Monday 18 January 2016

The Revenant

May The Horse Be With you

The Revenant
2015 USA
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
UK cinema release print.

I really wasn’t that up for going to see The Revenant, if truth be told. I’ve not been the biggest fan of Leonardo DiCaprio and, even though I recognise him as being a pretty great actor, he tends to pick on playing the kind of personalities who I am less than interested in. For example, I’m sure he does a marvellous job in Tarantino’s Django Unchained but, for me, the second half of that movie is almost unwatchable and DiCaprio’s villain is someone who I just don’t enjoy looking at in that. Yes, I realise it’s the brilliance of his performance that allows me to hate him so much in that movie but... he’s just not an actor I tend to get on with.

Secondly, I saw the advance trailers for The Revenant a number of times with various movies over the last couple of months and, if I wasn’t already put off by DiCaprio’s involvement then I was certainly put off by the trailer.

All that being said, however, I then stumbled upon a review of the film’s score composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Carsten Nicolai (for some reason credited as Alva Noto here) that stated that the score was quite avant garde and unusual in it’s musical make-up. Well, maybe it’s not actually that unusual or different, to be honest, but it did get me into the cinema to have a listen to it and so I’m grateful for that review for kicking me in that direction because, as it happens, The Revenant really is quite a good little movie.

After a brief sequence right at the start of the picture, which uses a compilation of what appears to be both dream and flashback/forward imagery (a recurring motif which slowly, in its use throughout the running time of the story, starts to inform or support the narrative a little more), we are thrust into a slow moving shot of water running through a stream or river in a forest. This won me over straight away because the picking out of a textural detail such as this immediately reminded me of the cinema of one of my favourite directors, Andrei Tarkovsky. More specifically it reminded me of the opening shot of that director’s Solaris to some extent, in terms of its intent, although it has to be said that director Iñárritu is a lot more dynamic than Tarkovsky’s more simplistic, static shooting style on these kinds of things. This certainly doesn’t make Iñárritu’s style any better for sure, and he’s still a million miles away from Tarkovsky, but it is certainly reminiscent of the former director’s spiritual concerns, it seems to me, and so Iñárritu goes up a notch or two already, in my esteem.

It’s interesting, actually, because all through The Revenant, the camera keeps picking up these wonderful textural details of the desolate but beautiful, snowbound landscape that is the film’s natural environment. It’s a free for all in terms of long static shots, long slow sweeping, moving shots and short static shots edited together but... it seems to have a definite pattern to the way the main action of a scene is reached throughout the picture. What the director and cinematographer seem to be doing, I believe, is to move the camera to concentrate on beautiful, rich shots, holding it for a while, before moving the camera up, down, or to the side and into the main action or narrative of a scene. Like a slow sweep from detail into an establishing shot and then cutting to closer moments in the progression of the narrative.

Similarly, the director will also often leave a sequence by moving the camera off and away from the action to come to rest on a similarly breathtaking composition for a while. And it’s often a shot of either water or sometimes looking up into trees, for some reason. I guess we can all thank my favourite director, Akira Kurosawa, for beginning to look up into the sky with his camera in his masterpiece Rashomon for the legacy of that kind of detail... whether people consciously remember that he popularised the freeing of the camera in this way or not. However, I sense a certain practical motive in the way Iñárritu uses this technique too... possibly to cover up some behind-the-scenes elements which need to remain hidden to maintain the illusion.

Interestingly, mixed in with this leading in and out style of detail is another tactic the editor sometimes uses... that of breaking down action into short shots and then editing into tighter shots or further away as an alternate means of leading the audience in or out of a sequence. I don’t recall the film doing this quite as much as the other modus operandi going on but, it certainly happens a number of times and maybe the director does this on occasion to produce a kind of ‘relief’ on the visual cortex when there’s an overabundance on the other kind of entrance/exit to the scenes. Either way, whichever methods the director employs in any given scene, it's all done quite masterfully and it makes for an astonishing piece of cinema.

Leonardo DiCaprio is pretty amazing as the man who, after being attacked by a slighty dodgy looking CGI bear, sees his son killed and is then, himself, left for dead by the villain of the piece... equally excellently played by Tom Hardy. As the trailer perhaps demonstrates... but without showing the real beauty of the film, the story or DiCaprio’s rebirth as the metaphorical revenant (including a perhaps too heavy handed but visually stunning sequence where a Christ metaphor is kinda hammered home to the viewer) and his survival and pursuit of Tom Hardy through a harrowing landscape of hostile indians and heavy snow plays a little like an early Werner Herzog epic on acid... although I have to say that in comparison to Herzog, I actually find this director a lot more interesting to watch. The tale is very simple and is pretty much a small scale, exploitation style revenge movie in its simplicity but, even though it’s very small in content, the director still manages to shoot this in a way that makes it feel extremely epic and gives it a sense of being, somehow, something much more than the sum of its parts. Kinda like the movie is a wet rag and he’s wringing out all the detail out into the frame.

I was also reminded of Tarkovsky again in one of the dream sequences which litter the film. Tarkovsky would make long, slow movies where not much would happen but, every now and then, he’d have a moment where something ‘blink and you miss it’ startling would happen and there’s a beautiful shot of DiCaprio’s character’s former wife levitating above him which is just such a special moment... although that too is frustratingly brief in the edit. Maybe running as little as two seconds and therefore further enhancing the haunting quality of the image on the brain, perhaps.

It’s a truly mesmerising film and the performances, even by Domhnall Gleeson (another actor I’m kinda on the fence about at the moment) are way beyond the realms of competent. If I did have one criticism of the movie, though, it’s the sense of unevenness between the set up and the pay off at the end. DiCaprio survives certain death time after time, even going so far as to do something with a horse that fans of Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (reviewed here) will be more than familiar with when it comes to surviving in an icy wilderness... and it feels very gruelling. By comparison, when DiCaprio rejoins the land of the living, the post survival pursuit and denouement of the movie runs to maybe less than a third of the running time. It’s quite obvious in places, with what looks like a ‘surprise reveal’ at some point being scuppered by the director telegraphing that moment in a scene with DiCaprio’s character cutting down tree branches minutes before it happens, and it’s all over just way to quick. There is a certain poetic sense of ironic justice at the end of the picture, which joins the main narrative to a sub plot involving an Indian warrior’s quest for his missing daughter... in the way in which DiCaprio has a hand in inadvertently helping him on that quest... but ultimately, considering the long haul of the character’s survival as he stumbles and fights his way across the wilderness, it’s just all seems tied together way too hastily for my liking.

That being said though, it’s not an uncommon occurrence in modern cinema and it would be a shame to let that put you off going to see and appreciate what is, frankly, a really great example of modern motion picture art, by anybody’s standards. If you call yourself a fan of cinema then, although you might find certain things in this a little clumsy in places, you should definitely still take a look... and try to see it in a cinema with a big screen if possible, because it looks quite spectacular. Probably not the best film I’ll see this year but it certainly helps get 2016 off to a good start and definitely one which I might even revisit on Blu Ray in years to come. The Revenant is a stunningly good piece of cinema and, if you want to see some good art, then it’s definitely worth some of your time.

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