Monday, 18 January 2016

The Revenant

Off to the cinema to see The Revanant, an extraordinary new film starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a man who is hunted by Native Americans, mauled by a bear, left for dead, hunted by Native Americans again, cast down a river, frozen, forced to eat raw fish and raw beef despite being right next to a roaring fire, beset by infection, attacked by French people, thrown off a cliff, frozen again, and then stabbed and punched several times. The film has a number of problems and will disappoint women who expect to swoon over Leonardo DiCaprio - he's a mess - but on the whole it's a refreshing mish-mash of epic manly high adventure and arthouse cinematography with a little smidgeon of unsubtle arthouse symbolism and a fantastic soundtrack. If I had a rating system I would use a stuffed toy rabbit like Gus Honeybun and I would bounce it four times on the table and that would be my rating for The Revenant goodbye.

It takes place in the snowy wastes of Louisiana during the early 1800s, so it's a costume drama like War and Peace or Downton Abbey. But the overall impression I had was of science fiction, along the lines of 2001 or The Martian. Director Alejandro Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki shot the film in Alberta, which looks like an alien planet. There are numerous show-offy compositions, and famously the whole film was lit with natural daylight. The mixture of flat lighting, hand-held camera and tight close-ups add to the film's bleak, realistic air; the pre-John Wayne flintlock rifles and crude leather outfits give the film a timeless quality. The Revenant could have been set two thousand years before the birth of Christ or ten thousand years from now on a planet orbiting Tau Ceti, and it would work just as well.

The Revenant also put me in mind of Werner Herzog's Aguirre: The Wrath of God, although it's not as good. It's more attractive, but that's because it had a much bigger budget and the production team had access to computers, but on the other hand the character drama is full of clichés and the themes - theft, the great nothingness, man's animal nature and so on - are too vague to be truly compelling. Aguirre followed a magnetic despot, whereas The Revenant is stuck with a hero who is overshadowed by his nemesis.

The script is a mixture of grunts and commands, and Leonardo DiCaprio only has one good line. There is a single memorable speech, but it's delivered by British actor Tom Hardy in an impenetrable accent so I'm not sure what he said. Something about a delirious man mistaking a squirrel for God. It was a good speech. Film school students will probably pore over that speech in years to come.

Everybody involved in the production earned the heck out of their payslip. I learn that twenty-nine members of the production crew were killed during the lengthy shoot, which at one time became stranded from civilisation for so long that the wardrobe staff ate each other. When Iñárritu was confronted during promotional interviews he was unapologetic. "I did not say that actors should be treated like cattle", he told the interviewer. "I actually said that actors should be eaten, full stop". When pressed, he gestured to a small wooden figure of a man. There was a hole burned through it, all the way through, where the heart would be.

During one infamous incident Iñárritu had the entire catering crew put to death because the head chef's mobile phone went off. It wasn't even during a scene; Iñárritu forbade anyone from carrying modern technology, with the exception of the 65mm digital Arriflex cameras with which the film was shot. The catering crew were blindfolded and tied to trees; the wind did the rest. Now their dessicated corpses are a warning to others. Midway through production the crew developed a primitive new religion with Iñárritu as the creator/mother, the camera - the ata - as the continuum of life, and DiCaprio as a living representation of the human spirit. They regularly clothed him in cloth woven from the bark of the mulberry tree. The female members of the production staff were allowed to bathe his feet. This pleased him.

Now he has been nominated for an Academy Award. Who will beat him? Difficult question. DiCaprio does a tonne of physical acting but he has very little dialogue and essentially no character development - there's a suggestion that he has some kind of epiphany at the end of the film, but he begins as a fundamentally decent man in a brutal world and ends that way. Of the other nominees, Bryan Cranston is a television actor, Matt Damon has the same problem as DiCaprio, Eddie Redmayne has won already, and I'm done with films about Steve Jobs. Besides which I can't think about Matt Damon without also thinking about this.

Perhaps DiCaprio will win after all. The Revenant isn't entirely cinema verite. There are CGI buffalo, what must have been a CGI bear, and presumably the poor horses were CGI as well, but otherwise I have no doubt that Leonardo DiCaprio really did wade in a frozen river, climb up a bank of earth, run across snowy wastes etc, which is good of him. The film also stars Domhnall Gleeson as the leader of DiCaprio's pelt-stealing expedition - Gleeson's character is an honest company man who finds himself just out of his depth - and I realise that purely by coincidence I have now seen two Domhnall Gleeson films, because he was also in Star Wars. He must have shaved off his beard in the interim, unless it's a beard-wig. And the film also stars Tom Hardy as a no-nonsense fur trapper who leaves DiCaprio to die. Hardy's character has an arc, unlike everybody else, but it's not a convincing arc; his switch from moaning minnie to murderer is very abrupt.

Hardy's character is the most interesting in the film. He reminds me of Tom Berenger's Sergeant Barnes, from Platoon, in that he's not necessarily evil, he's just a hard nut with a well-developed instinct for self-preservation. The Academy has nominated DiCaprio for Best Actor and Hardy for Best Supporting Actor, but in reality Hardy is the co-star. His accent is terrible but he has charisma; if this had been a spaghetti Western, he would have been the main character. Hardy and DiCaprio are both driven by an urge to survive, the crucial difference being that Hardy does not mind if this involves letting other people die. For most of the film he is a dark mirror of DiCaprio rather than an outright villain. He has a charisma that everybody else lacks, and the scattered instances of outright villainy feel out-of-character. Typically in films of this nature the villain is portrayed as a venal monster and homosexual, and the hero is driven to destroy him in order to reassert the conservative, heteronormative order, but in The Revenant the central conflict grows organically from the situation rather than being imposed by the story. The second-most-interesting character is a resourceful Pawnee who is badass and departs the film far too soon.

This leads us to the first of the film's problems, or second depending on how I have reordered the paragraphs. DiCaprio brings his game but the character is boring. He is a stereotypical "white person with a heart of gold", a fiction from films that doesn't exist in real life, and I should know because I'm white. We learn in flashback that he had a Native American wife, but their village was burned to the ground and she was murdered. His son survived, and he is trying to make a living for them both by acting as a guide for hunters. Periodically his late wife comes to him in visions, generally when he is down in the dumps. The problem is that this is all a massive cliché that has appeared in countless films already, including Conan the Barbarian and Braveheart and Gladiator. I suppose I have to treat every film in isolation, but I just can't.

The Revenant is based on a book, which is loosely based on a supposedly true story, but there must have been a better way. DiCaprio's love of his wife and son explain where he gets his mojo, but it feels trite. What really drove these men to risk their lives for a bit of money? Was it just the money or something else? By giving DiCaprio such a simplistic motive the film lets itself down.

Plot-wise the film divides into two unequal halves - a lengthy, tense survival epic followed by a conventional Western revenge drama that feels tacked-on, as if the director wanted to have an old-fashioned fist-fight. Like a lot of sci-fi novels the film tries to combine an impressionist portrait of an environment with a straightforward human drama, which inevitably feels unsatisfying; after two hours of epic wonder it ends with two men hacking at each other with knives.

And there's the symbolism. Alejandro Iñárritu has something of John Frankenheimer or Sidney Lumet about him, in that his films are tough and unsentimental but with occasional flashes of dreamery. For the most part The Revenant strikes an solid balance between gritty thriller and arty meditation, but it's enough to have DiCaprio die and be reborn once. It's silly when it happens again an hour later, and again half an hour after that. At one point he has to spend the night in a dead horse, emerging naked the next morning; the problem is that the same idea appeared a few scenes beforehand. Iñárritu reuses shots of the moon gazing down impassively "on all poor creatures born to die", along with shots of horses doing the same, while we watch these people who lived two hundred years ago struggle and perish in a hostile world that will swallow them up. The Revenant is always gorgeous to look at, but it could have been trimmed without losing anything.

There's something about the cinematography. It's as if they had a single wide-angle lens for the outdoorsy bits. Generally this isn't a problem, but people are constantly shot in extreme close-up, with their heads almost up against the camera, so that you can see into their nostrils. Sometimes the lens is hit with spots of blood; there is a clever sequence in which a character's breath steams up the camera, clever because it works in the context of the scene. But the close-ups get repetitive, and worse than that they put me in mind of Terry Gilliam, who had a similar style. The film's mixture of occasionally cartoony close-ups and ordure reminded me of Brazil and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but whereas Gilliam used that style deliberately, it feels as if Iñárritu simply ran out of ways to compose a shot with an extreme wide-angle lens.

On the other hand, gosh that cinematography. Alberta looks freezing and magical, like one of the moons of Saturn. When the camera moves, it does so gracefully. Over the last fifteen years there has been a shift away from the smooth motion of the Steadicam in favour of jerky, newsreel-style handheld footage; in The Revenant the camera glides around smoothly, as if you were a ghost witnessing events dispassionately, rather than an active participant. The film alternates massive, static establishing shots with constantly-moving human drama, and during the action sequences the camera is always in precisely the right place at the precisely correct moment. It reminded me of Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men in that respect, which makes me wonder what it is about Mexico that produces excellent filmmakers. There is one memorable shot, which must have been taken with a drone, of a tiny tiny dot in the middle of a huge valley that grows closer until we realise that it's DiCaprio, seemingly the only human being for hundreds of miles. Is modern-day Alberta really that empty? If they cleared away the snow and built houses there wouldn't be a housing crisis.

Perhaps because they only had a wide angle lens Lubezki uses two shots throughout the film - dead-on, and slightly off to one side. Do you remember the snail? The one that Greek artists used when they were painting something. You're supposed to make the viewer's eyes look at the snail's twisty bit. Something like that. Lubezki has a snail and uses it all the time, drawing your attention away from the centre of the frame. The Revenant is an extra-wide film where the curtains continue opening, and Lubezki makes use of the extra space. Just after DiCaprio is eaten by a bear we catch a glimpse of the bear's cubs, poking their noses into the corner; a sequence by the fireside at night is given depth by a glimpse of stars in the edge of the frame, which must have taxed the camera's sensor. The Revenant is being marketed as a mainstream adventure film, and has been surprisingly popular at the box office, but I can't help but think that The Revenant is an excellent, minority-interest visual film lurking beneath a decent revenge plot. The film is generally quite slow, but it can be extremely efficient when it wants to be. The fate of a hunting party's boat is dealt with in a single quick shot, and what at first seems like an arty shot of some dust falling from the ceiling of a cabin turns out to be a clever bit of foreshadowing.

Plot-wise The Revenant is more an experience than a story, although it's far more conventional than (say) The Thin Red Line or indeed 2001. I saw the film during a very mild winter, in an air-conditioned cinema in a comfortable chair with a coffee. It was Iñárritu's job to chill me to the bone; he uses an accumulation of details to convey the difficulty and danger of trekking across frozen Louisiana in the days before GPS and Gore-Tex. A lesser director would have had the characters simply complain about the weather while clapping their arms but Iñárritu makes us feel it. He shows us nasty wounds, chapped lips, dangling snot, steaming piles of guts, the sun through frozen leaves etc. The film has a heightened realism about it. The Native American arrows cut through legs and skulls with a visceral impact; at one point a character chops off another character's fingers with a tomahawk, and although a throwaway detail the cinema gasped, because it looked genuinely nasty. The Revenant has a 15 certificate but it's really rated M, for Manly.

Older viewers will remember the classic 1993 computer game Doom II. One race of baddies were called revenants; they were giant skeletons that had a mean right hook, and they could also fire homing rockets from their shoulders. In Doom the baddies were a mixture of cybernetic monstrosities and re-animated corpses brought back from the dead. Never let it be said that computer games aren't educational.

The Revenant is a manly film. Two hours of pain and suffering. I can't see women enjoying it. As a man I imagined how I would survive in the wilderness. I imagined how cool it would be to own a flintlock rifle. We see DiCaprio's character reload a couple of times, but he still seems to get off more shots than a flintlock can hold. As a British person I imagined killing the verminous French - it was quite normal in those days to kill French people, they represented everything base and evil in the world. I imagined how cold the actors' feet must be, having to stand in water all the time with crappy boots, and I also imagined how I would look in Domhnall Gleeson's outfit. He wears a faded military uniform that looks like Sergeant Pepper crossed with Mumford and Sons.

The film has one female speaking part, and she only says a few words. She does make an impression however because she is handy with a knife, and on one level she's really the main character. DiCaprio's hunting party is attacked by a Native American chief who is trying to find his kidnapped daughter; throughout the film he talks about her obsessively. At first it seems as if the man has gone mad. She must be dead, surely. But Iñárritu makes it clear without saying so explicitly that she is very much alive, and she eventually plays a pivotal role in the film. A lesser director or a lesser film would have had her fall in love with DiCaprio's character, but in The Revenant they share a few words and a glance. At the risk of spoiling the ending, it's not clear whether a major character is spared a fate worse than death because he saved this lady from the evil French, or simply because the lady's dad has got what he wanted and has decided that enough is enough. The Revenant is frustrating because for all the epic scenery, it's that moment that sticks with me; the horsemen ride on, their work done. Damaged people with wrecked lives, left to make the best of what they have left.

Thematically the film is all about theft. Our heroes are unpleasantly boorish racist brutes, but the film makes it obvious that they were shaped by their environment. When Hardy's character chances upon a burned Native American village he spots a broken watch, and immediately complains that the Native Americans are a bunch of thieves, ignoring the bodies strewn all around; a Native American chief explicitly spells out the irony of the situation to a group of French trappers, but on the whole the film simply shrugs. I can go with that. We are hard to each other, and the natural world is hard to us. DiCaprio's character is not laid low by a Native American arrow or a gunshot wound to be back, he is instead mauled by a bear that was looking after its cubs. The bear attack is nasty. It has come in for some stick in the press because it looks like a rape, which seems comical. The idea of Leonardo DiCaprio being raped by a bear is funny. Truth be told it does look like a rape, but it's not funny, and the makeup effects on DiCaprio's body made me wince. Paticularly the neck wound, eww.

I'm mindful of the cynical Westerns of the 1970s, particularly Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs Miller, which also took place in the snow. In that film righteousness did nothing to save Warren Beatty from certain death and God did not reward the good; insofar as The Revenant has a moral message, it is a surprisingly old-fashioned one, and DiCaprio's character only seems heroic because he is played by Leonardo DiCaprio. For long stretches of the film he is passive, forced to endure agony on a stretcher. His concern for his son is mirrored by Hardy's treatment of his team-mate, who he could easily have bludgeoned and left to die in the wilderness. DiCaprio's one moment of heroism feels cartoonish and doesn't really help the person he was trying to rescue (the film implies that no-one notices her running away across a mile or more of flat ground), and his final quest for revenge turns into a disaster that really solves nothing, but again we are specks in an uncaring world.

But is it any good? You have to be in the mood. Women won't like it; the popcorn audience will be bored senseless. It's not arty enough to appeal to the intelligentsia. It reminds me a bit of Gravity, in the sense that it has a simple story told in a mesmerisingly visual way. It is one of those films that sticks with you, that inspires people to become cinematographers, that makes the world seem different when you walk out of the cinema. And if you have or plan to own a 4K television, it will be one of the first titles you buy or download. It's just that a film should be more than just a plot, it should be a story, and that's where The Revenant falls down. None of the characters grow or change in a believable way, and even after journeying through the heart of darkness DiCaprio's character seems unaffected. Revenge dramas usually end with the main character a broken man, drained of humanity, appalled by the waste, but like so much science fiction The Revenant is uninterested in people.

I admit that I've lost touch with home media - do people download 4K films? They would be massive, surely. But Blu-Ray doesn't have the capacity to store a 4K film. So what do people play on 4K televisions? Upscaled DVDs? Is 4K just a big con? All the more reason to see The Revenant in a cinema, where God intended films to be seen.

NB I saw the film at the Curzon, Soho, because I am a superior sort. There were trailers for Anomalisa, a stop-motion-animation from Charlie Kaufman that didn't appeal to me, Youth, which is one of those films where elderly actors get up to antics, and The Assassin, a swordy kung-fu film that was shot in 4:3. It looks gorgeous and the audience went quiet as the trailer unfolded. Sadly they didn't play the trailer for the new Independence Day film.