blood-and-guts realism, theyâ€™re also more prosaic than their creator would probably admit.
Speaking of that blood-and-guts realism: itâ€™s been oversold. Not that I was hoping The Revenant would make me cower under my theater seat, but the hype about its unprecedented visceral intensity is just so much PR (although of course, the strength of individual stomachs may vary). Certainly, the much-anticipated scene in which DiCaprioâ€™s explorer Hugh Glass is mauled by a bear has been calibrated for maximum-bone breaking audio-visual impact, and yet thereâ€™s something distracting about the evident seamlessness of thisâ€”of courseâ€”single-take special-effects showcase, which occurs so early in the story that itâ€™s essentially a prologue. We of course know that Glass is going to survive, and so it becomes a question of measuring his resilience as the object of unfathomable brutalization against our ownâ€”to see if we can take it as viewers. This isnâ€™t excitement, exactly: itâ€™s a rarefied species of exploitation filmmaking, and ultimately far less affecting or scary than a similar scene in last yearâ€™s cheapo Canadian thriller Backcountry, which didnâ€™t draw things out and used practical effects and ace sound design to nightmarish effect.
Glassâ€™s subsequent incapacitation catalyzes the entire plot of The Revenant, which shapes itself as a chase narrative where the pursuer seems fated to never quite catch up. After being roughly patched up by his mates and seemingly only for the sake of form, Glass becomes an albatross around the groupâ€™s neck; theyâ€™re never going to make it back to camp dragging him up mountain passes on a makeshift litter, and as they have reason to suspect that the natives who decimated their party are tracking them, they decide to move on without himâ€”save for three men who agree to preside over their comradeâ€™s dying hours in exchange for a reward from the fur company. One of these is Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), Glassâ€™s son by a Pawnee woman and a character who was not in Michael Punkeâ€™s source novel; another is Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a scraggly, half-scalped debtor who can barely conceal his rooting interest in Glassâ€™s failing prospects.
The predictableâ€”if still bracingly awfulâ€”result of the brief, early interaction between Hawk and Fitzgerald is IĂ±Ăˇrrituâ€™s main addition to the novel, and it says a lot about his sensibility that he felt he needed to ramp up what was on the page a fairly straightforward revenge narrative. The charitable reading is that by giving Glass an especially intimate reason to hate Fitzgeraldâ€”who in the book is simply the prime mover behind his abandonment to die in the woodsâ€”and run him down despite barely being able to breathe (much less walk), IĂ±Ăˇrritu has opened up the work to emotion; my own feeling is that heâ€™s the most mawkish sort of macho mythologizer, piling one more murder on top of a scenario thatâ€™s already plenty death-tinged so as to completely eliminate the possibility of ambivalence for his hero or for his audience. Itâ€™s hard to watch a father helplessly bear witness to something terrible happening to his flesh-and-blood, and at the same time easy to dismiss the artistic motivations underlying the horrorâ€”and to resent the attempt to turn something that would ideally emphasize the terrible indifference of the natural world into a simplistic moral tale.
Simply put, itâ€™s boring to watch something so pompously pretentious that stays so resolutely on beat. When Glass encounters a Native American man who gives him shelter and assistanceâ€”including a mystic healing ritual that permits one of those surreal dream sequencesâ€”we count down the moments until this helpful figure is uncaringly killed off; to mark the time, IĂ±Ăˇrritu contrives a scene where Glass and his new pal catch falling snowflakes on their tongues, which might as well be subtitled for our consideration as â€śPeaceful Idyll.â€ť Glass canâ€™t merely cut a hobbling, existential figure in the snowâ€”he has to be a grieving father, a friend to the indigenes, a protector of women (of course we get a naturalistic rape scene), and, above all, a righteously justified avenger. The last thing a movie aspiring to this level of violence and anguish should be is politically correct, but IĂ±Ăˇrritu always has to control the responses he generates. Thatâ€™s also why he feels the need to broadly thematize Vengeance instead of more simplyâ€”and, likely, satisfyinglyâ€”dramatizing it, a possibility thatâ€™s well within his ample skill set but not inflated enough to justify the epic mode heâ€™s taken on.
Within this overbearing conceptual framework, the actors are tasked with looking and sounding beaten down, which they accomplish (and possibly with some added documentary dimension). Hardy tries on another harsh American accent after Lawless and ends up with something close to Jeff Bridgesâ€™s True Grit growl, which he deploys with the same gusto as his other funny voices. It would be too bad if this protean performer allowed himself to become a pumped-up thespian stuntman Ă la Michael Shannon, with whom he shares a shamelessness thatâ€™s often indistinguishable from self-consciousness. As for DiCaprio, heâ€™s similarly game and more judicious in his exertions, but heâ€™s too contemporaryâ€”both as a lithe body type and as a celebrity personageâ€”to feel totally plausible.
Watching this irresistibly pretty movie star pantomime panic, I was reminded of Robert Redford as the titular hero of the 1972 film Jeremiah Johnson, another prestigious nineteenth-century survivalist drama of literary pedigree, and one that also had a difficult, although ultimately neatly controlled production. But itâ€™s telling how much more snugly Sydney Pollackâ€™s film reconciles its position as a kind of hairy-chested vanity project with the basic dictates of entertainment. As easy as it is to smirk at Jeremiah Johnson for its cobbled-together first-take style and sub-Altman â€śrevisioningâ€ť of frontier legend, it retains the easy appeal of a story well told, and never conflates the resourcefulness of its protagonist with that of its director.
Meanwhile, Jeremiah Johnsonâ€™s famous, zoomed-in final shot, which freezes Redford in a gesture of peace toward his Blackfoot rival, has become enshrined as a 1970s clichĂ©, one taken up by any number of New Hollywoodâ€“inflected movies, from to Michael Clayton to Zero Dark Thirty, albeit torqued in the direction of fashionable ambiguity. Ditto for The Revenant, which, after two-and-a-half hours of camera contortions, eventually comes to rest on a human face wearing an ambivalent expressionâ€”presumably a mirror of the viewer weighing the heaviness of all that has come before (he also looks directly at the camera, biting one of Steve McQueenâ€™s better gimmicks in 12 Years a Slave).
Here, IĂ±Ăˇrritu and Lubezki are trying their best to create an image but the truth it contains is unflattering in a way thatâ€™s unintended. Sometimes, a shot of a man whose experiences have left him speechless is a way of plugging into profundity. And sometimes itâ€™s just indicative of the fact that heâ€”and the filmmaker who has put him through his devastating pacesâ€”just doesnâ€™t have anything to say.