Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Review: "The Revenant"

I was not a fan of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s work on “Birdman,” which won the Academy Awards for Best Picture, screenplay and directing. I felt the filmmaker undermined Michael Keaton’s masterful performance with his (over)long takes and tracking shots. It stole our attention from the story and performance in favor of the direction, screaming “look at me!”

Iñárritu uses many of the same techniques in “The Revenant,” but much more modestly and effectively. In relating the harrowing story of a frontier trapper mauled by a bear and left for dead by his companions, the director employs his considerable skillset in service to the main character rather than for its own sake.

As Hugh Glass literally crawls hundreds of miles along the ground or plunges into angry icy rivers to escape those who would murder him, the camera work heightens his peril by making it a shared experience. It’s also one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s most compelling performances, and a largely wordless one.

The final result is an exemplary iteration of an old-school form of “you are there” adventure filmmaking that has seen a resurgence with films like “Gravity,” putting the audience right into the action next to the main character. I’m not sure if the film amounts to anything more than a grim and enthralling tale of existential survival, but I admired it for what it is.

Based on a true story, as translated by the “historical novel” by Michael Punke, the screenplay by Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith is narratively similar to last summer’s “Mad Max: Fury Road,” in that it begins right in the middle of the action and barely stops. Characters reveal their inner selves through their behavior, not speeches.

A trapping and hunting expedition led by Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) is ambushed by American Indians who want the pelts for themselves – and resent the interlopers fouling their ancestral grounds. Also, the chief (a quietly powerful Duane Howard) searches for his daughter, kidnapped by white men.

Many are killed, but due to Glass’ level-headed leadership they manage to escape downriver, including his own teenage son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), who is part Indian. Flashbacks and rumors divulge that Glass himself lived among the native people for many years, until his wife was killed by French soldiers. This does not endear him to his fellows.

Then Glass, the lead scout, is horrendously wounded when he chances upon a mother grizzly protecting her cubs. It’s hard stuff to watch as a man is tossed around like a rag doll, even harder when his clothes are removed to reveal ghastly rents in his flesh.

Glass seems sure to die, and John Fitzgerald, a self-serving member of the party played with morose charisma by Tom Hardy, urges them to put Glass out of his misery, as the Indians are still in pursuit. But Henry offers a large bounty to anyone who will stay behind with Glass until he dies, then give a proper burial.

Fitzgerald volunteers to join Hawk and another boy, Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), in guarding the man. But greed and fear lead to tragic results, and Glass wakes from his coma to find himself all alone, near death and without any tools or provisions. All he can do is scrape his bones along the rugged ground.

This section is just merciless to watch, a proud man reduced to a wasted expanse of bloody flesh and a few primordial instincts. At one point Glass finds some clean water to drink, but discovers that it leaks out of his torn throat before it can make its way down his gullet. He perseveres, and persists.

“The Revenant” is an enthralling film to look upon, nearly monochromatic and with a sort of spare, harsh beauty. I suspect this movie will divide audiences, many of whom will not care for its wintry tale of death and revenge. For those who can appreciate bleakness, it’s a haunting vision that lingers.

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