Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Revenant: An Artistic Twist on America's Fur Trading Days

The Revenant

Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson

Again, I emerge from the void, awakened from the hibernation of a cold winter’s day, to write a reaction to Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant. Out of the all the movies I’ve reviewed in this blog, I think this one hits the closest to my homeland—the upper Midwest.

The Revenant focuses on the (mis)adventures of Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), a frontiersman and tracker who is stationed with a fur trading company led by Captain Andrew Henry (Gleeson). After a gruesome, exciting, and artistically-beautiful opening sequence where the fur trading camp is attacked by Native Americans, Captain Henry and his men flee into the wilderness and attempt to reach their fort. The ever-complaining John Fitzgerald (Hardy) worries only about his fair payment after the company’s men are run off and killed. After Glass is gruesomely wounded, Fitzgerald volunteers (for extra pay, of course) to nurse Glass back to health or give him a proper burial while Henry and the other men return to the fort; Fitzgerald, being the stand-up buddy he is, kills Glass’s son, Hawk, and leaves Glass for dead in a half-dug grave. Glass struggles to survive in what one woman in my viewing called “the longest, most boringest movie [she] ever seen.” Did I mention this movie is gruesome?

With a nearly three-hour runtime, yes, it’s a long movie, but if you actually pay attention to what’s on-screen, it really is a beautiful and engaging film. As I mentioned, the opening sequence showing the attack on the fur trading camp is masterfully done; to boot, there is very little actual cutting taking place. The choreography that went into some of these long-duration shots must have been obscene as the camera focuses on one man, follows him to his death, then follows the first man’s attacker to his death, and on, and on, and on. Furthermore, the special effects in this film make it totally engaging, enough so that the audience gasped and cringed at some points.  If the woman I mentioned above was looking for a spaghetti Western where the lawman shoots the bad guy at high noon and rides off into the sunset, she was in the wrong theater: this was art.

Speaking of art, there was some phenomenal acting here from Tom Hardy. Hardy took on an excellent character, and he was believable through and through. His portrayal of Max Rockatansky in Mad Max: Fury Road was great, and he made for a very menacing Bane in The Dark Knight Rises; that being said, I love that Hardy can immerse himself in his characters well. That’s what I consider great acting: when an actor takes roles with such stark contrasts, but I can’t see any prior performances in this new performance (if that makes sense). Hardy is nominated for an Oscar as Best Actor in a Supporting Role, and I’d say he’s a major contender in that arena.

Above: Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald
I can’t say the same about Leonardo DiCaprio, however. In interviews I’ve read and watched, DiCaprio has said that this is the hardest role he has ever played, and that could partially stem from the fact that Hugh Glass suffers an injury to his throat (spoilers are unbearable), and the character doesn’t speak for a good chunk of the film save grunts and gasps. DiCaprio has been nominated for an Oscar as Best Actor in a Leading Role, but part of me wonders if he’ll win this year (finally) or forever be a bridesmaid and never a bride. Going back to what I said about great acting and actors who take on distinctive and contrasting roles, DiCaprio has done that—time and time again—but I always see his facial expressions or hear subtle nuances in his delivery and think, Oh, that sounds like when he played that other character in that other movie. He was engaging the whole time, and his acting was believable, but I guess I’m on the fence about this performance being Oscar-worthy.

One of the most poignant themes I kept coming back to while watching this movie, though, was that nature is not your friend—leave your Tolkien at the door, kids. 95% of the movie takes place outdoors and shows Glass being flung off of cliffs, drifting through whitewater rapids, or damn near freezing to death, and overall, it very much reminded me of reading books from Cormac McCarthy. In McCarthy’s novels, it’s not just Native Americans or Mexicans or the Judge who is out to get you—it’s the world, itself. The environment in McCarthy’s novels seems to take on a life of its own as though it, too, is a character that works against the Glanton Gang in Blood Meridian, for example, and that seems to be the case throughout The Revenant.

This similarity to McCarthy’s work is echoed in the gender issues presented in the film, in that there really aren’t any women. Again, if you’re looking for a stereotypical Western with a spunky female lead who falls for the lawman cowboy, this isn’t the movie for you. One review wrote of McCarthy’s novels that he presents a world where “woman” is not yet realized; in this movie, the only women who appear are a kidnapped Native American woman and Glass’s deceased Pawnee wife. While the kidnapped woman does get a single line, Glass’s wife appears to him throughout the movie as figment of his dreams, and we frequently here a voiceover refrain from her. Past that, there are no women to be seen throughout the whole movie. At some points, it subtly hints at constructions of masculinity, and there are a few other places where Fitzgerald all-too-bluntly emasculates his fellow fur traders. 

I was excited going into this movie, as it's a far cry from the movies I generally gravitate toward, and that initial excitement wasn't wasted. If you're looking for an artistic representation of the fur trading days of America, this movie should be right up your alley.