Friday, January 1, 2016

"The Revenant"

 3 / 5 

The Revenant creates a new category of cinema: movies as extreme endurance sport. The film is grueling to watch.  The question, I suppose, is whether the superlative filmmaking skill on display helps make the experience of watching The Revenant any easier, and for me the answer was no -- its unending pain and violence leads to no catharsis, just a sense of forlorn despondency.

The Revenant makes Mel Gibson's ultra-violent movies The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto look like fun family films.  If the film has a specific philosophical point it's trying to make, it seems to boil down to: Life is hard, then you die, except when you don't, and that's even worse.

It takes place, to be fair, in a bleak time -- the early 1800s, not too long after Lewis and Clark journeyed across America.  Back when our elementary school teachers taught us about those two explorers, we imagined that their journey was difficult and fraught with peril, but pictured them as proud, intrepid men.  If we imagined their experiences to be anything like what happens in The Revenant, third graders everywhere would throw their history books down screaming and go cower in the corner.  The Revenant is not kids' stuff; I'm not even sure it's adult stuff.

The movie proposes that the only worthwhile measure of a man is his ability to withstand physical pain and mental anguish.  It's a macho movie, for macho men who think Bear Grylls is a wimp.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, an early American fur hunter who's on an expedition through the country's vast, untamed wilderness of the Louisiana Purchase when his party is attacked by Native Americans.  Most of them die, shot through the neck and head with arrows, hacked to death, trampled, beaten, left for dead bleeding in the frozen river.  This is the easy part of The Revenant.

The survivors begin making their way back to Fort Kiowa in what's now South Dakota when Glass crosses the path of a grizzly bear and her cubs.  In one of the most savage scenes in any big-budget studio film, the bear attacks Glass with unrelenting ferocity.  We watch every rip, every tear, every slice.  When he's finally found, he's so gravely wounded that survival seems impossible, but the expedition leader (Domhnall Gleeson) manages to stitch his wounds.  He orders two members of the remaining unit to stay behind, and Glass's half-Native American son also remains.

But fellow trapper Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) sees no point in trying to keep Glass alive, and when Glass's son objects, Fitzgerald kills him.  He and the frightened, bullied Bridger (Will Poulter) leave Glass for dead in the harsh wilderness.

With grievous wounds, Glass inches his way toward survival -- and revenge.  It's an undeniably gripping story, told with incredible artistry.  The film crew, led by director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, must have suffered for the sake of the movie.  Watching it, I imagined that there might be a story behind the film as great as the legendary history of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo.

The Revenant is a spectacular film to behold, and also to hear, with an ethereal, not-always-musical score by a number of composers, including Riyuichi Sakamoto, that marries with the stunning images from cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki in ways I've never seen happen on film before.

Beyond that, The Revenant is a film that dares you to watch it, and offers no emotional reward if you do.  What happens to Glass at the end of the film, where it all leads, is as grim and hopeless as everything that has come before.  The Revenant is an undeniable accomplishment.  So is sitting through it.

Viewed Dec. 31, 2015 -- ArcLight Hollywood


No comments:

Post a Comment