Sunday, January 10, 2016
It's 3:55 PM, on a Saturday, when it's minus 27 degrees outside, a brutal bitter wind blowing through the city. The Golden Globes have just been announced, meaning the Oscar race has officially begun. This means, for my local smaller theatre, that seemingly every single Baby Boomer has come out to see whatever has been nominated, in order to maintain their cultural literacy. The theatre was abysmally packed, with old people muttering and complaining all the while.
While I was in the line for concessions, two dudes were discussing their RRSPs and trucks, while their respective wives bought tickets at the self-serve. When they were done, they moved into line beside their husbands and told them that The Revenant was pretty much sold out, so they purchased seats for Joy. The husbands had little to no reaction. The wives then said, "It stars Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper!" as if this was all was needed to convince them. They provided no information on the plot, on the subject, on the director. Rather, this was their "night out" so it didn't really matter what they saw. This, to me, really sums up both my experience watching The Revenant and the film itself.
When my partner and I tried to sit in our reserved seats, as this particular theatre does reserved seating for all shows, a couple Baby Boomers were in our seats. We grumbled, but didn't really care. Since we opted to buy our tickets so late (normally we're very early), we were forced into the second row, so moving one or two seats left or right makes little to difference. But then, the people whose seats we were occupying arrived, throwing the whole system into chaos. The couple who had seized our seats got up and went and sat in somebody else's seats. Good lord.
Despite these less-than-ideal viewing conditions (second row, surrounded by chatty Baby Boomers), I still quite liked The Revenant. It's a competent, entertaining film that's maybe a smidge too long (like all Hollywood films). Despite Iñárritu trying so desperately to make high art out of genre trappings, despite Lubezki's tics now magnified to epic, despite all this, I still liked the film.
Just like with Birdman, Iñárritu really has nothing of substance to say, so he cranks his visual style to the utmost maximum as subterfuge; he can't have the audience realize they're watching anything less than pure visual poetry, so he distracts with long takes, wide angle lenses, extreme close-ups, extreme violence. It's very fitting that Iñárritu has found his cinematic soulmate in Lubezki, as they both laden images with heavier than possible meaning, forcing the images to over-exert themselves with symbolic labour, even if the images aren't fecund enough to support themselves. The film unfolds with Malick-style images of light breaking through branches, mountains looming in the distance, water trickling or roaring, but these images are used only as transition between bizarrely low angle shots of dirty men—using wide angle lenses of course. All these shots of "EPIC NATURAL BEAUTY" have the subtlety of a sledgehammer, or to pick a metaphor more apropos to The Revenant, a hatchet to the stomach.
There's a tendency among film critics, all of whom are urban creatures, to lavish praise on cinema that fetishizes nature. By virtue of our urban subject position, we exoticize nature, imbue with the power of an Other. We formulate a hierarchy, putting concrete architecture low on the list with trees swaying in the wind up top. Nature photography is always tied up with words like "sublime" and "transcendent." I wonder though, if this film is sublime, in the classic Romantic sense of the word. Do we get a sense of an "agreeable horror" as it's been called, or is the horror simply one of fetishized violence, horror for its own sake? Likewise, is the film transcendent? As in, does this film go beyond the material, the earthly, into a realm of pure affect or thought? Probably not, considering—again—it's a simple moral fable with cranked style.
Sublime and transcendent are absolutely not words I would associate with The Revenant. Competent and entertaining are beyond appropriate. Iñárritu's complete lack of substance is easier to swallow in this film as opposed to Birdman, as the linear causality of a revenge tale is always more palatable than some introspective wanking on the nature of ART all caps.
Here are two examples of Iñárritu's inability to sketch out meaningful imagery. Lubezki films an extreme close-up of a group of ants climbing over each other to form an ant-ladder. The ants are coordinating, working in tandem, in order to complete their traverse across the harsh landscape. This image, ants in a team, stands in opposition to the themes of the film (homo homini lupus). The filmmakers have opted to provide "beautiful" imagery at the sake of constructing their own themes! Of course, one could offer the rebuttal that the image is ironic, that the ants are successful because they work together, as opposed to the humans. However, my counter-argument to this is that irony has not been or is ever deployed again in the film. This would be the only instance, making it stand out oddly.
The other example features the horse cutting scene. The camera faces Glass cutting the horse open, so we are denied the visual info of what he's cutting—though it's implied and not really necessary. Glass reaches in and pulls out a huge steaming pile of horse guts. Okay, fine. But then, Glass reaches in a pulls out a second steaming pile of horse guts. The second instance isn't necessary. It's a beat too long. Speaking of which, when Glass emerges from the horse in the morning (REBIRTH SYMBOLISM), Iñárritu still holds it a beat too long. He's unable to restrain himself. Ever.
I'm not being contrarian for the sake of it; I did enjoy my time with this film. I was rarely bored and I thought the score was fucking terrific. I was expecting the score to use the completely en vogue percussive banging, but it was relatively sparse, surprisingly restrained—a word I don't associate with this director and this cinematographer. I like the minimalism of the score, that swept when it needed to, and suggested at other times. Most scores are designed to support the curation of the affect, to make you feel when you're supposed to feel. This score, on the other hand, does not demand that you perform affective labour; instead, it suggests.
As aforementioned, this is a competent film that struggles to rise above its utterly self-important tone. Everything is so fucking serious. Our faces are shoved into the misery, squashed into it. We're meant to believe that this misery is in of itself transcendent (consider this director also did 21 Grams, an utterly empty film about grief and nothing else), but the film doesn't really do much with the concepts of misery or revenge beyond dropping it into the frame. These themes are presented in this HEAVILY ARTFUL way and this presentation substitutes for meaningful ideas or productive discourse on those themes. I should note that not all films are required to do something with their themes; some can get away with simply presenting themes. My resentment comes from Iñárritu being convinced he is performing some wonderfully deep cinematic miracle. I assure you, he is not.
In a similar fashion, I thought the lead performances to be competent and not much more. DiCaprio spits and wails and groans and grits his teeth, all of which are convincing. There are moments of quietude that hint at his interiority, which is really enough for me. DiCaprio does a competent and technically sufficient job with the material he's given, and this, I think, is high praise, considering this material and this director could have given us a showy, Johnny Depp or Christian Bale style performance of tics and affectation. On the other hand, Tom Hardy is on his way to Johnny Deppsville in terms of performance. He's already getting wild, confusing affectation with character. He's satisfactory here, but I worry for his future.
On the opposite tack, Domnhall Gleeson gives a strong supporting performance. Of the 2015 films I saw, he had a role in 4, and was excellent in all 4. His character is fairly thin (perfectly morally just) but he imbues his character with enough feeling to make it work. Gleeson is definitely an actor to watch. I quite liked him as lead Space Nazi in the War of Stars and he was pleasingly charming in Brooklyn (which I thought was quite enjoyable if a little light).
Again, I should be clear. I liked this movie, in spite of Iñárritu's desperate attempts to put me off the film. It's not high art; it's the Emperor's New Clothes is what it is. Perhaps most of my issues are with other reviewers, but that minimizes the flaws of The Revenant if I go down that rhetorical road. Still, I think my partner and I will go see it again, in better viewing conditions, and maybe I'll like it even more.