Thursday, January 21, 2016

Hugh Glass And The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Year: 2015
Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson
Run Time: 2 hours 36 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

It’s Oscar season, so it’s easy to get swept up in the prestige picture fever. But now, more than ever, should be the time to make bold statements. To defy the status quo. To admit that I really didn’t like The Revenant. Like, at all. To be fair, so far the collected works of Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu have pretty much confounded me, so it might be possible to pass it off as a genetic thing. This is a filmmaker with whom I have a deep, personal disconnection. So now is the time to remind you that all Popcorn Culture scores (and, let’s admit it, ALL critic scores) are entirely subjective. So feel free to disagree. I’m happy to be a voice for the minority.

Bear with me.

In The Revenant, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a scout for a group of 1800’s frontiersmen collecting pelts in the Louisiana Purchase territory. The team is led by Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson, and don’t try to pronounce that if you don’t have the appropriate safety gear) and includes Glass’ Native American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) and the perilously Southern John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). After Glass is quite rudely mauled by a bear, he is left for dead in the wilderness (after like an hour, because Iñárritu missed the lesson in film school that said each page of the script shouldn't last 20 minutes). He is then forced to battle his way across the frozen tundra, fighting for survival despite his injuries, the elements, and roaming bands of vicious savages, not to mention the Frenchmen.

If Leo doesn’t win the Oscar for this, he will literally eat a man.

Now, I may not have liked this movie, but I never said it wasn’t well-realized. The frozen landscapes of Canada and Southern Argentina are photographed with a sinister beauty, displaying an eye for capturing the starkest, most unearthly formations of barren trees and rocks that nature could possibly provide. Emmanuel Lubeski is on hand to knock out some of those famous long takes, most notably in an exquisitely choreographed battle between the natives and the frontiersmen. And speaking of that battle, the special effects in The Revenant are phenomenal, without a doubt the best thing in the film.

You see, The Revenant is a gory, visceral movie, sometimes unbearably brutal in is carnage. The makeup effects that achieve this are spectacularly conceived and – with the small exception of certain shots of the bear – completely seamless. When The Revenant combines these grotesquely realistic kills with its sweeping long takes, it operates at its fullest, most breathtaking capacity.

Also, Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance leaves nothing to complain about. I wouldn’t say I was bowled over, but I would hardly begrudge him the Oscar, especially considering that his only real competition in this year’s weak slate is returning crownee Eddie Redmayne. Leo is asked to carry this movie on his back, and in order to do so he must relinquish his star power and embrace his feral side, which he certainly commits to. It’s a stripped-down, raw performance that might just be the best in his wholly adequate career.

I mean, other than his role in Critters 3, obviously.

Yes, I’m aware I just listed a lot of good things about The Revenant. And that’s why it’s in the awards conversation. It’s not a bad film. But there’s a difference between being well-realized and actually telling a good story. The technical aspects, which are inarguably pristine, are only half the battle. And The Revenant can only be described as a battle, between austere art cinema and Iñárritu’s staggering auteurist pomposity.

For one thing, the film is too goddamn long. If it filled its time with original, essential scenes, it wouldn’t feel like such a slog, but Iñárritu insists on returning over and over again to a bluntly metaphorical dream sequence/flashback that would make even Terrence Malick blush. The film’s theme is constantly repeated via these flashbacks and eventually a broken record voiceover that begins to act like a psychic cheese grater, shaving away every layer of your patience one scrape at a time.

The surreal imagery these sequences insist upon don’t exactly help, especially considering that all but one shot feels just like student filmmaker masturbation. It’s sickeningly ostentatious and it carves a huge chunk out of the effectiveness of the rest of the film’s realism and austerity.

I want Leo fighting the elements, not Tree of Life 2: Full Throttle.

Another problem with the urgency with which impatiently metaphorical imagery seeps into the film is that there’s next to no consistency in how cold it is at any given time. There is a clear progression to Glass’s interaction with the weather, but the film loses track of its visual representation in the midst of plugging in as many shots of sweeping grandeur as possible.

However, all this pales in comparison to the film’s biggest flaw, which is unfortunately my beloved Tom Hardy. He gives his performance in such a ludicrously pronounced Southern accent that it’s nigh-on impossible to understand even fifty percent of what he’s saying. Between this and his Dark Night Rises performance as Bane, I’m not entirely convinced that he’s not doing this on purpose. It’s like watching a foreign film, where the language barrier is so dense that you can’t even tell if it’s a good performance or not. He’s kind of like the anthropomorphic representation of the film itself: a well-meaning effort towards prestige that completely obfuscates its original intentions beneath a thick layer of unintelligible nonsense.

No, I did not like The Revenant. It’s totally OK if you did. There’s a lot there. But from where I’m standing, this is Iñárritu’s second strained, mangled Oscarbait effort in as many years.

TL;DR: The Revenant is an arduous, pretentious watch that is well-realized but not enough to salvage a good story.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1002


  1. If Tom Hardy is not doing it on purpose, then he needs to be checked into a mental wing: besides this and TDKR, he puts on a (cartoon) Slavic accent in Locke; two distinct nondescript mushmouthed (cartoon) thug accents in Fury Road and Warrior; and I have it on good authority Legend proffers a pair of (cartoon) Cockney accents; and Bronson, of course, features Tom Hardy's impression of a cartoon. Plus, there's whatever the hell he was doing in Star Trek: Nemesis.

    Sorry you didn't like The Revenant, B! Could've been longer for me. Needed more tracking Fitzgerald and hollering about "[his] boy" in specific and revenge in general.

    I forgot you didn't like Birdman! Awards season hasn't been kind to you these past couple of years, old chum. (P.S.: I fear I feel the same way about New Nightmare that you do about Birdman, though.)

  2. Interesting opinion Brennan. I personally liked the film alot because I thought it was great to see a more artistic director make a genre film, as The Revenant is basically an action/survival film. I also found myself surprised at how fast the movie flew by. Maybe because I have seen so many average genre films, that when I see a simplistic one like this made and performed by such great artists, I am able to excuse the simplistic characters and story. In all honesty, The Revenant reminds me of Gladiator, another survival/revenge movie that is in all honesty just a simple genre film. That film was a huge hit and won best actor and picture, which The Revenant might do as well. I think The Revenant is much better than Gladiator though.

  3. I had similar feelings about the film. It's absolutely beautiful, but the whole tree-metaphor-flashback thing sort of felt forced. That and the Indian daughter subplot thing.
    Do I think it deserves Oscars? Definitely, for direction and cinematography. But I dunno what it is, but Leo's performance just didn't strike me as Oscar-worthy. I liked it, but it didn't thrill me or anything. Felt sorry for the guy, but other than that, nada. The people going "oh Leo deserves it. He's long overdue" can go step on a Lego.
    And dear god the film was loooooooong