I hated Birdman. The best review I read of the film opened by calling its writer/director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu a talentless fraud. This more or less hit the nail on the head. I’ve endured lengthy conversations with numerous people who liked or disliked Birdman to varying degrees, wanting to know exactly what I found so reprehensible about that particular pile of garbage. Unfortunately, the most apt response I could come up with turned out to be somewhat crude, so you’ll have to forgive me for publishing it here: I didn’t like Birdman because I didn’t like the experience of being masturbated on for two hours. With that in mind, I did not have exceedingly high expectations for Iñárritu’s latest Oscar-bate.
The Revenant (2016)
The Plot: The wild frontier in the 1820s is not a happy place to live. American scout Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) struggles against the elements to guide the remnants of his trapping group—led by Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson)—back to their fort after being decimated by Arikara raiders. While scouting ahead, Glass suffers a brutal bear attack. Not willing to let the now-scarcely-alive Glass hold everyone back, one of the hunters, Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), buries him alive, and murders his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) to avoid discovery. Crawling from his shallow grave, Glass embarks upon a harrowing quest for revenge, enduring pretty much everything the 1820s frontier could possibly throw at him along the way.
From its opening sequence, The Revenant sends one message, precisely the opposite of the message that Birdman sent: “I am a real movie, and not an undergraduate thesis.” Audiences the world over have agreed that The Revenant is a riveting filmic experience that grabs you from frame one and doesn’t let go. As hard as it is for me to admit this, I have to agree with that reaction, but I will qualify it. It’s not the whole movie that ensnares the viewer. It’s not the story, or the characters, or the performances, or the music; in fact it is one singular facet: the cinematography. Emmanuel Lubezki has been nominated for an Oscar for his work on The Revenant, one of the film’s twelve total nominations. He is likely to win that award, and is the only one of The Revenant’s nominees who deserves to win. Not the only one who deserves to be nominated (costumes, makeup, sound, etc. all great), but he’s the only one who without a doubt should take home that award. Should he win, it will be his third Oscar in as many years, which I think will be a record. The only reason for that, I guess, is just that he’s the best in the biz right now. Photography can stun us with its beauty. When shooting nature, as Lubezki does almost exclusively in The Revenant, one must strive to capture its beauty as best as one can, but no one can deny that the majesty of nature is always better than the majesty of the photo. Looking at a picture of the Grand Canyon is not the same as being at the Grand Canyon. Lubezki’s unparalleled achievement in shooting around Canada, the USA, Mexico, and Argentina is that he came as close as you can possibly get to fully capturing nature on film. If the whole film had been Lubezki wandering the wilderness with just his camera and no actors or plot, The Revenant probably would have been a better movie.
Unfortunately, that was not the case. Although a stunning visual experience, you can’t shake the one inarguable failing of The Revenant: it’s just a stupid movie. Iñárritu and co-screenwriter Mark Smith have produced a revenge story in which a man is wronged, seeks revenge, and—spoiler alert—achieves revenge. This is Glass’ single drive throughout the film, and since he barely speaks at all, having suffered a bear-related throat-slashing, it remains his sole characteristic. Of course, if you’ve read or seen any revenge story before, you know that, as Fitzgerald says in a painfully clichéd climax, “Killing me won’t bring your son back.” Huh. I never thought of that before. Mind you, this is a terribly derivative moment, but it became a cliché due to a universal acknowledgement that revenge is pointless. Indeed, in including this moment in The Revenant, Iñárritu and Smith appear to recognize the inherent pointlessness of their story. All good revenge narratives alight on this, comment on it, and manage to elevate themselves above the single-mindedness of their heroes. This is also why all good revenge stories are tragedies. Alas, despite its excessive grittiness, violence, and perpetually grim tone, The Revenant is not a tragedy. It’s an adventure story about a dude who wants to kill another dude, and it has nothing to say beyond that simple premise.
As for Leo, who definitely will win an Oscar for this movie, his performance is impressive only in terms of its physicality and his commitment to abusing his body for the sake of art. In effect, though, he doesn’t really act. He’s a model for Lubezki’s camera and the writers’ obsession with unbelievable survival conditions. His performance is as shallow and meaningless as the script. The past year or so has seen a number of incredible male performances: Tom Hardy in Locke; Michael Fassbender in Macbeth; Bradley Cooper in American Sniper; Oscar Isaac in Ex Machina, just to name a few. The unifying factor between these four very different performances? In each case I wasn’t watching an actor; I was watching a character. Well, for as long as he was on screen, I saw Leonardo DiCaprio. I never once saw Hugh Glass, probably because he never existed in the first place.
The Revenant isn’t a wholly bad film, it’s just stupid and completely devoid of creativity. That said, it’s worlds above Birdman. Shot for shot, Iñárritu doesn’t suck as much as he usually does. At two and a half hours, the runtime exhausts what little potential the film had. Without Lubezki and, to an equivalent degree Canada, The Revenant would have been an entertaining, but ultimately unsatisfying waste of time. 1,000 words later, I haven’t said anything I didn’t say in my headline. That pretty much sums it up. Beautiful but pointless.