Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Dec 25, 2015 12:53 pm 
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Dashing through the snow

In The Revenant Iñárritu abandons the sense of humor he showed in last year's enjoyable Birdman tour de force and embarks on a harsh nineteenth century outdoor adventure of wrongdoing, survival, and revenge with Tom Hardy as the villain and Leonardo DiCaprio as the hero. DiCaprio goes through his paces, and they say this could be his Oscar win. But what he's doing, though challenging, is more activity than acting. He groans, wheezes, drags himself across the snow for miles. He disembowels a dead horse and climbs inside naked to survive a snowstorm. DiCaprio, a hugely gifted actor (as is Tom Hardy), has always been ready for any challenge, including natural ones, as shown in The Beach. He is compelling here, but has been more interesting in numerous other roles. This is an extreme northern Western, full of dramatic outdoor scenes, Terrence Malick-style cinematography, Malickian whispered voiceovers (some in the Pawnee language); a full string orchestra continually playing at top volume. The result is a numbing and exhausting experience, impressive, maybe, but not particularly enlightening.

There will be survival and revenge. But first DiCaprio endures a threefold attack by a very big bear. The opening scene, a thrilling warm-up, is a concerted attack on a gang of American fur trappers by Native Americans on horseback whose marksmanship with bow and arrow is so good they can shoot men in the throat before then can speak up to warn their fellows what's afoot. The Americans are gathering together all their pelts when attacked, and they try to run off with them, but of the three dozen or so men all but nine, we're told, are killed in the raid. Their frontiersman leader is Hugh Glass (DiCaprio). It is at this stage, when the others are not around, that Glass is attacked by the bear, who has spotted him eying her young. He is repeatedly mauled. It's an extraordinary feat of cinematic staging. Nothing quite this intense in the way of computerized animal wrangling has been done before, this side of Life of Pi. Unfortunately, unlike the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw, who writes that this sequence made him clench "into a whimperingly foetal ball," I regret to say that I viewed it with detachment. I was too aware that it was fakery. Sometimes it's better to suggest than to show. At any rate, when the other surviving fur trappers return, they find Glass underneath the dead bear, bleeding copiously, his back and neck slashed, wheezing, gasping, unable to speak. They sew him up as best they can.

A little background comes here. We learn Glass had a Pawnee wife (Grace Dove), and his young son, known as Hawk (discovery and aspiring filmmaker Forrest Goodluck), is with them. An attempt is made to carry Glass on a stretcher but the terrain is too steep, and the decision is made to leave him with Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter of Narnia and the Maze Runner films). Glass isn't expected to live. Fitzgerald and Bridger are charged with giving him a proper burial and promised an extra pay bonus for doing so. But Fitzgerald hasn't the patience, and decides to finish Glass off. To pave the way, off camera he stabs and kills Hawk, who for some reason he seems to despise. Bridger, who was fond of Hawk and is disturbed by his disappearance, is the conscience of the pair. But he's no match for the wicked Fitzgerald, who covers Glass, still breathing, with wet dirt in a burial hole they've dug, and forces Bridger to come away with him.

Glass may be left for dead, but he immediately goes into action, even though at first all he can do is crawl. A lot of snow, a lot of Malickian wide-angle shots of treetops, and a lot of survival skills follow. Again, I fear I was relatively unmoved, finding DiCaprio's efforts impressive but the Malickian cinematography and the soaring strings distracting. Certainly things look touch-and-go for Glass during and right after the bear mauling. But once he struggles out of the fresh grave and sprints off on forearms and elbows, I knew he was going to make it. The only question is going to be how he'll eventually find and punish Fitzgerald. I suppose I was not surprised when Glass, who has done so much crawling, eventually begins to walk normally again.

A problem with The Revenant is its villain. Hardy isn't very interesting here, and not for a moment sympathetic. While he is over articulate as the talky Kray twins in the current Legend, here he puts on an American hillbilly accent that gets the better of him, causing him to swallow half his lines. Since both are covered with dirt and moisture and bushy haired and bushy-bearded, it's not always instantly easy to tell Glass and Fitzgerald apart.

While it's primarily based on a novel by Michael Punke and the Wyoming frontiersman's true source story of abandonment and revenge, a lot more is going on here in Iñárritu's movie (which is by far his most expensive, $135 million, $100 million more than he ever spent before). As we follow Glass's lonely survival struggle, we also follow a tribal chief (Duane Howard) searching for his kidnapped daughter Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o), and we catch up with the US military expedition led by Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) that had been sponsoring the fur trappers. It's momentarily satisfying to see Bridger refuse to accept the bonus; but the scenes involving Fitzgerald and Henry seem mere distractions. Fitzgerald has to run off so Glass can hunt him down and the two men can tussle to the death, like bears. Maybe it's better to watch Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man instead of this picture: it is a far more authentic and thought-provoking confrontation with nature. But an immense amount of good work went into Iñárritu's new film, and his famous photographer, Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki, shot all the remarkable exteriors only with natural light.

The Revenant, 156 mins., premiered in Hollywood 16 Dec., opened in US limited theaters Christmas Day; wider, 8 Jan. 2016; UK, 15 Jan.; France,24 Feb. The title has recently been used for a zombie (2009) and ghost (2012) movie.


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