Friday, January 22, 2016
HEART OF DARKNESS: a review of "The Revenant"
Based in part upon the novel by Michael Punke
Screenplay Written by Mark L. Smith & Alejandro G. Inarritu
Directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu
**** (four stars)
If Leo doesn't win an Oscar for this, he ain't never gettin' an Oscar!
Dear readers, "The Revenant," Writer/Director Alejandro G. Inarritu's muscular, majestic follow up to his Best Picture Oscar wining "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance)" (2014), is a beast of a film. Certainly not resting upon any of his creative laurels and definitely not coasting upon his most recent grand success, Inarritu has pushed his energies even dangerously further out onto the edge and the result is a pummeling, powerfully haunting, beautifully brutal experience that demands to be seen upon the big screen. Yes, the film is garnering that awards season heat and deservedly so, for it is a fearless, uncompromising, multi-layered work that proves without any doubts that Alejandro G. Inarritu is one of our cinematic masters.
Set in the early 1820's, "The Revenant" stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass, a frontiersman aiding a collective of military hunting party members as they hunt and trap for pelts in the unsettled American wilderness. After most of the hunting party is slaughtered by a surprise ambush by the Arikara Indian tribe, Glass and the survivors--which includes his half Native American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) and the belligerent, cunning and racist hunter John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy)-- escape by raft and continue to attempt to evade both the Arikara and Pawnee tribes.
While scouting ahead to determine the best route for advancement, Glass stumbles upon a den of bear cubs and is soon brutally attacked by the protective Mother bear. Although Glass kills the bear, he is mortally wounded, leaving the hunters without their guide as they now have to carry him upon a makeshift stretcher. With their progress dangerously slowing down, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) offers payment to any of his men who offer to remain behind with Glass as well as the promise to give him a proper burial once he dies. In addition to Hawk, young hunter Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and the selfish Fitzgerald all volunteer, allowing Captain Henry and his group to depart for safety.
Once all alone and consumed with mounting fear over being discovered and killed by the Native American tribes, Fitzgerald attempts to murder Glass, who is unable to speak due to his wounds from the bear. As Hawk arrives right at the attempted murder and defends his Father, Fitzgerald kills Hawk and forces Bridger to partially bury Glass alive before making their getaway.
From here, Glass, haunted by the memory of his dead Native American wife, mortally wounded and consumed with revenge against Fitzgerald over the murder of his son, begins his odyssey to track down and kill John Fitzgerald.
Alejandro G. Inarritu's "The Revenant" is every inch as much of a high wire work of cinematic artistry as "Birdman," and perhaps even moreso. Much has already been written about the film's extremely challenging and arduous production, which involved a most intensive, and in-sequence filming schedule in remote (and frigid) locations solely with natural lightning, meaning that filming could only be accomplished during a few short hours during each day and making the urgency of completion that much more paramount.
Whatever the risks taken, every single one of those risks paid off in spades as Inarritu has presented a film that is nothing less than absolutely stunning to regard. Tremendous credit must be delivered to veteran Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki who makes every shot in the film glisten with piercing sharpness and clarity. From the film's spectacular opening long take ambush sequence, which unfolds in flowing fury to all of the images of the landscapes, the trees, the snow, the skies, the sun and especially, the water, Inarritu and Lubezki's crystalline display of the environment is shattering in its beauty. Perfectly augmented the visuals is the evocative, glacial score by collaborating Composers Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto and The National's Bryce Dessner. As with the imagery, the sound of "The Revenant" superbly envelops.
With the effective simplicity and ferocious directness of its plot supplemented by the visual and aural display, Inarritu's "The Revenant" is a work that exists within the same punishing yet hallucinogenic universe as Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" (19790 and for a more recent example, even George Miller's "Mad Max: Fury Road." In all of those films, the simplicity of the story sets the stage for us to explore an entire world via a certain geographical landscape where the environment functions as a full character alongside the human protagonists. Just as Coppola's Captain Willard is tasked with travelling upriver during the height of the Vietnam war to assassinate the insane Col. Kurtz, and Miller's Max Rockatansky aides Imperator Furiosa in her redemptive quest to emancipate the imprisoned women of a ruthless dictator in the post-apocalyptic wastelands, Alejandro G. Inarritu's "The Revenant" takes Hugh Glass and the audience upon a merciless journey through the wilderness of 19th century America straight into the heart of darkness for its characters, the audience and our country as a whole.
One of the most indelible images contained within "The Revenant" actually arrives near the very end of the film. Without going into any story or plot details, I will describe to you that all we see is a sustained shot of the brilliant wintry landscape with falling snow covering the trees and mountains with crystal clear river waters flowing into infinity, yet the snow covered ground at the forefront of the screen is profusely soiled with spilled blood and gore. Visual poetry that is especially violent. I have seen some reviews of the film that have bristled with the overall brutality contained within the film as if what we are watching is not too far removed from the "torture porn" aspect of horror films but something more like "pain porn," as we witness Leonardo DiCaprio as Glass endure one back-breaking extremity after another, including the disemboweling of a dead horse in order to sleep inside of its carcass to remain warm for the night. And to that, I reject those notions because this film is decidedly not "Dances With Wolves" (1990).
Despite its often dream-state presentation, Inarritu has delivered a film that feels to be of a more authentic tone of what life in the rural environment of 19th century America may have been like. Essentially, Inarritu has reconstructed the Western by taking any and all sense of romanticism and fantasies of frontier justice and games of "cowboys and Indians" out of the mix. For Inarritu, he is allowing "The Revenant" to help us explore our own violent past, how it has informed and influenced our present and how prevalent our inner conflicts remains in the 21st century. Returning to that piercing image from the film I described earlier, I think that what Inarritu is asking us to acknowledge and explore is how symbiotic everything in existence happens to be, whether person to person or person to the environment.
Within "The Revenant," we see how unforgiving humans are to each other as well as how unforgiving the environment is to humans. Perhaps, it is only through a sense of mutual respect and adherence to those forces more powerful than oneself can there be any sense of harmony or resolution. This may sound to be a bit more New-Ageish for some of you. Yet, with how bleak and grim "The Revenant" actually is, Inarritu is holding up a mirror to ourselves, suggesting overall that the ways we do tend to treat each other and the world in which we live has not served us well to date, so is it time for an alternative or should we just continue onwards, forever ensconced in conflict?
Just as with Quentin Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight," Inarritu has emerged with a story that cuts appropriately and uncomfortably to the viscious core of how America as we know it was founded and built upwards, with the seeds of racism, subjugation and genocide planted deeply and forever growing. With the two characters of Glass and Fitzgerald, we are witnessing two sides of a certain coin where one White figure has attempted to try and assimilate himself within an indigenous culture while the other White figure exists to exterminate it.
One scene early in the film, in which Glass protectively admonishes his biracial son for being confrontational to the members of the hunting party, most notably John Fitzgerald, provides a perfect echo to the world children of color must face against White authority figures, regardless if the content of their character is deserving of respect or not. Glass fiercely tells Hawk to remain silent no matter what is said by Fitzgerald, a repellent, greedy, self-serving figure who makes horrific statements, often referring to Native Americans as "tree niggers," and who feels himself simultaneously superior, entitled and yet somehow victimized, therefore justifying his bottomless anger. I think the connections to our current socio/political landscape are as apparent as they are poetically delivered.
Additionally, and most pointedly is the character of Elk Dog (Duane Howard), a Pawnee leader searching for his captured daughter Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk'o). Within one of the film's earliest scenes, we see how the taking of Powaqa exists as just one more atrocity committed against the indigenous peoples of this nation as land, animals, resources and now family has been stolen. Again, Inarritu leaves the connections for us to make but I do think that his agenda and provocations are clearly weaved into the narrative, which makes "The Revenant" exist as far more than an extended revenge yarn.
Leonardo DiCapiro's performance is magnificently towering and grueling. What is especially remarkable this time around is how the character of Glass, due to his injuries from the grizzly bear, is essentially a silent figure...save for the grunts, moans, and screams of course. Therefore, DiCaprio is delivering a performance that is essentially wordless for much of the running time, making the expert usage of all aspects of his physicality that much more incredible to regard. For an actor who never "phones it in," and always seems to twist himself inside out for every role he has chosen to play, DiCaprio's work in "The Revenant" is especially intense to say the least, making all of the accolades bound to arrive for him all more than well deserved.
As the film's antagonist, Tom Hardy is absolutely formidable. While Hardy's performance is completely representative of the cowardly yet unrepentantly cruel nature of John Fitzgerald, he is also compulsively watchable, threatening to steal the screen from DiCaprio every time they share the space. This sense of healthy competition and partnership between DiCaprio and Hardy only serves the film as a whole for the better, as Fitzgerald's fear and racism based rage (note how Fitzgerald has already been partially scalped by the film's opening) works as a counterpoint to Glass' grief fueled rage, resulting in a constantly revolving cycle of violence.
Alejandro G. Inarritu's "The Revenant" illustrates the work of an artist unwilling to take the easy route as this filmmaker continuously searches for ways to keep himself inventive and challenged and we, in the audience, are fully able to reap the rewards of his efforts. Inarritu has helmed an outstanding film that far transcends the boundaries of its genre, and unearths a stirring experience of remarkable profundity while dazzling the senses with white-knuckle fury.
"The Revenant" is one of 2015's highest successes.