the better truth

the better truth

Thursday, February 04, 2016

The Revenant (2016)

The Revenant (2016)
A Great Bad Movie

Once I take this view I am in a position to ignore the actual wishes of men or societies, to bully, oppress, torture in the name, and on behalf, of their ‘real’ selves
-Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty

A state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory… The state is considered the sole source of the ‘right’ to use violence….” 
― Bernard Bailyn, Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History

The first twenty minutes of Alejandro Inarritu’s “The Revenant” shows a brilliant filmmaker producing a magical confrontation. The art form requires an army general’s ability to coordinate vast teams of technicians and performers. This director is commander-in-chief of a violent choreographed battle that seamlessly meshes actors, animals, camerawork, special effects, costume design…. The primal dualism of the film, brutal modernity vs. prelapsarian majesty, is painted with a master’s hand. Ironically when the dust settles, the artistic troubles arise. A wonderful meditation of mankind’s plundering of Eden morphs into a exquisitely rendered, albeit soulless, revenge western. This is a metaphoric, as well as literal, tragedy. The director's original sin was seeing embellishment as the path for better drama. He needed more faith in the foundation story.

Hugh Glass, the real-life 19th century frontiersman, who was attacked by a bear and abandoned by his compatriots, embodied the ambiguous forces of America's “Manifest Destiny”. He owed his life to friendly Native peoples who bandaged him after the mauling. Decades later, however, he was murdered by native Americans while hunting on their land. This is not revealed in the film. Although not pertinent to "The Revenant’s" storyline, this knowledge might have given a more nuanced view of the Glass tale. Inarritu, however, felt the need for boldly delineated motives in order to heighten the action. Ironically it had the opposite effect. Desperate people in impossible situations are better dramatic foils than finely rendered players locked in a predictable drama. Glass’ real-life comrades committed the sin of manslaughter- abandonment, not cold blooded murder. The latter SEEMS more dramatic but fake monsters fail to compete with real men in morally vague circumstances. Consider Inarritu's embellishments. The make-believe Fitzgerald murders Glass' beloved son in front of Glass after failing to kill him. This fiction APPEARS to heighten the tension by legitimizing Glass’ revenge-quest. The invented, mixed race, son, also narratively embodies of the impossibility of peace between the native and european. The historical Glass is more opaque. There are no reports of children, although he may have married a Native American. He tracked down those who left him to die, but chose not to resort to lethal violence. The reasons behind abandoning retribution are complicated. Once again the director eschews nuance for clear narrative falsely believing the audience would be confused and bored by actual events. 

In real life Glass was genuinely forgiving of one of the pair who wronged him but not the ringleader, Fitzgerald. Glass reportedly would have killed him but never took action due to fear of prosecution. His nemesis had joined the US Army, giving him privileged status. Fitzgerald's murder would lead to Glass facing capital charges. Glass and Fitzgerald were pragmatists, rather than angels or demons. In real life their surroundings, not the people themselves, were bifurcated into heaven and hell. Their lack of agency in this dualistic world is the real drama. These men lived in a Mad Max world of clashing civilizations. This is an apocalyptic story set in a pristine setting. They acted under the laws of the... forest.  Leaving someone who is gravely ill to die of exposure might be viewed as de rigueur, rather than criminal. The real life Glass did not participate in a comic book conception of frontier justice. Inarritu embraces it. It's unfortunate the director failed to dramatically explore the link between the real men's logical choices. Instead the film basks in the popular misconceptions of the Wild West.

The film Fitzgerald wears a metaphorical black hat. He is the embodiment of mendacity. He brings to mind the biblical verse about the coming of Ishmael: And he shall be a wild ass of a man: his hand shall be against every man, and every man's hand against him; and he shall dwell in the face of all his brethren. The fiction Fitzgerald re-tells a dystopian creation myth passed down by his father. The old man was starving in the wilderness and faced God, who took the form of an overweight squirrel. The father shot the animal and devoured him. Fitzgerald, in addition to sharing Daddy’s wisdom, also relates a childhood encounter with Native Americans. He was scalped and left him for dead. There are many moments where he runs his hands across the mass of scare that replaced his hair. No need to wonder why the make-believe Fitzgerald lacked empathy for the mythical white-hatted Glass. Inarritu sketches the bad guy with precision, but in the end he shares the emotional of the terrifying bear.  Glass encounters ursula minors with predictable results. Ursula major, momma bear, is a “special effects” tour de force. The hyper-realism combined with the unpredictable movements of the beast make for a adrenaline filled few minutes. Unfortunately the pyrotechnics stir the spleen, rather than the heart.  Film Fitzgerald conveys the identical emotional resonance. He fails to haunt the audience and emotionally fades into horizon with the closing credits.  The movie aboriginal people, however, are more boldly drawn. Thankfully the film ignores the classic trope “cowboys and Indians” trope. There are distinct rival groups of Native Americans with their internecine struggles. The United States and French Canadian factions, whose brutality towards each other equals their boundless hatred of the native peoples, are ringmasters of the horror show. The film casts the European descendants as villains. It cleverly chooses NOT to objectify Native Peoples by painting them as angelic primitives. "The Revenant" shows conflict and brutality amongst sophisticated first nation peoples. They are in competition for resources and territory.  The Western contribution was the metamorphosis of tribal friction into industrial scale ecocide and genocide.  The central storyline, Glass’ phoenix-like rise fueled by revenge, trivializes, rather than epitomizes, a parable of destruction. The fault of the film lies in embracing clarity rather than poetry. This movie is at its best when it breathes-in the eternal beauty of the place. It is difficult to convey the primal Eden-like setting. It is a world of piercingly clear rivers that cut between virgin forests and soaring, white capped mountains. God’s majestic creatures, moose salmon elk deer bear beavers, share paradise with warring tribes of men, who never miss an opportunity to sow devastation and horror. That real world contrast, rather than manufactured slights, should have driven the narrative. 

There is sequence in “The Revenant” when our protagonist befriends a fellow refugee. Glass is nursed to health by a native who has lost his tribe to a massacre and is in search of allies.   There is a whimsical moment when the two fierce men bond in the rugged winter landscape. They stick their tongues out, to catch the virgin snowfall. This stylistically is joined by other moments of repose such as Glass rummaging through the ruins of a Spanish colonial church. This hints at what might have been if not hamstrung by a rigid narrative. There is a laborious quality to Glass resuming his quest. The film breaths in quiet reflection which is quashed by the march for justice. 

Leonardo DiCaprio was the wrong choice to play Glass. There is a quality to his work that, despite dogged professionalism, never rises to the sublime. (with the exception of his childhood role of in the film “Gilbert Grape”).  The talk in the press is that “The Revenant” will finally give DiCaprio his coveted statuette. That would be appropriate. It will affirm a solid career as a very capable leading man. This film, however, required a unquantifiable magic that would channel the holiness of the Old West's terroir. DiCaprio is merely flawless. His compatriot, Fitzgerald, played by Tom Hardy, is also a consummate professional. It is a more memorable performance than DiCaprio’s Glass. To be fair it requires less range. DiCaprio is a protective father, a loving spouse, a capable frontiersman, a trusted companion, a man on the verge of death, a man in recovery…. Fitzgerald is a sociopathic one-note song. The film builds to the final Glass vs Fitzgerald battle. Sadly there was nothing at stake that went beyond the merely personal.  Inarritu’s addition of a Native American band of warriors was another failed attempt to give the struggle a larger meaning. They are also on a revenge quest in search of the Chief’s daughter. Rather than giving dimension to an epic tale, it drags the audience further into the vortex never-ending grievances that spur private wars. In the finale, the blood splattered smallness was overshadowed by the majesty of the setting. The real life avalanche filmed in the background during the denouement, had more dramatic truth than the hand to hand combat. 

“The Revenant” is actually two films that never mesh: A meditation on the birth of a nation awkwardly mixed with a tale that begins, “once upon a time in the west…..”. Unlike “Birdman” Inarritu is unable to bend the story to match his poetic oeuvre. The heartfelt artistic flourishes, such as the opening and sundry moments of repose, clashed with the need to fill the narrative. Every sublime landscape seemed to metaphorically end with an assistant director yelling, “Okay now we need to get back to the main event”. The problem is the director is more at home with Terrence Malick’s dreaminess, rather than Sergio Leone’s storytelling. This film gives us the inverse. The audience is herded into the OK Coral for the shoot-out when they would have felt more at home riding into the sunset.  One imagines passing the bands of desperadoes and dispossessed, of all races, taking refuge behind the trees of life and knowledge. Instead the audience is presented two professional actors battle in a set-piece. There are hints that Inarritu could have delivered the former; the opening raid on the fur traders, those landscape shots, the quiet wandering moments... Mankind's epic struggle is displayed in its sylvan glory. The movie versions of Glass and Fitzgerald obscure the view. The audience is straightjacketed into loving Glass and loathing Fitzgerald. Read the history. How does this square with Glass NOT killing Fitzgerald? Do we hate the Native Americans for murdering our hero? Is it important to know THE TRUTH.

Inarritu’s “Birdman” was actually named, “Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”. To quote the Birdman character, “People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit”. Unfortunately the director does not have the luxury of ignorance. He knows the Birdman is wrong. It is ironic that “The Revenant” ignores the major theme of Inarritu's last film. Strangely missing obvious lessons is the unifying characteristic of ALL the humans who are fated with roaming the wilderness of the Old West. No one considers the lilies. DiCaprio sticking his tongue out to catch the snow; that’s worth more than an Oscar. In fact, it might even get you one. Truth is dramatic. Let's hope Innaritu regains his faith in it. 

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