The Revenant

Posted by Michael Parsons on January 7, 2016 in / 1 Comment


Another tour de force from Alejandro González Iñárritu, “The Revenant” couldn’t be further from last year’s quizzical “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”), even if Michael Keaton himself were to sashay onto the screen in his underpants. Returning DP Emmanuel Lubezki once again displays his mastery of the protracted sequence, but this time around he sets out to draw his audience into the grimy frontier life of fur trappers in the Western territories of the early 1800’s. Reportedly rendered using only natural light, and exposing the actors to the harsh environment to make things as authentic as possible, Iñárritu’s gorgeous but unsparing epic of survival and revenge is easily the most impressive piece of filmmaking this year. It is, perhaps, Iñárritu’s “Apocalypse Now”, in his uncompromising resolve to realistically recreate such an unfathomable situation.

f87e64b0-5c9a-0133-0b3e-0e76e5725d9dBased in part on the biographical story by Michael Punke, the film follows a handful of traders attempting to salvage a load of valuable pelts after an attack from an unwelcoming Arikara tribe leaves them about twenty men short. Lubezki observes the carnage with the steady hand of someone out for a casual day of bird watching, immediately evoking his work with Terrence Malick. The battle choreography is extraordinary, as arrows pierce the air and more than a few body parts—a bloody, dizzying frenzy captured in just a few very slow-moving frames.

Vulnerable and on the run, the crew and its captain (Domhnall Gleeson, in his best role on the heels of “Stars Wars” and “Ex Machina”) look to seasoned guide Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) to get them back to the safe haven of the nearest camp, deciding to hide the furs and return later with reinforcements. This is to the chagrin of Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a primitive character whose skull bears evidence of an attempted scalping. Fitzgerald isn’t too keen on Glass, in part because he takes issue with his half-Pawnee son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), a gutsy teenager who Glass must keep within arm’s reach.

Just as we’ve recovered from the opening slaughter, Glass is mauled by a Grizzly Bear—and believe me, all five minutes of it look so absolutely, stunningly, excruciatingly real that it’s impossible to do such a visual feat any justice with words —leaving him torn to shreds and virtually lifeless. The captain, though honorable, unwittingly makes a fatal decision when he leaves Fitzgerald with Hawk and greenhorn Bridger (Will Poulter) to care for Glass while the rest chart a path back to their outpost.

tumblr_nvgzguLWfz1qde7iyo1_500Fitzgerald is so calloused by frontier life that, when he murders Hawk and leaves Glass to breathe his last breath in solitude, it seems more like an instinctual act of self-preservation than of sadism. Hardy, a sharp-tongued Brit who’s mastered several indiscernible American drawls, plays to quiet desperation more than outright villainy—a lumbering brut who is indifferent to anything but his own survival. However, this makes no difference to DiCaprio’s Glass, who claws his way out of his shallow grave to set out on his revenge-fueled jaunt across the dangerous tundra.

Much of the movie is DiCaprio’s character surviving the elements—a 200-mile limp that makes Matt Damon’s recent visit to Mars look like a stroll along the Outer Banks in the springtime—during which he finds shelter inside a horse carcass, uses gun powder to cauterize a gaping neck wound, takes an unexpected trip down some rapids, and makes several feverish visits to a vaguely spiritual world, where his late Pawnee wife—who, like many, died at the hands of white soldiers while defending their land—only briefly assuages his agony. The brutality of Iñárritu’s film is inherent in the frozen, blue-hued landscapes (primarily those of British Columbia), a beautifully chill-inducing expanse that might as easily encapsulate the icy depths of the human condition. While the two primary players spend most of their screen time apart, “Inception” co-stars DiCaprio and Hardy seem consciously in close quarters, as Fitzgerald, while ostensibly unsuspecting of Glass’s survival, seems in some way to sense that retribution is imminent. With an outstanding cast who committed to unheard of filming conditions, “The Revenant” is a Western/revenge thriller of an entirely different caliber.


— M. Parsons

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Michael Parsons

Father. Realtor®. Movie nut. After pestering my parents for their commentary on “Star Wars” when I was four years old, my mind went into a creative frenzy. I’d imagined something entirely different than the actual film, which I didn’t end up seeing until its 1979 re-release at the Uptown Theater in Washington, DC. This was my formal introduction to the cinema.

During that long wait, which felt like an eternity to a child, my mind was being molded by more corrosive stuff like “Trilogy of Terror” and “Rosemary’s Baby”, most of which I’d conned various babysitters into letting me watch on television ( I convinced one poor lady that “Jaws” was actually “Moby Dick”).

The folks were pretty strict in that regard, so the less appropriate it was for a kid to watch, the more I was fascinated by it. Horror staples like “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th”, as well as lesser-known low-budget fare like “Madman”, “Sleepaway Camp” and “Pieces” all ended up sneaking their way into the VHS on a regular basis.

Since then, I’ve developed an obsession with the entire film industry. Even though I watch and review a wide breadth of films these days, my appreciation for the campy, poorly lit micro-budgeters still lends itself to my evolving perspective on movies just as much as the summer blockbusters and Oscar contenders. As I recall my trips to the movie theater, I realize that this stuff is about much more than just a fleeting piece of entertainment.

A couple years ago, I was finally given the opportunity to lend my opinion on films to a publication, The Rogers Revue, with a subsequent run at Reel Film News. It's been both a privilege and a gateway to what we’re doing now. Most of my experience has come from interviewing independent filmmakers, who consistently promote innovation. The filmmaking process is grueling and relatively unforgiving.

Fellow film enthusiast Eddie Pasa and I have created DC Filmdom as a medium for film reviews, discussion, and (inevitably) some debate. And so, the creative frenzy continues.

(Michael is a member of the Washington, DC Area Film Critics Association).

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