The Revenant (2016)
The Western is dead – long live the Western. If you’re a perceptive brave then you’ve possibly seen a recent cyclical bend to America’s pioneer history on the silver screen, as a defunct genre, long exiled to Boot Hill mutters a faint pulse of resurrection. You might have fallen for the blitzkrieg marketing for The Hateful Eight which framed it as an adult antidote to a certain space opera that still dominates multiplexes, a plea for clemency which follows in the trail of last year’s critical darlings Slow West and Bone Tomahawk. Are three films enough to warrant a mini-renaissance of the horse opera? Probably not, but if you inspect the fly-ridden corpse for further signs of life then you might be surprised that there are fresh drag marks into the wilderness, including The Salvation, The Homesman and Meek’s Cutoff over the past few seasons, with Jane Got A Gun, Far From Men, The Keeping Room and Broken Horse still yearning to find their homes among the prairies of the European exhibition market. All these have been eclipsed by foreign tycoon Alejandro González Iñárritu new film The Reverent which has recently been bathed in award nomination glory, a sinewy behemoth that has levered a $150 million budget from Iñárritu’s post Birdman Academy award success, with a litany of hellish production obstacles to add to the myth of great art arising from great difficulties. In the Missouri delta a frostbitten troop of fur trappers are ambushed by a grim Arikara war party, Hugh Glass (Leonardo De Caprio) and his mixed race son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) fleeing the massacre with a tawdry group of terrified survivors. The group is led by the purpose driven but overwhelmed Captain Hendry (Domahall Gleeson) whose unstable leadership just manages to keep one step ahead of their pursuers in the frigid wilderness, until Glass has a rather unfortunate dalliance with a maternally mauling grizzly bear and is mortally wounded in the films petrifying, vicious pinnacle. Hendry makes the grievous decision to abandon Glass with his son and two companions as protectors while they rush to civilization for reinforcements, with the grizzled John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) agitating for a merciful end to Glass’s suffering growing more urgent as the shrieking Arikara war-party closes in for the final kill…..
Iñárritu has long held a fascination for stories concerning fathers and sons, a hereditary interjection he has inserted into this American fable which the real Glass suffered alone back in the early 19th century as part of General Ashley’s expedition. This amendment to the historical record is not the first of missteps along this tortured, inhospitable and uncannily sublime odyssey. Like the courageous doomed defense of the Alamo or George Washington’s inability to emit falsehoods Glass’s survival odyssey has ballooned to mythic proportions in American culture, an ineffable allegory for the endurance of the pioneer spirit pitted against a frigid yet beautiful virgin land ready for the rape of free enterprise’s tearing talons. In Iñárritu’s hands that nationalist fervor is drowned in the raging waters of pure remorseless survival, wielding the landscape and its flora like a furious cudgel to beat his themes into our cranium, the impervious nature of man to avenge his kindred, the reservoir of grief that cannot be drained by any measure of blood sodden revenge. Survival and vengeance have always been keen drivers of the Western genre which this film harnesses as mount and saddle on the narrative trail, but these preoccupations get lost among Glass’s stumble through the vast wilderness, through icy rapids and frozen valleys, pure hatred propelling him to wreck his biblical retribution. The Reverent stumbles in its snowstorm of titanic influences, even from afar the film is hobbled from comparisons to Herzog’s enduring masculinity and Malick’s rueful celebrations of the divine, but there are also pious hymns to Robert Bresson through a seraphic sense of the spiritual, the immaculate sacrifice wisping throughout the frozen tundra, although Iñárritu’s philosophical stretch exceeds his formal and theological grasp. The first half an hour is staggering filmmaking on a pure visceral and visual level, the first nation attack explodes with all the remorseless carnage of the landing sequence in Saving Private Ryan, indiscriminate chaos and lacerating death erupting at every corner of the screen, in a long unbroken sequence that picks up the fortunes of both sides of the melee as it passes from one combatant to the next. Suitably stunned the rest of the film can’t hope to achieve such dizzying heights, as the rest of the film follows in a semi-paralysis of bruised skies and rushing, crystal cold water.
I’m loathe to again bow in pious supplication to the visual dimensions of a movie but you simply cannot sermonize on The Revenant and not revere it’s absolutely stunning photography, and even after a single screening I’ll assert that this is one of the most staggeringly beautiful films of the past few years. From the intimacy of the shivering fire shrouded interiors to the vast and glorious landscape exteriors, Chivo is the front-runner for his third Oscar in a row after Gravity and Birdman which will justifiably achieve Academy Award history. Apart from Lubeski’s visuals tribute must also be paid to the sound, a fantastic flotsam of animal cries and weather effects shrieking around the auditorium, punctuated with Ryuichi Sakamoto‘s percussion heavy minimalist score. It is odd then that despite these primordial ingredients that the film is so emotionally numb, there is no real connection to Glass nor his frantic scrabble for survival, while even quick asides to harness some moments of shared humanity seems irrelevant and forced. At one point Glass and a Pawnee guide take respite on their journey, and wonder at the beauty of snowflakes settling upon their tongues. In another Glass’s dream montages give us some backstory on his wife spiritual importance and her cruel, violent fate. Both hang distant and uncomfortable in the picture as interludes rescued from Malick’s cutting room floor, rather than a celestial beckoning to the fathomless mysteries of nature or a bereaved beauty which it seems is what Iñárritu intended.
Tom Hardy’s Oscar nomination makes a little more sense now that I’ve seen the film, wrapped in those icicle etched furs he is a guttural, trollish trapper who seems to be have been belched forth from Hades itself. He is no cypher however, his motives and actions arise from an uncomfortable selfish realism that mark him as a believable bastard not just a moustache twirling villain, but again after Bane and Max he is practically unintelligible in certain sequences, letting his hefty stature and furtive, darting eyes do all the talking. Similarly Leo utters maybe a dozen lines in the entire odyssey in an immensely impressive, physically draining performance, but for me he just didn’t sell the righteous rage he’s meant to be suffering, the internalized fury that keeps his black-heart beating just didn’t stretch from the screen and frankly I just didn’t care if he failed to fulfil his quest or not. Both performances are captured through precision sharp close-ups netted by the crews Arri Alexa 65 digital camera, their agonised faces looming over the pain and suffering like tableau in some stained glass window, an unconscious riposte to Tarantino’s recent analogue insistence. Unlike his chamber piece however this narrative reads like a condensed survivalist manual, a compacted Bear Grylls season boiled down to a 150 minute expedition, with desperate measures such as the grim Tautaun homage causing me to actually burst out laughing and immediately break any transformative spell.
The presentation of first nation people thankfully doesn’t cleave to the noble savage cliché which usually affects the Hollywood system, their indiscriminate cruelty and vengeance just as elemental and natural as the Europeans greed and indifference, although Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o) hunt of his kidnapped squaw daughter was a little garbled in narrative turns as the main driver of his people’s relentless pursuit of retribution. If you want to put hairs on your chest then here is Michael Mann interviewing Iñárritu on stage, an event I’m sure which influenced the Y chromosome constitution of the audience just by the testosterone churning through the auditoriums air. Memes are already rampant on the already infamous bear attack sequence, quite simply it is staggering achievement, not just for the physical intimidation and gruesome realism but also for its painfully protracted nature. It doesn’t quite 100% convince with the matted CGI hair follicles but it’s pretty damn close, and the craftsmen have all been sworn to secrecy as to how they blended the digital with the on-set physical. Any fans of Cormac McCarthy who are following the long gestating adaption of Blood Meridian may have finally identified its dream director and team should that project ever come to fruition, as you must applaud The Revernant’s physical immediacy which approaches the lunatic vision of Aguirre Wrath of God or Apocalypse Now – at one majestic point an avalanche is detonated in the deep background, hundreds of miles away as Glass makes a key emotional breakthrough in the foreground. Although this hyperborean hegira is sure to leave you with images and memories of the remorseless beauty and danger lurking at the edges of the world the effect feels transient, an emotional void and lack of purpose that all the Academy Awards that the film is sure to win come February just can’t and won’t vanquish;