Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Irreverence for the Revenant

This past weekend, I went to see The Revenant, just hours before it won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture -- Drama. That made for a one-two punch of disappointment.

Inspired by a real frontiersman, The Revenant dramatizes the story of Hugh Glass, brutally mauled by a bear and left for dead by his fellow fur trappers. He fights for survival against impossible odds, fueled by the need for vengeance.

The movie is directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who helmed last year's Oscar winning Best Picture, Birdman.nThough the subject matter of the two films couldn't be more different, there is a similarity to how each movie is staged and filmed. Birdman was famously made to look like a single two-hour camera take without cuts. The Revenant doesn't go nearly so far, but does utilize a lot or noticeably long shots with slow and methodical camera moves. Here, that decision feels like less of a gimmick; it often serves to make the viewer the island of stillness in a swirl of activity. Add in the stunning location photography in three different countries (Canada, the U.S., and Argentina), and The Revenant is breathtakingly beautiful to look at. It's a precise ballet, pulled off in environments truly inhospitable for making movies, and accented with mostly seamless CG (adding wild animals into shots).

Beautiful it may be, but engaging it's not. The Revenant lumbers along in desperate need of an editor. It's not just that the movie's two-and-a-half-plus hours are far too long for a dirt-simple revenge story, it's that the film is painfully repetitive. The bear mauling sequence seems to end only to start again. Hugh Glass has multiple yearning dream sequences. We watch him escape from Native American hunters again and again. Twice in just five or ten minutes, he eats raw food. (Both times, with a perfectly good fire just a few feet away.) I lost track of how many lingering shots of a crescent moon were inflicted upon us. I suspect a full hour of needless repetition could have been excised from the film -- a Tarantino-esque amount of bloat (but without the sharp dialogue -- or often, any dialogue -- to keep you engaged).

Then there's the much-lauded performance of Leonardo DiCaprio, thought to be a shoo-in for the Best Actor Oscar. If he wins, I believe it will be primarily for two things. First, the ever popular "apology award for not giving him an award sooner" -- something I really dislike. Second, an acknowledgement of the difficulty of making the film -- something I'm conflicted about. Iñárritu was reportedly a rather merciless taskmaster on this film (and that must be true, to have gotten so many perfect, painterly shots). DiCaprio is said to have gone through hell. But I'd personally rather give an Oscar for a performance that ends up on the screen rather than for struggles behind the scenes. And I found DiCaprio's performance here to be rather one-note, thanks to a one-note script. We get it, he's in pain. Except when he's mad, I guess -- so call it a two note performance? You don't have to look far for a more layered performance of a man in a survival struggle; Matt Damon did it in the very same year, in The Martian. I was less convinced by DiCaprio's performance than the work of his amazing make-up artist. (Now there's someone who unquestionably deserves an Oscar. At one point, the audience gasped at a simple closeup of the protagonist's brutalized hand.)

Frankly, I would most liken The Revenant to movies like Saw or Hostel. It so reveled in human suffering, and had so little else to say, that it felt like "torture porn." Very pretty torture porn, made by an Oscar winning director -- but torture porn all the same. And simply too long for such base visceral thrills. A movie more suitable for framing than viewing, I give The Revenant a D.

1 comment:

Jim Lorentz said...

I agree. I realized that I had seen this movie before - Man in the Wilderness with Richard Harris 1971. Not much different, except the camera lens was always getting in the way when it got too close to the action. The bear fogged the lens, the blood splattered on it, and the rain/snow made drops on it. I suppose that is an artistic effect but I found it annoying to be constantly reminded that this is all staged and it's a movie, rather than feeling like I was there.