Sean K. Cureton

The Revenant or (The Expected Virtue of Iñárritu)

In Movie Reviews: 2015 on January 23, 2016 at 12:17 pm
The Revenant

20th Century Fox

The Revenant
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
3 out of 4 stars

Like his last film of dramatic portentousness, director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest work is heavily poetic and mock spiritual to a fault, with many stunningly photographed vistas of snowbound alpines meant to stand in for some kind of abstract notion of human idealism that can prove hard to grasp. Where Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) took on its sub-titular notion of artistic pretention and pride, The Revenant explores revenge played out to its brutal end, a film that renders violence enacted upon one’s fellow man felt as an emotional wound that scars the psyche, and hollows out its victims seeking justice in all the wrong places. As real life American frontiersman and fur trapper of legend Hugh Glass, Leonardo DiCaprio pushes himself farther than might be deemed entirely necessary of what would otherwise be called fiction, and makes a film in dedication to the man as seen through the convoluted lens of Iñárritu’s poetic vision. There’s plenty of beauty and horror to be found throughout the film, and as such much of its seemingly ungraspable visuals become metaphoric intuitively, with the realistic filming technique undertaken by Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki resulting in an equally honest depiction of historical events. Iñárritu has perhaps created a mountain of self-involvement that other directors might find hard to surmount in the making of his latest film, and yet The Revenant manages to surpass all expectations, resulting in a work of contemporary cinema that needs to be seen by anyone who professes a love for the medium.

Of late, and following Iñárritu’s string of awards lauded onto Birdman and The Revenant in kind, a small minority of voices has come forward to voice their needling displeasure with much of the director’s grandiose pomposity. For some, Birdman was an entirely contrived affair meant to cater to the simpering intellect of the cinematic intelligentsia, while shutting out general audiences with its open degradation and condescension towards big budget Hollywood fare. To some, Riggan Thomson proved a thoroughly unlikeable character, whose Icarian flight towards the sun was scorching and without human insight, regardless of how minutely manifested his particular brilliance might otherwise have been seen by the assembled majority of otherwise captivated film critics. As a member of the latter party, it becomes difficult to assess just where some of this miniscule, albeit vocal, minority of dissent has its origin, though perhaps much of the film’s post-modern aestheticism is to blame, with Iñárritu often adopting the visual poetics of a Terrence Malick without any of the latter’s warmth or compassion. Birdman is a fast-paced, chess game of the mind that plays like a studio comedy, and The Revenant is a slow, spiritual ballet that moves with all of the speed of mortal folly in war, though neither ever truly feels as though it has earned either accolade when it comes to a feeling, deeply and emotionally, for any of the characters depicted on screen as characters of Iñárritu’s personal invention and insight.

But such a digressive discourse fails to get at what it is that makes a film like The Revenant such a compelling drama to begin with. Simply put, it’s breathtaking to watch the film, and discover the various paths that Glass must overcome in order to try and fail, and try and fail again, to come back from the brink of death, over and over again, and finally find his revenge lacking in any spiritual resolution. If our hero’s final words are to be believed as religious truth, then revenge is truly up to some great deity, and our own strivings towards justice may be deemed laughable and narcissistic in comparison to the former’s almighty power. Watching DiCaprio and his co-star Tom Hardy, who plays the film’s chief antagonist John Fitzgerald, come to blows with one another after just over two hours of grueling tension and physical torment is truly satisfying, and a dramatic achievement that viewers may never quiet recover from. The Revenant may cast aside human performance in the service of its photographically depicted realism that verges into the realm of sheer documentary filmmaking, but it is also one of the more gripping meditations on human spirituality and religion in the face of man’s inherently sinful nature to be seen on the big screen in a long time.

The Revenant, regardless of how you may feel about its high-minded intentions, is one of the best motion pictures of the year. Its ability to articulate some of the most deeply held, sub-conscious human truths is awe inspiring, and when coupled with Emmanuel Lubezki’s photographic poetry, the picture becomes about far more than revenge and God. Iñárritu has truly delivered something unimaginable in his latest film; even as his prior work threatened to define his entire career, it is his latest opus that may be far more cohesive in its meditation on another facet of man’s ego. The film is gut-wrenching and beautifully told, while simultaneously offering spiritual succor for those seeking answers to life’s most persistent existential questions and entertaining audiences with a thrilling tale of philosophical adventure to rival the works of Jack London. DiCaprio and Hardy pair well together under Iñárritu’s deliberate direction, and the dance they undertake in the film is one to see as set against the thematic tableaux of early nineteenth century American colonialism and greed, and stands as further proof of its director’s entirely expected virtue of dramatic cognizance.

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