Tuesday, February 9, 2016

"The Revenant" Review: A Technical Achievement That Falls Prey To Its Director's Indulgent Tendencies


Sometimes a film's success just baffles me. Last year it was Birdman and this year it is The Revenant and both as it happens were made by the same man, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. While both critics and audiences lavish heaping amounts of praise on the film I find myself struggling to determine whether or not it is just me or if the film is just not as amazing as it has been made out to be. Join me as I try to unravel my mixed feelings for The Revenant. Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats:   
Projector Type: 2D Digital           
Film Rating: R
Film Runtime:  2 hr 36 min
Studio: Sony Pictures
Release Date: December 25, 2016

Biases:  
Loves: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy
Likes: Revenge flicks
Neutral: Style over substance
Hates: All the attention the film is getting due to its tough shoot when all films are tough to make
How did they do that frickin bear attack?: If there was digital trickery it was impossible to tell.


Glass leads the survivors out of the Indian occupied territory.

It is 1823, a hunting party led by Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) is collecting extremely valuable pelts in the Montana mountains when they are attacked by a large group of Indians looking to drive them off their land. After losing more than half their men the survivors look to their guide Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his half Indian son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) for safe passage out of the territory. When Glass is attacked by a bear and mortally wounded it is decided to leave him behind along with his son, a trapper by the name of Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and the idealistic young man Bridger (Will Poulter) until they can send back help. Upset about being left behind and worried about an impending attack by Indians, Fitzgerald decides to leave Glass behind which instigates a fight between him and Hawk that leaves Glass' son dead. Left for dead Glass rises from his proverbial grave and sets out on a journey of revenge against the man who killed his son.

There has been a lot of talk about how difficult it was to make The Revenant. Filming in 3 different remote locations, crew members complaining about the conditions and then either quitting or being fired, going in and out of frozen rivers, living in animal carcasses, things they were forced to eat, constantly fighting hypothermia and Inarritu's commitment to shoot the film in chronological order (a rarity when making any film let alone for one shooting in such grueling conditions). All of that sounds kind of crazy and both the actors and crew deserve an immense amount of respect for taking on such a challenge. But while it is impressive what they accomplished it seems to have blinded people a bit when looking at whether or not the film is as good as those statistics indicate.

The most impressive scene in the whole film, hands down.

On the surface The Revenant is a simple minded revenge flick with one man wronged who then seeks revenge the man who wronged him, simple and to the point but not exactly Earth shattering stuff. Underneath that facade however lies a film that is clearly more focused on bringing to light how Native American Indians were robbed of their land, their way of life and their heritage, a much more noble prospect that is buried under the revenge plot. But when you dig even deeper you can also see the love Inarritu has for the landscape as evidenced by a copious amount of admittedly breathtaking shots of the wilderness used as its backdrop. Despite all of that though it is sort of staggering just how overlong and needlessly plodding the film becomes after its intense first act.

This has nothing to do with wishing for more action or a higher body count (the film's quota on bodies is met very early on). No, this is more about how unfocused the film becomes once it shifts into full on survival mode. When Glass finally gets his bearings and heads out on his own Inarritu becomes extremely blinded by his need to remind us time and time again just how ghastly it is to live off the land while simultaneously showing us how beautiful it can be. While there is nothing inherently wrong with that approach it is debatable whether or not we needed a whole hour of screen time to get the point across.

Get used to seeing Leo eat raw food because he does it...a lot.

For an example of this excessive nature let us look at Glass' journey back to civilization. After he wakes up he finds an old deer carcass that has been picked clean but due to his immense hunger proceeds to dig some yummy bone marrow out of its skeletal remains. OK, he is gonna have to improvise if he wants to survive, we get it. Then we see him trap a fish and upon catching it immediately rips into it raw despite having a warm fire about ten feet away he could use to cook it. Moments later he comes across a dead buffalo and once again despite having a fire a few feet away he sinks his teeth into its raw goodness (seriously, why doesn't he just cook the dam thing?). Finally he has an accident which kills his horse yet in a surprising twist he doesn't eat it despite gutting it out completely. Instead he strips down bare ass naked and uses its carcass as a sleeping bag Ton Ton style.

Don't you think we would have gotten the point after maybe the raw fish? The audience doesn't really need to be hammered over the head with the fact that he has to struggle to survive. Perhaps if it moved along a little faster it wouldn't have been so bad but that last paragraph literally spans over an hour of the films runtime. Intermittently we do cut back and forth between Glass and Fitzgerald which is the film's one true saving grace as Fitzgerald is ten times more interesting than Glass ever was. Whenever he would start talking it was immediately engaging while Glass was saddled with a rather generic backstory via some of the most bizarre dream sequences you will likely see while not dropping acid. Then interspersed through all of that are these ridiculously indulgent shots of the scenery that would be more at home in a nature documentary.

Tom Hardy's Fitzgerald is the unsung hero of the film.

Then there is Inarritu's insistence to make every shot some sort of clever gimmick. Whoa the camera goes over the waterfall, whoa the camera is attached to the horse, whoa the camera is up the actor's nose, whoa it turns slowly instead cutting away...sheesh man, really? It's OK to be inventive with your shots but make it mean something more than just to show off how cool you can make it look. This isn't a commercial, this is a film with a story and how it is shot should service the story being told not the ego of its creator. If you want an example of how to be clever with the camera while servicing the story then take a look at director Alfonso Quaron's modern day masterpiece Children of Men where the visionary filmmaker uses long continuous shots to build up tension and put the audience in the shoes of its characters. Inarritu isn't bad at it, he just uses it to the point excess where it starts to become more flashy than story related. Seriously, how many shots of treetops do we need in one movie?

Is there anything that I liked about The Revenant? Yes, a lot actually. The locations used throughout the film are astonishing to look at (when used as the backdrop to a scene, not just a shot of a tree) and you can see the actor's pain in each scene from being forced to film in such harsh conditions. Many think Leonardo DiCaprio deserves an Oscar for his performance but watching him here makes one think that maybe it wasn't so much acting as it was his actual reactions to working in below zero degree weather while filming. The journey of Glass may have been uninteresting but where Fitzgerald ends up narratively speaking makes the entire slog to get there worth it. The final confrontation between Glass and Fitzgerald is both a brutally bloody encounter and in regards to Fitzgerald one of the most satisfying character arcs in any film from the past year.

Shots like this truly capture the dangerous beauty of the wilderness.

One final bit of praise must go to what will surely go down as one of the most technically impressive sequences of all time, which is of course Glass versus the bear. While the scene happens early on in the film it sets the stage for the entire story, whether you are into it or not and one cannot argue how expertly executed it was. From a simple filmmaking standout the scene is extraordinary and one of the few moments where Inarritu's need to be clever with the camera actually benefits the film. Even though it happens early on, if the film had ended after the bear scene it would have alright because it is just that awesome and likely destined to be a regularly viewed clip on Youtube years from now.

You may be asking yourself whether or not I liked or hated The Revenant, well you might be surprised to learn that even with all the problems I had with it I came away from the experience pleased overall. This is a clear cut case of there being more pros than cons as the sluggish middle half, the consistent need to show off with the camera as if making a nature film and the indifference I had towards the character of Glass was heavily outweighed by the scenic beauty of the landscape itself, a strong opening act and a somewhat strong final act. But by far the biggest pro for the film is both the character of Fitzgerald and Tom Hardy's dedication to the role. It may have been one of the hardest films to actually film but that doesn't mean anything when the end product is this disjointed.


FINAL THOUGHTS:

I am not hating on the film because of all the love it is receiving from all the award ceremonies out there, it is more a matter of taste in this instance. I clearly see why some may go heads over heals for it because it is a competently made film with a great cast and some of the most beautiful locations you will see in any film. But there are just a few too many missteps in both the editing room and thematically for me to fully embrace it the way others have. It is good, just not as great as it has been made out to be.

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