The Revenant (2015)
The tales of on-set turmoil have been endless for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's follow-up to last year's best picture winner, Birdman. Coming off of a win like that, the director was obviously keen to finish up his next picture in a Goddamn hurry, and here we are, just in time for this year's Oscars, with the release of The Revenant. The film itself is a fucking powerhouse in the same way that his previous film was, with all of the energy that a would-be mad genius can muster, but though madness knows no limits, it surely has them, and Inarritu forgets his. Like a raving lunatic excitedly telling you about a hallucination they once had, we watch with wide eyes, nodding, and finally conceding that to our dismay we're not quite sure what the point of it all was besides a lot of sound and fury. I was moved by the film, I was brought to a place and back from it, like this year's earlier film The Martian I felt isolated, alone, vulnerable. The film stirred something deep, a completely unsolvable paradox about life, the cold hand of nature is without morality and so who are we to try and live by it? The characters who populate the film have been molded by an unforgiving wilderness and an endlessly complex web of destruction that cannot be solved. In the midst of this, they scratch and claw at one another in an attempt to be sure they survive and get what's "theirs", mostly rising and falling from dominance to pitifully at the mercy of someone or something. The film is our world starkly laid out in front of us. There is no rhyme or reason, there is no right or wrong, there are only bonds and agreements. When the bonds are kept, they are strengthened. When the bonds are broken, there will be Hell to pay.
The men in the film have signed a contract, they will have to brave the deadly cold to kill animals and collect their pelts for sale. For this, they will be paid and be able to return to civilization to live another day. Unbeknownst, another group with the same aim has crossed the locals and the bloodbath that ensues is a microcosm of human history. Someone is profiting by all of this, but whoever they are we will never see them on the screen All we know are the individuals who are dying in front of us, fighting each other tooth and nail to try and exist. The modern rat race ain't got nothing on this shit. This is the essence of the film, a cold and cruel world where men abide by the law of 'kill or be killed', only forming bonds for mutual survival and profit. Do I disagree with this worldview? No. It is the realist's only solace to understand and the idealist's greatest fear. Inarritu has given himself quite a palette and the portrait he paints is true to life, why, it almost seems real. This is the film's greatest strength and greatest weakness. How accurately does our director portray the savagery of the human race, and how vacuous it seems when the credits roll. Our antagonist believes in nothing more or less than surviving, breaking his word several times, using force to keep those weaker than he in line, sullenly and silently resenting those who outrank him in the group that has set out on this expedition. He is portrayed to us as a villain, desperate to live, for whom all goodness has been beaten out of by living itself. Our villain is a man whose own weakness has turned him callous, seeing all around him as though it were expendable, thinking only of his own survival. This is, of course, reprehensible to the audience as well as his fellow characters. We loathe his cold candor and apathetic attitude just as much as we loathe that Inarritu's direction of the whole affair only seems to reinforce its accuracy. Humans are oft compared to animals, animals attack when their young are threatened, humans attack when their young are threatened. Animals eat one another and prey upon different species, humans do the same. The film seems to want a form of poetry to arise from the savagery, a calming resignation that the great wheel is turning and we turn with it. We connect and form bonds with those we see ourselves in, whether it be blood, skin color or common experience. In all of the film, only the captain character seems to be attempting to live by some form of morality simply because his position in life demands that he does. Where do we as an audience fall by the end of it all? In the same calm resolution, and yet the film continues as though we don't.
The film continues to move forward with its Hollywood-style revenge narrative just in case we're still on board with it. It goes where all films of its type eventually end up, nowhere. This type of film creates a world before our eyes, a world that is perceptively similar to our own. Its commentary is within its premise, within its backdrop, showing us how spot-on its worldview is, without using it to tell us anything more complex than the usual plot of an episode of a television show. The Revenant is made from the finest ingredients and painstakingly crafted before our eyes. Its visuals are the stuff of miracles, its sequences of action, including a bear attack, will cause your muscles to tense and tremble as you clasp your theater seat, the performances are expert with the usual A+ Dicaprio performance I've come to take for granted and Tom Hardy, who vanished so well into his character that my jaw dropped seeing his credit at the end. Any and all kudos I can give this film, and there are many, come from how incredible an achievement it is to create something with this visceral impact. So, why can't I endorse it more? Because it's hollow, like the cynic's take on life and its apparent savagery are hollow, and the idealist in me yawns. As much as a realist film impresses me, and as "with it" as it makes its creators look, it's far too easy to shrug it off as you leave the theater. It is far more tempting for Inarritu to focus on his physical body, his physical survival, physical danger than it is to focus on the interior experience our character is having. The film is fine work by all involved and adds up to very little. For its pure and simple tale of revenge that tugs at all the strings that Hollywood loves to tug at, it does a fine job. Years from now, I may revisit and feel differently, but for now it evaporates from memory.