Happy 2016! Here's to a year full of cinematic treats, surprises, and many many superheros. To start things off, let's have a look at Oscar darling The Revenant, Alejandro G. Iñárritu's tale of a zombie mountain man out for unsuspecting settlers' brains.
If only. It actually deals with a mountain man left for dead after being mauled by a bear, and his quest for sweet sweet revenge after finding himself to be not dead. The film is both brutal and starkly beautiful, but beneath its polished façade only the weakest of meaningful substance is to be found. To call it a good movie, as so many have done, is not defensible.
Usually I try not to be so frankly negative when I evaluate a movie. For all of the man hours of labor and unquantifiable talent that goes into making a movie, there ought to be at least something worthy of praise, even if certain filmmaking decisions don't necessarily pay off. But in this film's case, it is the entire idea that doesn't pay off. What Mr Iñárritu set out to create was a grimly realistic depiction of frontier violence, and that is what we get. There is no substance to the narrative beyond that, nor cause to call his brand of punishing, misanthropic spectacle "entertainment." Complicating matters is that, somehow, it is thought of as being some kind of once-in-a-lifetime cinematic miracle, and so it likely won't catch such slack from this writer, who would have checked the time repeatedly if he hadn't have turned his phone off in the screening like you're supposed to.
My issues are the following:
1) Its parts do not add up to the self-consciously important "tone-poem" it wants so desperately to be. Nor, really, to anything. It tries to be both a revenge western and a lyrical meditation on life and death and stuff, and fails to achieve either. On the one hand, its by-the-book plotting and simplistic expositional dialog, on par with something like Commando as far as depth goes, deflate whatever gravity may have been generated by its other (often genuinely harrowing) elements. Which is fine, I guess, if you're into that kind of action movie. But The Revenant takes itself so darn seriously and provides so little in the way of meaningful return that its action becomes an exhausting and unexciting exercise of grime. All this is married via Emmanuel Lubezki's out-of-body cinematography and some moody cello music to an underside that really really wants to be transcendentally introspective, but is mostly vague, imagistic rambling. The result is a final product that, notwithstanding its careful technical precision, feels haphazardly, almost indifferently, stitched together.
2) Its careful technical precision distracts from the story it is trying to tell. We can all agree that Mr Lubezki is a wizard. His free-floating work on Gravity made it the remarkable movie it was. But space and the wilderness are not the same places, and his near-identical approach in the photography here often gets in the way of itself. The images he captures when the camera does not move are always striking, simple compositions. When his camera goes on one of his set-length rambles, often disorientation is the result. It does not feel spontaneous or necessary like camera moves almost always do; instead, its careful choreography is apparent at every step, in a way becoming the most important character in any given scene. Also, when projected onto a 30-foot screen, the constant lack of a cinematic compass becomes almost nauseating. It neither observes the action, nor really becomes a part of it; it interrupts the action like a stagehand sneaking around the stage mid-performance to touch up the set.
3) Its intentionally pied-piper reception. This is obviously not a critique of the film, entirely. For all my decrying it above, it is a competent picture produced by professionals. Its design elements, makeup, and costumes especially all shine. But taken in any other context than a reigning Oscar champion's buzz-fraught next entry, the film cannot be considered really good. It is a fully-developed artistic vision from its director, and there is nothing wrong with that. But it is nothing like the 21st-century Apocalypse Now some (including its own publicity machine) make it to be. Of course, hype is fine, but these external voices also somehow end up seeping into the film, making it all the more misleading. Every scene seems aware that it might be the one chosen as a clip for Oscar night, and comes out with its best face on. But it is a face that hides a remarkably empty interior, one that delights in brutality for its own sake and nothing more, as if discomfort in both performer and audience is the same thing as emotional connection through exploration of real, even if painful, themes. Its self-knowledge does not create value in a vacuum.
Encountering a self-consciously "great" film that is neither entertaining nor insightful is the risk one must take during awards season, and in this case, The Revenant is unambiguously neither. It is technically sound and exhibits a cold beauty of landscape, but the ten bucks you might have set aside for a ticket would be better employed on something else. And at least where I live, there are cold snowy mountains to look at from my window anyway.
The Revenant features Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, and Will Poulter, and is rated R for fairly constant general frontier violence and some swearsing.
Written by Mark L. Smith and Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu
by Chase Harrison