Friday, December 4, 2015
The Revenant (2015) A Film by Alejandro González Iñárritu
I can say with certainty that two scenes in The Revenant’s two-and-a-half hours benefit from the sensorial immersion approach—basically an aesthetic philosophy built around the use of real locations, natural light, and a wide angle lens that’s invited to be smothered with dirt, blood and other substances dredged up by the Earth—practiced by Alejandro González Iñárritu & Co. for the purposes of this film: both involve a rapidly encroaching attack on the protagonist. The first finds the hero, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), blindsided by a hungry mother bear; later, the incoming force is a small Native American troop on horseback. In both cases, the extreme expansion of space dramatizes the sudden jolt of danger in visual terms. Objects in the distance are much closer than they appear, so everything seems to move at breakneck speed. When the camera stays with Glass during retaliation—rolling with him in the mud in the first altercation, escaping with him on horseback in the second—the visual confinement (coupled with impeccable surround-sound that approximates his immediate perceptual sphere) augments the fear of ambient threat.
One could probably use that particular articulation of the style’s substance to justify the entirety of The Revenant, which follows Glass as he stumbles alone in an arctic wilderness with enemies on every horizon. But when even narrative lulls are graced with the constant reminder of immersive verisimilitude, so that an image of Glass sleeping functions more as a self-congratulatory spectacle of capturing DiCaprio’s exhales on the surface of the lens, the effects of the technique start to veer away from the purely psychology and story-driven.
What emerges most prominently in The Revenant, then, is not any particular vision of the world but rather a compulsive urge to impress. Stepping away from the one-take pomp of Birdman, Iñárritu still can’t resist making a display of his cojones a proximate justification for the emotions and ideas embedded in his stories. Here, the umbrella concepts are brutality and chaos, which permit the occasional marathon sequence shot choreographing all kinds of carnage and multi-directional madness. One of these spectacles is the film’s opening shot (the most likely to draw eye-rolling hyperbole all across the web this awards season), which stuffs the frame with an arrow in the neck here, a howling frontiersman there, all while Lubezki’s whipping-and-gliding steadicam takes on the frazzled perspective of an unarmed soldier trying to stay alive. We’re right in the middle of combat, I guess, but I just kept thinking about those dorm rooms in film school where zealous technicians-in-training marveled repeatedly at the ins and outs of Children of Men’s famous car ambush scene—which is to say, we’re more squarely within the fantasies of such people.
"When you see the film, you will see the scale of it. And you will say, 'Wow.'" – Iñárritu, The Hollywood Reporter
Even when the film settles into more conventional shot lengths and setups, it seeks other ways to ingratiate viewers to the audacity of its filmmaking. For one, an entire separate landscape film could probably be carved out of all the pillow shots here, each one cramping the narrative rhythm with images that could double as demonstrations for 4K clarity at your nearest Best Buy. Then there’s the near-comical dirtying of pretty-boy DiCaprio, which borders on the perverse: mud, snow, ice, human blood and animal guts cling to his wounds and body hair, the emblematic example of this particular thread being a scene when Tom Hardy’s self-preserving asshole literally shovels piles of dirt onto his body. In an awards landscape where great acting is synonymous with physical commitment and digestible gimmicks like the idea of a performer spending half the film with a busted voice box and a destroyed body, it all comes across nakedly as a play for DiCaprio’s eventual crowning.
Strip away the intensity and self-importance of its expression and The Revenant is just a smattering of clichés: the good guy avenging the death of his child; a live burial intended to set up a metaphorical “rebirth”; flashbacks to defining tragedies and vague pre-traumatic bliss (shot, of course, in slow-motion and with a differing color treatment); the Native American as a beacon of nobility, honor, and magical healing powers; the bad guy after a wad of cash and greener pastures. Indeed, the story is constructed only of such banalities. And for all the amorality and perceptual hysteria in its action, this is worlds away from the true boldness of Hard to Be a God; the film’s worldview, insofar as it has one, is fundamentally built on a sentimental belief in karma, summed up by Glass’s final revelation that “revenge must be enacted by God.” (I wasn't taking notes, so that's not the exact quote. Sorry.) Such platitudinous nonsense is why Iñárritu’s visual quotations of Andrei Tarkovsky’s bird-flying-from-bosom shot and levitation trope are so exasperatingly unearned. Here’s a guy simply flexing his technological and financial muscle and pretending his egotistical display exists in a continuum of Great Art.