Wednesday, February 3, 2016

It Came From The Cineplex: The Revenant

The Revenant was written by Mark L. Smith and Alejandro Inarritu and directed by Alejandro Inarritu.

Smith wrote Vacancy and The Hole, both horror films, which would seem to make him an odd choice to pen a frontier epic. Inarritu previously directed 21 Grams, Babel and Birdman (which he also wrote). Birdman cleaned up at the 2015 Oscars, winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Cinematography.

The Revenant has been similarly nominated for Best Picture and Best Director. Star Leonardo DiCaprio was nominated for Best Actor, and Tom Hardy for Best Supporting Actor.

It's a powerful and brutal film that's brilliantly shot and directed. If you like watching actors crawl through the mud and eat raw meat, then this is the picture for you. The film also features top notch performances, especially from Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy and Domhnall Gleeson

That said, I'm not quite sure what The Revenant is about. Revenge? Man vs. Nature? DiCaprio's desperate, last-ditch attempt at winning an Oscar? Who knows? It has plenty of style, but there doesn't seem to be much substance to it. 

The film is also a butt-punishing two hours and thirty six minutes long. It takes its sweet time telling its story in a languid, deliberate style. Normally I'm not opposed to slow-burn movies, but this one definitely could have been trimmed by half an hour without harming it one bit. How many times do we need to see Leo crawl on the ground before we get that he's in a dire situation?

If you've been online at all in the past few years, you're no doubt aware of the many, many "Leo Deserves An Oscar" memes. To hear fans tell it, it's a scandalous social injustice that the former Growing Pains star has never received a Best Actor win. Most feel that 2016 is finally Leo's year, and his role in The Revenant will at long last right this grievous wrong.

DiCaprio himself called the part of main character Hugh Glass the hardest of his career, as he crawled through mud in frigid temperatures, ate a hunk of real raw bison liver, learned to shoot a musket and convincingly build a campfire. He even learned to speak a few words of two different Native American languages.

I have no doubt that he did all of that and more, and he's impressive in the role. But he goes a good hour, maybe even longer, without uttering so much as a single word! That's not acting, that's reacting.

Tom Hardy gives a much more powerful performance in the film. He's essentially unrecognizable as he literally becomes John Fitzgerald. In my opinion, which no one asked for, he's far more deserving of an Oscar win than Leo.

The poster for The Revenant contains those dreaded words, "Inspired By True Events." Generally speaking, whenever you see that line in the opening credits of a film you should immediately gather your belongings and exit the theater as quickly as possible. Such films usually have little or nothing to do with the actual story.

The Revenant is based on the life of Hugh Glass, who was an actual fur trapper and explorer in the American frontier in the early 1800s. The film gets the general facts of his ordeal more or less right, but like all biopics, it fudges a lot of details about his personal life to make it more dramatic. More on that below.


The Plot:
In 1823, a group of fur trappers is camped out in what is now South Dakota. Among the trappers is Captain Henry (played by Domhnall Gleeson), their guide Hugh Glass (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and John Fitzgerald (played by Tom Hardy), a trapper who was partially scalped by hostile Arikara Indians, and Glass' half Native American son Hawk.

The party is suddenly attacked by a tribe of Arikara, and only a small handful of trappers manage to escape by boat. Among them are Captain Henry, Glass, Hawk and Fitzgerald. They regroup downstream and decide to hide their valuable fur pelts (which they'll come back for later) and hightail it to their fort.

While scouting ahead, Glass is savagely attacked by a female grizzly bear. He manages to kill it, but is gravely wounded. The others attempt to carry him back to the fort, but are eventually forced to leave him behind. Fitzgerald says they should do the humane thing and put Glass out of his misery, but Captain Henry can't bring himself do so. He offers extra payment to any men who stay behind until Glass dies, to give him a proper burial.

Fitzgerald volunteers, along with a young man named Jim Bridger. Once Henry and the others leave, Fitzgerald tries to smother Glass to get it over with. Hawk tries to stop him, but Fitzgerald kills him and drags his body away. He then buries Glass in a shallow grave, as Bridger returns from foraging. He convinces Bridger that the Arikara are close by, and if they don't abandon Glass they'll die. Bridger reluctantly agrees, places his canteen on Glass' chest, and follows Fitzgerald.

Against all logic and reason, Glass somehow survives. He crawls from his shallow grave and begins the arduous task of crawling back to the fort. He encounters many more trials and tribulations along the way, including narrowly avoiding capture by the Arikara. Their Chief is searching for his daughter Powaqa, who he believes was kidnapped by Glass' party.

Fitzgerald and Bridger make it back to Fort Kiowa. Captain Henry, who arrived there earlier, pays the men for staying with Glass. Bridger refuses the money. 

Glass discovers a group of French trappers who are holding Powaqa captive and repeatedly raping her. He frees her and steals one of the Frenchmen's horses, accidentally dropping his canteen. He narrowly escapes the Arikara again by riding his horse off a cliff (!). 

Meanwhile a hunter arrives at Fort Kiowa carrying Glass' canteen. Captain Henry organizes a search party. Fitzgerald realizes Glass survived, so he robs the fort's safe and flees. Henry discovers Glass and brings him back. Henry charges Bridger with treason, but Glass defends him, saying he was lied to by Fitzgerald. Henry and a barely-healed Glass then set out to find Fitzgerald.

The two split up and search the mountains. Henry is ambushed by Fitzgerald, who scalps and kills him. Glass finds Henry's body and sets a trap for Fitzgerald. The trap works and the two men grapple in a bloody battle near a river. Glass tells Fitzgerald he only survived so he could have his revenge against him. Fitzgerald says killing him won't bring Hawk back to life.

Glass is about to deliver the killing blow to Fitzgerald, when he sees the band of Arikara watching downstream. He pushes Fitzgerald into the river, and he floats helplessly down to them. They scalp Fitzgerald for real this time and kill him. The Chief, now accompanied by his daughter Powaqa, spares Glass.

Glass tries to make it back to the fort, but collapses. He sees a vision of his Native American wife, who smiles and walks into the woods. His fate is left ambiguous.

• For the record, a "revenant" is a person who comes back from the dead. Considering what happens to Glass in the movie, it's a pretty apt title.

• The film takes place in 1823, probably in what is now South Dakota (at least that's when and where the real Glass was mauled). This would have been helpful information for the movie to have provided to the audience. Would it have killed them to give us a couple of captions laying out the setting?

• Inarritu is quickly becoming the master of the prolonged take. In fact his previous film Birdman was filmed so that it appears to be one continuous shot.

He employs the same technique several times in The Revenant as well. The opening attack by the Arikara is shot as one long camera move lasting ten minutes or so. I assumed they probably used several separate shots and digitally stitched them together, but Inarritu insists it was filmed as a single take. 

It's an impressive piece of filmmaking, especially when you consider the dozens of actors who all had to hit their marks and say their lines at the right moment, as well as the cameraman who had to capture it all precisely. Kudos!

The grizzly bear attack was also one long shot (or at least appeared to be), made all the more horrendous by the fact that the camera refused to look away, forcing us to watch each shocking second.

• On the way back to the fort, Glass scouts ahead to find the best trail. He inadvertently disturbs a mother grizzly bear and her cubs. The grizzly then savagely attacks him, not once but twice, before he finally manages to kill it. 

It's a horrific, jaw dropping scene and an amazing piece of cinema. The bear was CGI of course, as even DiCaprio doesn't want an Oscar badly enough to wrestle a real grizzly. But it's amazing CGI, and it looks for all the world like a real live bear.

That said, ultimately the shot somehow feels fake, if that makes any sense. No matter how good the bear looks, or how authentically it moves, in the back of your mind you know it's not really mauling DiCaprio. I honestly can't think of any way around this problem.

As good as the shot is, I have to ask— why the hell were the bears out foraging in the middle of a harsh winter in the first place? Don't bears hibernate during the winter months? According to his letters, the real life Hugh Glass was mauled in May of 1823. Apparently Inarritu changed the setting for dramatic purposes.

• Unintentional Humor Alert! After being mauled by the grizzly for several minutes, Glass finally manages to kill it. He rolls down the side of a small ravine and comes to rest on the forest floor. A second later the bear does the same, landing right smack on top of him— just like a rock falling on top of Wile E. Coyote. It was an unintentionally hilarious coda to the scene and seemed way out of place after the gruesome attack.

• In an interview, Inarritu made a huge deal out of the fact that he shot the entire film in natural light. Because of this, there were only ninety minutes a day in which the crew could film. This resulted in an extra long shoot, and also caused the film to go way over budget.

Maybe next time Inarritu might want to think about bringing a few artificial lights with him when he goes on location.

• The film featured subtitles for the various Indians and French trappers. Pity they didn't do the same for Tom Hardy's Fitzgerald character. I would have enjoyed his powerful performance even more if I'd been able to understand what the hell he was saying. I missed at least half his dialogue due to his mealy-mouthed delivery.

• After crawling from his shallow grave, Glass tries to stand but collapses on the ground in pain.

Inarritu makes an interesting cinematography choice in this scene. He pushes the camera closer and closer into Leo's face, until his wheezing breath fogs the camera lens. Weird! Eh, no worries, go ahead and fog up the lens for a few minutes. I'm sure nothing of any importance was happening.

• Once Glass partially recovers from the bear attack, he begins the arduous task of crawling back to the fort. He stops for the night, builds a campfire and manages to catch a fish in a nearby stream. I guess he was either really ravenous or out of his mind with pain, because he devours the fish raw— even though there's a perfectly good campfire literally ten feet away.

Later Glass encounters a friendly Pawnee Indian named Hikuc, who's eating a bison. Hikuc tosses a big hunk of organ meat to Glass, and he hungrily munches on it. Once again, there are several campfires not three feet away from him. Apparently Glass must prefer the taste of raw meat.

• As a fan of Parks & Recreation, color me surprised to find out that the Pawnee are an actual Native American tribe, and not just the name of a fictional town! Their territory was primarily in Nebraska and Oklahoma though, not Indiana.

• Hikuc and Glass eventually part ways. A few days later Glass finds Hikuc dead, hanging by a rope in a tree. There's a sign on his body that reads, "On est tous des sauvages," indicating he was hanged by the French trappers.

"On est tous des sauvages," is French for "We are all savages."

• After stealing a horse from the French trappers, Glass is pursued again by the horde of Arikara. In a desperate effort to escape them, he rides his horse off the edge of a high cliff. The horse splats to the ground while Glass lands in a convenient pine tree.

Can you really make a horse run right off a cliff like that? It's not a car, it's an animal with a mind of its own. I suppose you could argue that it was spooked by the Indians and arrows whizzing past its head, but still...

• After Glass rides off the cliff, he guts his dead horse and crawls inside it to protect himself from the intense cold.

I defy anyone to watch this scene and not think of The Empire Strikes Back. Any second I expected Glass to pull out a handful of steaming entrails and say, "I thought they smelled bad... on the outside!"

• At the end of the film, Fitzgerald surprises Captain Henry and scalps and kills him. Why the scalping? Was he hoping Glass would find Henry's body, think the Arikara scalped him and run back to the fort?

• There's a 1971 film called Man In The Wilderness, starring Richard Harris and John Huston, that was also based on Hugh Glass' life story. Oddly enough in this film the main character's name is changed to Zachary Bass.

• Like most biopics, this one plays fast and loose with the actual facts. There really was a trapper named Hugh Glass, he was really mauled by a bear and left for dead, and he really survived and crawled back to his fort.

Naturally there's much more to the story, and the real Hugh Glass' ordeal was actually much more interesting.

The real Glass was indeed mauled by a bear, but he didn't kill it by himself. The real life Fitzgerald and Bridger helped. The leader of the party, General Ashley (not Captain Henry) was convinced Glass wouldn't survive, and asked for volunteers to stay with him and see he got a proper burial.

Fitzgerald and Bridger stayed behind and began digging Glass' grave. They were interrupted by attacking Arikara, and fled with Glass' rifle and knife. Later they reported that Glass had died.

Glass survived. but had a broken leg and cuts on his back that exposed his ribs. He set his leg, and poured maggots in his wounds to eat the infected, gangrenous flesh (!). He then wrapped himself in a bear skin and crawled the two hundred miles back to the fort (!!). He built a raft and floated downstream part of the way, and was aided by friendly Indians now and then.

When he finally arrived at the fort, he found it abandoned (!!!). Apparently everyone had relocated to a new fort some distance away. When he finally arrived there he met up with Bridger, and forgave him due to his youth.

He eventually managed to track down Fitzgerald, who'd joined the army. Instead of engaging him in an epic battle and killing him in revenge, he simply forgave him too, saying he'd probably have done the same thing in his place. The only thing he wanted from Fitzgerald was his rifle back.

As near as we can tell, Glass was never married, and never had a son, half-breed or otherwise. The movie heavily implies he died after getting his revenge on Fitzgerald, but in reality he lived another ten years after the attack, before being killed in an Arikara attack along the Yellowstone River.

I don't know about anyone else, but that's the movie I wished I'd seen!

The Revenant is an impressive, if overlong piece of filmmaking full of ferocious violence and beautiful cinematography. Leonardo DiCaprio puts in an impressive physical performance, but unfortunately he's easily out-acted by Tom Hardy. Ultimately the film is a case of style over substance, because it doesn't seem to have anything to say. It's worth a look in the theater, but you probably won't want to watch it over and over. I know it's Oscar bait, but I wasn't that impressed. I give it a B.

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