by Lee Purvey
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant belongs to a class of film one might term “bro realism.” Over the past 10 years, a handful of male Western filmmakers -- among them John Hillcoat (who was at one point in talks to direct The Revenant), Derek Cianfrance, Jeremy Saulnier, and David Cronenberg -- have made a number of films which establish a new vocabulary of deadpan violence and dramatic nihilism within independent cinema. In their stories of revenge and self-destruction -- which endeavor to comment on violence, as much as they capitalize on its aesthetic and dramatic appeal -- these directors exchange the playful camp of turn-of-the-century genre nerds like Quentin Tarantino and Sam Raimi for a blunter relationship to violence onscreen. (This violence is usually of the physical variety, although the same lens can be applied to the emotional, as in Cianfrance’s punishing Blue Valentine.) Though this trend has produced some genuinely good filmmaking (notably Hillcoat’s The Proposition and The Road), there is something painfully juvenile about these filmmakers’ philosophy -- a headier, grown-up version of the kind of contrarianism that might send preteens to Harmony Korine or Ayn Rand.
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Producers: Steve Golin, Alejandro González Iñárritu, David Kanter, Arnon Milchan, Mary Parent, Keith Redmon, James W. Skotchdopole
Writers: Mark L. Smith, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Michael Punke (novel)
Cinematographer: Emmanuel Lubezki
Editor: Stephen Mirrione
Music: Bryce Dessner, Carsten Nicolai, Ryuichi Sakamoto
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck, Paul Anderson, Kristoffer Joner, Joshua Burge, Duane Howard
US Theatrical Release: December 25, 2015
US Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Whatever the merits of this realist fraternity, The Revenant is evidence of this small budget trend’s osmosis into the mainstream. While other recent apocalyptically-minded Westerns like No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood have achieved acclaim through black humor and seductive anti-heroes, Iñárritu chooses to play his adventure straight: an aesthetically maximalist procession of blood and calamity anchored to simplistic morals of fortitude and revenge.
The Revenant’s survivalist storyline is especially fertile ground for the bro realists’ particular brand of extremist bravado. Brutally attacked by a bear, a 19th century trapper named Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is left for dead by his colleagues deep in the territory of the hostile (if unambiguously victimized) Ree Indian tribe. Glass’ subsequent odyssey of survival and vengeance is filled with a lot of blood, naturally. But also plenty of mucus, spittle, and bile; meals consisting of raw buffalo guts and trout sushi; the onscreen evisceration of a horse; scalped corpses; the at-this-point obligatory scene of auto-cauterization (this time involving gunpowder and a leaking neck wound); rape, pillage, and murder; and, finally, a whole bunch of arboreal metaphor. Yeah, bro.
Iñárritu, notorious for his kaleidoscopic tragedies of coincidence (21 Grams, Babel, Amores Perros), made his first foray into comedy with last year’s divisive showbiz romp Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), and, as I was first watching his follow-up, I couldn’t help but wonder as to the lasting impact this experiment has had on his work. Rather than growing in proportion to its character’s suffering, The Revenant’s pathos is quickly substituted for the broadest kind of physical humor, with DiCaprio leading the oblivious charge. The star mirrors his director’s no-holds-barred approach, pushing his performance way past the realist parameters established by the film’s grisly opener (a balletic firefight with a Ree war party, in search of a kidnapped young woman). What DiCaprio does not seem to realize, as he froths and moans his way through the American wilderness, is that commitment does not directly translate to quality (co-star Tom Hardy delivers a similarly immersive performance as a half-scalped mercenary with a mouth full of marbles -- to somewhat better effect). The result is something like if the famous quaalude sequence from The Wolf of Wall Street were dragged out for the better part of three hours, but stripped of the obvious humor that made Scorsese’s charmingly stupid drug tangent the only engaging part of his movie not named Matthew McConaughey. Unwittingly, in The Revenant, Iñárritu has made his funniest film yet.
Our total immersion in cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s photography is the one thing The Revenant has going for it. This is as visually stunning a film as I have ever seen, with Lubezki imbuing each of the film’s majestic tableaux with a sense of reality so palpable it’s honestly a little unsettling. Like 2014’s Gravity -- directed by longtime Lubezki collaborator Alfonso Cuarón -- here is a film that attempts to radicalize audience experience through formal innovation alone. Earnestly devoted to the barest skeleton of a plot -- one that makes the cosmically unambitious Gravity look like Infinite Jest -- The Revenant leaves no room for mainstream movie conventions like emotional ambiguity, character growth, or dialogue. Iñárritu only has time for revenge (and man, it’s never looked this good).