‘Twas the bear that done it: discussing The Revenant

12 Oscar nominations, a budget of $135 million and one very angry bear: Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant is the revenge flick that’s likely to continue being the talk of this award season. Reason enough to discuss the film one-on-one, like a better behaved Leonardo di Caprio and Tom Hardy, though with less grunting and accents that are easier to comprehend.

Matt   There are two scenes in The Revenant that will mainly stay with me, and neither may be the one people would expect. Certainly, the savage bear mauling is exceedingly well filmed, but in the end it’s not bear attacks or hot man-on-man revenge action that stuck in my mind. No, one of the scenes that I expect I’ll remember best in this story of revenge, testosterone and horses turned into sleeping bags is one where Hugh Glass, played with Academy-attention-grabbing gruntitude by Leonardo DiCaprio, rides through a flurry of snow with his newly found Native American pal – and they both stick out their tongues to catch snowflakes. The expression of joy on Glass’ face engaged me more than the more or less permanent pained frown he wears the rest of the time. The other is a sequence bordering on the psychedelic, in which Glass finds a ruined church on his long, arduous trek towards the man who’s killed his son and left him behind. The scene is one of a handful that depart from the movie’s generally pretty literal visual style, showing flashes of visuals that hint at stranger, more elaborate spiritual or metaphysical themes beyond the film’s insistence on the motif of rebirth. I would have liked to see The Revenant dare to be less literal overall and more… experimental, perhaps? Whimsical? Unexpected, definitely: it’s unfair to judge a film for what it isn’t rather than for what it is, but every now and then The Revenant does hint at a movie that starts from the same point but makes different decisions, that embraces a certain kinship with strange films such as Jim Jarmush’s Dead Man, instead of the visually stunning but (in my opinion) emotionally quite shallow and frankly generic revenge plot we got.

Mege   The revenge plot does drag the movie down a bit, doesn’t it? It sort of bookends a story that could have gone any number of ways. I am usually really slow getting the plot, but even I realized the final confrontation between Glass and Fitzgerald. It still could have been a new take on an old story arch, but it wasn’t. What I liked most about the movie were the moments where you weren’t sure whether you were watching bits of a dream or just a dream-like sequence. On the one hand, that is probably how Glass drifts in and out of consciousness; on the other hand, I like many movies for their atmosphere. Sometimes, when I find myself sitting in a mediocre movie, atmosphere is my go-to place, because the silliest story can still be told with a lot of atmosphere. And there is a lot of atmosphere in The Revenant. There is a scene where Glass and his indigenous new companion are riding through a copse that is full of man-high fog clouds. Such shots are simply beautiful. And Iñárritu is a great filmer of the sky. Sometimes, his camera points straight up, sometimes he lets the comet from Birdman fly past. Those scenes can be both a dream and not a dream. It’s up to the viewer.

The Revenant

Matt   I agree: the film excels on atmosphere. In some ways I almost wish it was wordless, because I think it works best when it trusts its images to work on the audience. As soon as people open their mouths, though, it’s often a different matter. I guess that’s my problem with the film: it cannot make up its mind whether it wants to be a ruminative, at times even hallucinatory journey through a wilderness that is external as well as internal, that is literal and metaphorical at the same time, or whether it prefers to be a hypermasculine, masochistic revenge flick, and as a result it feels like Terrence Malick’s Death Wish. Personally I’m more interested in the former aspect than the latter, though that will be a matter of personal taste, but more than that I think the film’s two sides are an imperfect match. Strangely enough, Birdman‘s metaphysical flights of fancy seemed better integrated into the movie, as far as I’m concerned, even though that film was about a self-centered actor in present-day New York and largely played in an ironic or even satirical mode. The Revenant, on the other hand, wouldn’t know irony if it came up and mauled it vigorously. I’m fine with films taking themselves seriously, but whenever its focus is on the revenge plot, it takes itself extremely seriously, which for me had the contradictory effect that I found it increasingly difficult to take Hugh Glass’ quest for revenge seriously. I have to admit that I probably stifled a giggle when we were treated to How to Turn a Horse Into a Sleeping Bag in Five Easy Steps. By the way, what are your thoughts on the googolplex of nominations the Academy has showered on the film? Best Motion Picture, Best Performance by Leading and Supporting Actor, direction, cinematography, editing, production design, costume design, makeup and hairstyling, sound mixing, sound editing and visual effects – the list itself is almost as long as the film.

Mege   Oh, the Oscars. Let me digress shortly: I am sure those awards are a sign for something, but not for sure-fire cineastic quality. They’re some kind of smallest common multiple of annual moviemaking. I’ve lost faith in them when Gladiator won against Magnolia, and Aimée Mann lost for Best Song against Phil Collins. But never mind: Yes, I think you are spot-on. The revenge flick and the metaphysical journey are an uneasy coupling in The Revenant. And the dialogues are far from memorable, not least because I could understand a word Tom Hardy said. Wordlessness would indeed be an appealing idea. What would be a good realist film that nevertheless has metaphysical aspects? Funny: Blood Simple comes to mind. Maybe The Revenant should have been tighter, shorter, more claustrophobic, but then, a hellish journey through ice and snow and enemy territory cannot be 90 minutes long. There are some claustrophobic scenes, just as there are agoraphobic scenes. Both kinds of scenes let you fear that maybe Hugh Glass won’t make it. Which reminds me: the sleeping-bag horse scene was intense. I liked it a lot more than you did, maybe because I though Hannibal was watching from behind a snow-covered pine-tree, needle and thread ready in hand. Just joking. The horse scene was desperate and overwhelming. I didn’t snigger, man, I didn’t. The movie takes itself seriously, but not extremely so; there is breathing time in-between, and sometimes, Glass and Fitzpatrick come across as helpless and pathetic, dwarfed by landscape or chances of survival. Some people claim that the western is pretty much dead. I can see their point, but maybe the western hasn’t died, but morphed into movies like The Revenant. Maybe John Ford would gasp with admiration and envy if he saw this one.

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