Yeah, well, things are bad everywhere
by Thom Yee
There’s a breed of movie, let’s call it an “Oscar movie”, that we all know, that we’re all aware of, and that many of us may even have an opinion on, but that few of us have actually seen. The joke of the Oscars, and it’s a joke that will continue to endure far past the recent James Franco/Anne Hathaway, “We Saw Your Boobs”, #OscarsSoWhite controversies, is that nobody sees these movies. I mean, who’s seen Room? Or Brooklyn? Or Spotlight? Actually, I’ve seen every Best-Picture-nominated movie this year other than Bridge of Spies (because it looked boring), but the argument still stands amongst most people. But who are “most people”? Is “most people” supposed to represent me? And how many movies do “most people” see every year anyway? According to 2014 statistics from the Motion Picture Association of America, “most people” see fewer than six movies a year. If nothing else, purely by number of movies seen it’s pretty bad odds that “most people” will have seen any or all of the Oscar nominees, even this year when two of them (The Martian and Mad Max: Fury Road) were pretty big, pretty mainstream hits. And that’s not even considering other variables like taste, preference, or availability, and it leaves out that, regardless of what movies people do or don’t want to see, “most people”… well, they suck. Don’t get me started on “most people”.
Of the eight 2016 Oscar movies nominated for Best Picture, the front runner for the award is The Revenant, a movie directed by Alejandro Iñárritu. That name might sound familiar from this same time during last year’s Oscar season as he’s also the director of what would become last year’s Best Oscar Picture, Birdman. Compared to The Revenant, the numbers alone suggest that very few of you saw Birdman, the story of a once-famous, now washed-up Hollywood actor’s attempt to regain relevance with a new Broadway production he created and stars in, and if it’s true that you didn’t see it, for once when it comes to picking good movies, I have to say good for you on that one. Birdman was smart and funny and had its own unique energy, but it’s a movie that, for lack of better words, insists upon itself, and when I watched it, I could feel the Oscar baiting, I could see with great clarity the many hooks the movie used that felt specifically designed to appeal to critics. It’s a very “I’m so clever, look at me” movie, and so for a long time during this pre-Oscar season, I was hesitant to see The Revenant, Iñárritu’s much-heralded, again Oscar-nominated followup. Until this week. Until this review.
What’s it about?
In 1823, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), the explorer, hunter, and frontiersman is treated for the grievous injuries he has sustained from a sudden bear attack while leading a group of fur trappers in the wilderness of the American Northern Plains. Thinking him not long for this world, his party, severely depleted after an attack by Arikara Native Americans only days earlier, leaves him behind in the care of John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), and Glass’s half-native son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), who are to care for him until he dies. Fitzgerald, resentful of the toll Glass’s injuries have had on their expedition and hostile towards Hawk having been partially scalped by natives years earlier, murders Hawk in front of the helpless Glass and forces Bridger to leave Glass behind by convincing him that the Arikaras who earlier attacked them are fast approaching. But against all odds, Glass lived and will now use his very particular set of skills, skills he’s acquired over a very long career, skills that make him a nightmare for people like Fitzgerald, to get his revenge!
Much of The Revenant was shot here in Alberta (well, over there in and around the wretched little city of Calgary), and the only reason the production had to move outside of Canada, as was originally planned, was because — get this — Canada was too warm. Isn’t that funny? Isn’t it such a crazy, upside down, mixed up thing that Canada is now too warm to shoot a movie set in the winter wilderness? Even this past winter I have yet to put on a heavy coat or help my parents out with shoveling after a heavy snowfall. Because there haven’t been any. Not because I’m a d*ck who doesn’t help his parents out. Anyway.
I’ve said this in a lot of my reviews in the past, particularly given how much of those reviews have centred around zombies, but I don’t see how people can live in these worlds and not give up right away. The horrible cold, the wet, rainy, then freezing wilderness, the harsh, unforgiving tundra, the ragged clothing, having to make your way with steel and brawn in a world that would just as soon see you dead? And all of this is for pelts?
Is it any good?
If nothing else, what’s clearly astonishing about The Revenant is that it was shot almost entirely with natural light. One need look no further than any of the multitude of amateur (and some of the more professionally produced) YouTube videos to see how tricky it is to get things properly lit and looking remotely right even under ideal studio conditions. The use of natural light alone is truly a remarkable feat, and when you combine that with the remote locations that cost the cast and crew significant parts of their day just to get there even before they started work and this whole Revenant thing looks like it was a terrible ordeal nearing the level of what the real people went through. Simply having to wait for the right conditions to arrive or having to change plans because those conditions never did arrive do must have been maddening, and just how tired and bitter and hateful everybody on the shoot must have been, the Herculean effort that the entire production must have been, all comes through in the final onscreen product.
The Revenant is shockingly, hauntingly beautiful, and there are times when you’ll wish you could have stayed there, lingered just a little bit longer in the serenity of the land. This is absolutely a movie that should be seen in theatres or at the very least with a proper home theatre setup not just for the visuals but for the truly immersive audio that makes you feel like you’re there. But thank God you’re not, thank God you’re facing down just about any other modern-day problem, because none of us should have to live in a world like The Revenant where the wilderness hides danger everywhere, the men on your own team would just as soon kill you than have to drag your near-lifeless carcass around, women are treated as property, attacks from Native Americans that wipe out almost your entire party are common, scalping is expected, and despite all of that, you’re in the wrong for invading their land and culture. And that’s without the bear attacks.
As far as potential Oscars go, in addition to the Best Picture and Best Director nominations, lead actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy are up for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor respectively (no Best Actress noms, there are, like, two women in the whole movie and the biggest female role is a ghost who only appears in visions), but the true star of the entire movie would have to be the bear. I think when you sit back and consider a prestige film like The Revenant and a prestige actor so entrenched in these kinds of movies like Leonardo DiCaprio, a part of you is almost happy if not gleeful to picture him being tossed back and forth by as dominant a foe as a full-sized black bear, but when you see it fully realized onscreen, it’s a truly disturbing moment, one that you’re frightened to see but compelled to watch, and if you’re like me you’ll find yourself praying for it to be over even though you can’t look away.
It’s fair to say that The Revenant is a good movie on all of the more technical levels, and that was probably never really in question considering the talents involved, but that doesn’t necessarily mean means that it’s also a satisfying movie or one you’ll want to see for reasons beyond the spectacle, and for most of the second act of the movie, I will admit that it gets to be a bit of a drag. Watching Leo slowly make his way from crawler to limper to walker all the way back to runner and seeing Tom Hardy try to justify his own actions while lying to his superiors can get to be a bit too much or at least it lasts a bit too long. It’s in that vast middle expanse where most of you will draw the line.
What kept me on the right side of The Revenant is that in the end, despite all of the darkness and heaviness, it ultimately comes off as a lighter, more hopeful movie than I thought it would be. It feels more like a survival tale than a revenge movie, nearly as much a spiritual story as it is brutal, and there’s a lightness to that. The overarching spirituality of the plot elevates the movie as we follow Leo’s Hugh Glass as he makes his way through the wilderness, witnesses the cruelty of colonialism, and reconnects with his lost son and wife. That that last family but is the only definitely fabricated part of the Glass story in The Revenant is unfortunate, but I won’t hold that against the movie. Otherwise it might have been more like Liam Neeson’s The Grey. And then we’d all lose.
So should I see it?
Beyond showing us in rich, vivid detail the struggles our (well, your) ancestors may have went through, movies like The Revenant can cause us to look inward and put our own struggles into perspective, and you have to admit that up against the prospect of suffering through a severe bear attack while the man who killed your son is getting away, we’re actually pretty lucky to live in a time where the worst thing that can happen to most of us is being fired from our jobs.
Had The Revenant qualified for our top 10 movies of 2015 (by being a movie released to the general public in 2015 rather than only in limited release), it probably would have cracked the list. That’s a world, then, where the new Star Wars didn’t make it, so it’s up to you whether or not that’s a good thing. Though it’s not as exciting as you might have hoped for, it’s also nowhere near as sardonic, and if you’re open to seeing a technically brilliant film that drags a bit in the middle but works out in the end, it’s a very good movie. But I don’t know if I’d give it the Oscar.
Thom’s The Revenant final score
On the Edge
- I doubt any of us could’ve started that fire with just a knife and flint even if we weren’t recovering from a bear attack.
- Jesus, Domhnall Gleason, how many of 2015’s most important movies are you going to be in?
- I doubt any of us could’ve survived that swim through rapid waters even if we weren’t recovering from a bear attack.
- My theory is that this whole movie is the fourth-level, dream-within-a-dream limbo that Cobb and Eames are trapped in. Inception 2: The Revenant.
- I doubt any of us could’ve survived that fall off a cliff on horseback even if we weren’t recovering from a bear attack.
- Notice how many single-camera, single shots the director uses? To all of you would-be directors, that’s filmmaking, so stop it with the shaky cam!
- I doubt any of us could’ve… ah, you get the point.