On at the movies: January 9, 2016by James Robins
James Robins reviews The Revenant, plus our take on films now showing.
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
The film’s title refers to something mythic and undead, in this case emerging from a shallow grave to spurn and destroy those who crossed it. The inhumanity of this creature is its most disturbing feature, and in The Revenant, Leonardo DiCaprio’s shredded and suppurating body crawls and stumbles as if reanimated by a dark Native American spirit.
DiCaprio plays early 19th-century frontiersman Hugh Glass, who guides a ragtag group of fur trappers along the Upper Missouri River. In their company is Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), an army veteran constantly torn between ensuring the safety of his men and the success of the trip.
Stalking the campfire and spitting in a Texas drawl is vicious mercenary John Fitzgerald (a barely recognisable Tom Hardy), whose consideration is only for himself. As they bicker, winter closes in and Indian raiders come ever nearer.
They might pray to the Almighty, but Fate has better plans for them: Glass, in an astonishingly brutal sequence, is mauled by a grizzly bear – large-scale puppetry and CGI merging to create an entirely believable monster. His throat swiped open, his back clawed and internal organs exposed, a leg crushed, Glass is left in the care of Fitzgerald, who, despite receiving a fee for the duty, promptly deserts his post.
Glass somehow survives. Wearing the pelt of the animal that very nearly decapitated him, he begins a six-week trek through looming forest pines and across frozen rivers that threaten to swallow him, in search of those he was abandoned by. All the while his wounds rot and the wolves circle; French trappers lie ahead, the scalping knife of Indian reprisal behind.
“If you can breathe, you can fight,” are the opening words of the film, and Glass takes that advice for himself, though breathing is often barely possible.
The Revenant, though a compact revenge story, lasts almost three hours and is an endurance test for all involved – DiCaprio has said that the role was the most difficult thing he’s ever done, and some crew members reportedly quit the production, describing it as “a living hell”.
Last year’s Birdman, which won director Alejandro González Iñárritu a Best Picture Oscar, was a cosy intellectual romp that rarely went outdoors. Here, there is no cover from the elements. It is incessantly harsh, all exposed viscera and unnerving violence bludgeoning the audience into something that might be appreciation.
Iñárritu’s direction, in collaboration again with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, can only be described as virtuosic. An elaborately choreographed opening gun battle between Ree Indians and the trappers is shot from afar, the camera unnervingly fluid and restrained.
As in Birdman, Iñárritu seeks to merge scenes together, creating an illusion of continuity that later accentuates the desperateness of Glass’ situation. When not indulging the landscape, or turning to haunting, spiritual visions in the accepted Terrence Malick style, the camera is what seems like mere inches from the actors’ faces. The lens (and by extension, the audience) is sprayed with all manner of detritus: spit, blood and the mist of frozen breath. Glass’ earlier dictum about breathing and fighting quite literally fogs our vision.
However, these frontiersmen are hateful creatures, out in the wilderness only to make money and “shoot some civilisation” into the “savages”. We feel no sympathy for them, nor do they deserve any. Once more, Iñárritu opens himself up to the criticism that has plagued most of his films: there is a hole where heart and soul ought to be.
The director attempts to introduce through flashback some of Glass’ backstory, including the origins of his half-Indian son, which helps place the character on a holier side of history. But these are mere clues, prosaic accessories to the grinding, incessant desperation of the voyage. For all the visual spectacle and technical brilliance on display, The Revenant might leave you as cold as the mountainsides on which Glass cowers.
But then again, this is cinema. It is supposed to take us to places unseen, to experience in tangible ways what remains outside our reality, or to witness violence as it occurs and really feel danger as it might exist. Iñárritu is a director who seeks the limits of the medium where others are content to conform and his ambition places us within reach of these sensations. ••••
IN CINEMAS JANUARY 7
Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens
Banishing Lucas’s dire prequels to the Death Star’s trash-compactor, director JJ Abrams honours the essence of what made Star Wars’ pulp sci-fi so enchantingly entertaining. Nostalgia rules, almost at the expense of plot, but fans will grin with delight. (Full review here) ••••
Snoopy and Charlie Brown: The Peanuts Movie
Joyous and charming, Charlie and Snoopy’s adventures are lovingly recreated in eye-popping 3D style. •••½
Biopic of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s battle against McCarthyism is let down somewhat by telemovie aesthetics and political naivety. ••½
Children’s horror writer RL Stine (Jack Black) and his ghastly creations are brought to life in this surprisingly self-deprecating romp. •••½
The often-brutal history of women’s suffrage reveals that struggles are sometimes won with blood. Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter make composite characters believable. ••••
The Bélier Family
Reworking themes of triumph over the odds in original ways, this poignant French word-of-mouth hit sees deaf cheese-makers become charming champions of tolerance. •••½
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 ••••
Secrets in the Eyes ••½
The Dressmaker •••½
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