Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Revenant (mild spoilers)

The Revenant is a film made with the high craft and serious intentions of an Oscar contender which also traffics in some awfully musty genre tropes. The extent to which the two sides of the film can be reconciled depends on how willing one is to ride Leonardo DiCaprio’s ferocious performance past a story that isn’t nearly as radical as it pretends to be. DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a historical figure who in the 1820’s served as scout for a fur trading expedition up the Missouri River into South Dakota. Also among the party are Glass’s half-Native American son Hawk, (Forrest Goodluck), a profiteering trapper named Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), and future Western explorer Jim Bridger (Will Poulter). Director Alejandro G. Inarritu opens with a Malickian sequence that reveals two things: Glass lived among Native Americans and raised Hawk with his wife (Grace Dove), and that his wife was killed in a raid by the U.S. military in which Glass killed an officer. Inarritu returns to images of the raid throughout The Revenant, and later to a memorable shot of Glass’s never named wife floating above him like a sort of not yet departed angel. The effect is to set up two poles, or two ways of looking at the world of the film. Glass is in touch with a way of life that’s somehow pure and connected to the Earth, while his comrades on the expedition - especially Hardy’s Fitzgerald - are concerned only with money and survival. Glass is able to speak fluently in a Pawnee language to his son, but throughout the film only the dialogue we need to understand the story is subtitled. At other points we hear Glass’s wife speaking on the soundtrack but we don’t know what she’s saying, as if the ways and ideals of the Pawnee had meaning even removed from all understanding or context. Inarritu can’t have it both ways.

If you’ve seen the trailer for The Revenant then you know the two incidents that drive the story: Glass is brutally attacked by a bear - in a sequence that deserves its own Blu-Ray featurette - and later Hawk is murdered by Fitzgerald with the injured Glass unable to intervene. The film turns into a chase picture at that point, with Fitzgerald and an unwitting Bridger on the run ahead of Glass. The rest of the fur trapping party make their way back their fort under the command of Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), a man who never seems to quite realize just how uncivil a place he has come to. The middle section of The Revenant is a long sequence of Glass crawling around, foraging for food, and eventually running across another Pawnee (Arthur Redcloud) who comes to his aid. The character Redcloud plays is named “Hikuc”, but you won’t know that unless you look it up. Native American characters in The Revenant exist only to serve the story and to represent a sort of museum gift shop vision of purity. Hikuc is around until he isn’t needed any longer, and a subplot about a chief named Elk Dog (Duane Howard) searching for his kidnapped daughter intersects with Glass’s story when it’s convenient. Elk Dog is perhaps the best worst idea of a Native American that’s possible in film these days; that is, he’s awfully organized about the brutality inflicted as part of his search. For a film made with such care and ability The Revenant is surprisingly conservative in the way it treats Native American characters. The history of Hollywood marginalizing Native Americans is a long one, but The Revenant does manage to do something new: it puts these characters on a pedestal and takes away their point of view.

The main attraction here is of course DiCaprio, who gives great life to a mostly mute character in what must have been a tortuous shoot. What DiCaprio does in The Revenant is certainly one kind of great acting. Tom Hardy and Will Poulter dig deep into their roles as well, with Hardy pulling off yet another impressive transformation. The level of acting on display is almost demanded by the way Inarritu shoots; the battle scenes are filmed in a you’re-in-the-middle style that will feel familiar if you liked Birdman, while during scenes where Glass is underwater or sleeping inside an animal carcass it feels as tough Inarritu was holding the camera three feet away. When the film wants us to take a breath Inarritu cuts to a plaintive shot of the sky as a reminder (maybe) that the country these characters inhabit contains mysteries that few can know. That’s a lot of dressing on a film that becomes a revenge plot plain and simple, and the fact that Glass and Fitzgerald represent opposite answers to the question of what Americans want from America isn’t explored deeply enough. The Revenant offers much to admire, but it can’t bear the false profundity that its makers pile on.

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