Monday, 7 March 2016

"What Makes You Go On?" - A Review of "The Revenant" (2015)

Roughly how much facial hair you will
grow whilst watching this film.
Watching The Revenant, Alejandro González Iñárritu's first film since his phenomenal 2014 offering Birdman, is not designed to be a comfortable experience. In fact, there is a palpable sense that it is an endurance test for everybody involved: for the fictitious characters portrayed, of course, who regularly cough up blood or tumble over cliffs or get mauled by bears; for the filmmaker and the actors, filming as they did in extreme winter conditions in Canada and Argentina in order to catch the mere hour-and-a-half of natural light per day; and, indeed, for the audience, who sit through 2 hours and 36 minutes of a string of raw, visceral, violent experiences. Perhaps this is Iñárritu's greatest achievement: using film, a very sterile medium, to get his audience to truly feel this violence in such a brutal, primal fashion. There is nothing comic-book or glamorous about the pain on screen; the already-infamous moment in which trapper Hugh Glass is mauled by a huge grizzly bear, screaming all the while, lasts far longer than we would expect or wish for.
Merely making us flinch, though, is a low bar, and the preserve of many a shlocky horror film. Iñárritu also wants a human drama to his storytelling, and an accompanying sense of vastness and scale. This latter is profoundly achieved by some of the most stunning filmmaking you will see this year - vistas of mountains, valleys, rivers, forests come to astonishingly detailed life in the hands of Iñárritu and his equally gifted cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki. One of the best comments I have read on The Revenant is that it uses the power of space to unnerve us - not via claustrophobia, the more usual method, but by a deep and uncomfortable agoraphobia. We, like Glass, are left outside and on our own, bared to the elements, the wind and the rain and the snow with little more than nature itself for company. This is a profoundly lonely film, and the mood it sets in this regard - fatalist yet beautiful - is one of the most memorable technical achievements you can imagine. This is a seriously well-made film.

It is on the human drama stage, however, that Iñárritu stumbles. For me, the central dilemma with The Revenant is this: we are asked to sympathise with Glass, to accompany him every step of the way as he embarks upon all of the tropes of the gruelling survival movie. And yet, in the end, what keeps him going is his desire for revenge: in other words, a hallmark of a completely different style of film - the machismo-soaked cowboy Western, simply relocated to snow and ice instead of Texan desert. This revenge, revenge on the fellow trapper who killed his half-caste son, is what gives him the motivation to crawl forward inch by inch and eventually butcher the criminal in question. There is nothing inherently wrong with telling a story about revenge (hello, Hamlet), but you should make sure you do something that feels fresh. I'm not convinced that Iñárritu does. We get very little sense of Glass' relationship with his son, such that the human drama element feels oddly muted; we watch his survival trek because that's how the plot of The Revenant goes rather than because we deeply care about seeing him enact revenge for his son's murder - and that's before we even talk about the oddly used, under-explored native American presence in this film.

So while the film is impressive, I don't feel it soars the same heights as Birdman. The petty and pointless nature of the lead character's revenge - so essential to the premise - actively hurts the film's status as survival film. Touching the Void or 127 Hours are simple, visceral survival films, powerful because there are no unnecessary embellishments, nothing added to the mix other than the raw desire of the participants to continue living. But The Revenant pairs this gutsy desire to continue living with a bleak meditation on the folly of seeking revenge, and to me these two "moods", as it were, are actively opposed to one another. If we are to be told that it was all for nothing that Glass has sought revenge, whither our investment in his ordeal? If we never especially bought into his painful journey, why should we care that he gets his vengeance in the closing act? While some will argue it is this nihilistic conclusion that makes the film distinctive, I don't think Iñárritu has quite worked out how to make his film function on a human, emotional level. Enormously impressive it may be, and studded with powerful performances, but The Revenant is an emotionally stunted movie that doesn't quite live up to the lofty ambitions which created it.

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