Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Movie Review: "The Revenant" (2015)

© 20th Century Fox

How did I not write this review the moment I saw the film? This was the last movie that I saw during the 2015 calendar year (hey, 300 movies ain't so bad), and it has since become a powerhouse on the Awards circuit, collecting Golden Globes, the DGA honor, and is—despite my hopes against it—the frontrunner to receive the Academy Award's top honor at this Sunday's ceremony. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu has never been a favorite of mine, mainly because I prefer not to walk out of movies feeling terrible and in need of a shower (thank you, 21 Grams and Babel, for the memories). But in recent years, he's begun to find a relatable humanity in his work that speaks to the beauty and complexity of the human experience without taking a big ol' dump all over it. The Revenant certainly rides the line there, but it also is a masterpiece of execution and filmmaking that is impossible to ignore, no matter how hard I try.

Based on the true story of 1820's American West frontiersman and tracker, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who was hired as the guide for a group of trappers during a particularly harsh winter to lead them through dangerous territory under siege by Natives and French soldiers alike. When Glass is unexpectedly attacked by a bear and on the brink of death, the team's leader, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), instructs hunter John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) to stay behind with Glass' son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), and bury Glass once he passes. In an attempt to tame this lawless land, the command is understood by all. But when Glass doesn't die quickly enough, Fitzgerald attempts to murder him and leave him for dead without protection, and Glass must use his wilderness skills to survive against all odds and track down the man that betrayed him.

Technically speaking, this is a wondrous film. Truly exceptional. Like Birdman before it, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki took it as a personal challenge to make this shoot as impossible as he could for all involved. Where Birdman's "gimmick" was its seemingly endless, single shot, the complexity of The Revenant is all in the lighting. It's completely natural, every second of it, generated from the beauty that is the "magic hour" of twilight. With minimal time to shoot each day, shots had to be long and they had to be fast—hats off to the grip on set who found himself in the middle of that crazy shot that one day that everybody practiced for 8 hours but only had 40 minutes to get in the can... you're now the reason the shoot's gone over budget and everyone missed dinner.

Reports about the fed-up crew and indignant production hands aside, Lubezki was uncompromising in his and Iñárritu's vision. The opening sequences of the trappers being shot at with arrows was unbelievably intense, with the camera's choreography floating through absolute chaos like it was a ballet rather than a bloodbath. This level of cinematic complexity continued throughout the entire film, right up until the gruesome climax.

I'm gonna add my voice to the perpetual broken record of the internet masses: give Leonardo DiCaprio an Oscar right the hell now! What are we even talking about anymore with this guy? His talent is undeniable, and his desire for an Oscar statuette has become Kate Winslet-level obvious. That's not to say he doesn't deserve it. He absolutely does, and should have taken home the honor for 2004's for The Aviator, but Leo hasn't had the best luck with voters. And I think that finally will change, as he walks across the stage on Sunday to accept what I consider to be a "career Oscar." This wasn't his most interesting or even best role (I maintain it's his turn in The Departed), and certainly not one that required much emotional depth. But it definitely was his most physically demanding, and when an actor as vain as DiCaprio allows himself to look this terrible in a film, you know it's time to give him his dues. The Academy has given away acting Oscars for significantly less.

The film itself is a stunner, yes, but it's also a powerful journey through a historic period little-explored in cinema. The focus is particularly tight on Glass and his company, but there is so much more going on. It's not hard to imagine the movie Last of the Mohicans happening just across the plain—that's how rich a world Iñárritu has created. Glass doesn't have the time to dwell on the terror happening around him—his goal is singular: find Fitzgerald and kill him for what he's done. But that doesn't mean he's blind to the plights of the Natives who help him, or his memories of a life that's been lost (told beautifully through non-distracting flashbacks and visions). He just won't be slowed down by them; we will, though. Watching the horrors of invading parties, the treatment of the Native population, while mostly on the periphery of the film, is shocking and troubling to witness. Because of the strategic way in which the filmmakers structured their story, it doesn't make the viewing experience unbearable, though, and that is key to my enjoyment of this Iñárritu production.

The rest of the cast is just as solid as DiCaprio, particularly the perpetually gruff and mono-syllabic Tom Hardy. While it's my hope that his other movie takes home all the Oscars this year, this is an acting award that—if he wins—he'll undeniably have earned. He's ferocious and unforgiving in this role, and he transforms into an almost inhuman villain by the story's end. Even Domhnall Gleeson, who had a fantastic 2015, gives a commanding performance, one so drastically different than any he's given before. It's difficult to find fault in this film. It's just too meticulously constructed, and as a result, any flaws would have been rubbed out long ago.

My only argument for Mad Max: Fury Road being honored above this at this year's Academy Awards might just be that it's not the passion project that George Miller's film was. The Revenant is a continuation of Iñárritu's impressive, awards-honored career—it's very likely something like this or better will flow out of him and be up for the same honors in a year, or two. But for Miller? His work was an unexpected, mainstream triumph... and it's time we publicly applaud those who give everything they've got—and ever had—to a project. That may not happen, not this time, but hey, a girl can dream, right?

Rating: ★★★★½ / 5 stars

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