The Revenant Dir. Alejandro G. Iñárritu

[20th Century Fox; 2015]

Styles: historical drama, survivalist, biopic
Others: Cold Mountain, every revenge movie ever, Birdman

There’s a scene in The Revenant where criminal-turned-fur-trapper John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) tells his compatriot Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) about a man who had decided a squirrel he had eaten was God, because it had provided him with sustenance in his hour of greatest need. In context, Fitzgerald is basically telling the story as part of a power game, but it nonetheless raises an interesting point: regardless of what religion (or lack thereof) people might identify with, in some ways their true deity is that which has the most immediate sway over them and, preferably, something to give them.

Films are God to a lot of people. Over the years, I’ve had several friends who’ve gotten considerable chunks of their moral code and understanding of the world from watching movies. These aren’t stupid or culturally unaware people: some of them were latchkey kids from abusive or indifferent households, and some just had trouble making friends. Movies were an escape in their youth, a medicine, but also a way of making sense of what was going on around them. For better or for worse, movies were more important to these people than they’ll ever be for me (and that’s saying something), and did more for them than religion probably ever could.

I guess that’s why watching The Revenant really bummed me out (well, that and being surrounded by babbling dolts at the press screening, but that’s another story). My friends are mostly in their 30s, and anything the film has to say will roll right off their backs whether they enjoy watching it or not; I’m not so sure if the same can be said for somebody growing up in a similar situation to their own. Regardless of its power to influence anyone, though, The Revenant sucks both as movie and as stand-in for religion. It’s a stinking load of hollow alpha male bullshit that glorifies revenge and exceptionalism, a thrust made more offensive for the fact that it’s a “prestige picture” and more of a shame because its garbage morality is so expertly delivered.

As with Fight Club, Nickelback, and The Incredible Hulk, The Revenant will likely engender sympathy with audiences — particularly male ones — because it is both macho and sensitive. There are a lot of scenes with grown men crying and screaming in frustration, but we also get to see those same men fuck each other (and a lot of animals) up. Wipe away the tears, though, and it’s pretty much a boilerplate revenge movie, following the same formula used for everything from I Spit On Your Grave to John Wick: in the early 1800s in South Dakota, the aforementioned Fitzgerald and Bridger are charged with keeping watch over their company’s navigator, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who has suffered a near-fatal bear attack. Motivated by selfishness and racism, Fitzgerald murders Glass’s half-Native son in cold blood, then leaves Glass to freeze to death in a shallow grave. For the remainder of the film, we are expected to share in the bloodlust which drives Glass away from the Grim Reaper’s clutches and towards justice, or at least comeuppance.

Leaving aside the sociological implications of this well-worn formula for a minute, The Revenant is engaging enough. DiCaprio’s performance as Glass is as weighty — and as hammy — as we’ve come to expect from an actor who’s spent his entire career always an Oscar bridesmaid, never an Oscar bride. As it’s been since What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, the dude is fun to watch, even if he’s never as brave and transcendent as his agent tells him he is. Hardy is also a pleasure and a convincing villain, though he can’t deliver a consistent Texan accent to save his life; after Ex Machina and Frank, buying Domhnall Gleeson as a character with any ability to lead or intimidate is nigh-impossible, but he and the rest of the supporting cast all turn in generally reputable work.

Much will be — has already has been — made of the The Revenant’s grisly violence but, as with Saving Private Ryan and its ilk, any reservations about that can be waved away under the aegis of “historical realism.” The film’s weepiness levels creep nearly into Ang Lee territory, but that’s probably realism, too: I have little doubt that pioneers and fur trappers broke down plenty in their expeditions. You can’t be stoic all the time, and I find a couple crying jags easier to believe than some of the death-defying feats DiCaprio and his stuntman depict as Glass.

I might as well note, too, that it’s also beautifully shot, and almost a complete aesthetic reversal from what cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezky did with Iñárritu’s previous film,Birdman. Here, he replaces that film’s physical and mental claustrophobia with a picturesque expansiveness; in fact, the only thing it really shares with its much-ballyhooed predecessor is a few of Iñárritu’s attempts at magical realism (which is a nice way of saying “cribbing from Jodorowsky, but not being batshit crazy enough to do so convincingly”).

So, yes: it’s a well-made film in a lot of ways. This just makes me hate it more. Leonardo DiCaprio crawling around the forest in his cool grizzly beard, occupying a universe where revenge is the moral high ground, playing the pioneer version of Ayn Rand’s ideal Übermensch and eating raw meat straight out of an animal’s chest: it’s all a lot of horseshit (which, I believe, DiCaprio also eats at one point, but it’s nowhere near as good as Divine eating dog shit in Pink Flamingos), but it’s a dazzling enough film that it’s relatively easy to not care about what it’s really saying, and not too much of a stretch even to take that message to heart.

In other words, it isn’t the film’s violence and perverse, outmoded take on masculinity and justice that makes it suck: it’s all that stuff combined with its “Important Film” hubris. Last year, I praised (with reservations) The Equalizer, a film with a lot of the same problems and a lot less to sell it aesthetically, as a fine way to spend a night out. I stand by that. That movie, however, is unabashed and unreconstituted trash, and it masquerades as little else. Only a truly hopeless case could take it seriously, and I like movies like that for the same reason I like rock and roll music: they’re both loud, contrived, and incredibly stupid. I’ve never felt like I learned something from listening to a Rolling Stones song, but I’ve had a lot of great times.

To extend the metaphor, then: The Revenant is kind of like a stadium-prog band covering Chuck Berry, a preposterous and self-serious pantomime of something fun gussied up with a lot of pomp and circumstance. It has all the ornaments of safely edgy Oscar bait, of Manny Farber’s “White Elephant Art.” In short, it strives to be a Serious Movie About Big Ideas, but still accessible enough for mom. I’ve seen enough of same to know better by now, but you’ll excuse me if I’m always hoping that they’ll have something more and/or better to say than The Revenant. Failing that, I wouldn’t mind if it at least had the decency to wear its dunce cap with pride.

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