Movie Review: “The Revenant”

The marketing materials for “The Revenant” have pitched the movie as a Canadian-wilderness revenge drama starring Leonardo DiCaprio, who gets smashed around by a gigantic bear. And while that’s all entirely accurate, “The Revenant” aspires to be something more – a haunting glimpse of alien northern landscapes untouched by human hands, within which a lone survivor must come to terms with both his own mortality and his own insignificance. In the capable hands of director Alejandro Iñárritu – who helmed last year’s Best Picture winner, “Birdman” – “The Revenant” successfully delivers on its ambitions, even if its concessions to contemporary audiences are at times too unsubtle.

Inspired by a historical novel written by a then-associate at a D.C. law firm, “The Revenant” plays like a mashup of “Rambo” and a Ken Burns documentary. After fleeing an attack by Native Americans, fur trapper Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) is caught between a grizzly bear and her cubs and severely mauled. Left for dead by his companions (and forced to witness the murder of his son by greedy trapper Fitzgerald), Glass drags himself across an icy northern landscape…setting off on a quest to both heal his grievous wounds and obtain revenge.

Many movies have bland and forgettable outdoor settings: “The Revenant” is not one of those films. Director Iñárritu manages to capture both the breathtaking beauty and stomach-churning grunginess of the wilderness, creating a far richer setting than anything built on a greenscreen. Tonally, this is not a movie about the incandescence of the human spirit and the will to survive; instead, it’s a story of human fragility and smallness within a grand, vast, untamed wild. As has been widely publicized, DiCaprio delivers a demanding, highly draining lead performance that (in a field lacking any other major contenders) ought to win him an Oscar…yet despite the critical buzz, this is not DiCaprio’s movie so much as it is Iñárritu’s.

The closest analogue to “The Revenant” is probably Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2009 Viking drama “Valhalla Rising.” Yet while “Valhalla” wallowed in its own morose atmosphere, grinding its viewers down into the muck and filth of human pitilessness, “Revenant” allows itself to acknowledge the breathtaking glory of its setting. The beauty of icy mountains, snowy trees, and swift-flowing rivers may be a cold and brittle beauty, but it is still beauty.

Unfortunately, where the film’s narrative is concerned, “Revenant” appears to have been caught between mass box-office appeal and artistic majesty. The soul of “Revenant” is restrained and contemplative, and Iñárritu’s artistry deserves better than the tired “revenge at all costs” element that appears late in the game. Accordingly, the third act’s descent into visceral hand-to-hand combat feels like it belongs in a completely different film. (The real-life Hugh Glass apparently forgave the men who abandoned him – a stranger-than-fiction twist that would’ve made for a far richer and more thematically satisfying onscreen conclusion.)

That being said, “Revenant” is so well filmed, and so utterly engrossing across its lengthy runtime, that its momentary forays into lazy storytelling may be largely forgiven. This movie is so mesmerizingly composed that it might score a solid 7/10 without any human actors at all (the immersive sound editing is equally exceptional).

Of note: this is an extraordinarily violent film, but of a far different sort than “The Hateful Eight” or most other action movies. Here, the graphic content onscreen is purely of the “nature, red in tooth and claw” variety – to wit, when Glass is mauled by a bear, there’s a lot of gore. “The Revenant” isn’t for the squeamish, but its violence (I hesitate even to use that term, because it connotes a directorial choice rather than an accurate depiction of reality) never becomes morally problematic.

In short, “The Revenant” isn’t the best movie I’ve seen this year, but it is undoubtedly the best-crafted. While admirers of Iñárritu’s work may credibly lament that, in the process of making a blockbuster more accessible than “Birdman,” a certain intangible magic has been lost, “Revenant” is still a fine adventure drama and an immensely satisfying experience.

Though weighed down by lapses into genre convention, “The Revenant” is both brutal and beautiful.


Posted by on January 9, 2016 in Uncategorized


Movie Review: “The Hateful Eight”

Love him or hate him, Quentin Tarantino is an exceedingly talented filmmaker. And even though I hold the unpopular opinion that Tarantino peaked with “Pulp Fiction,” and that “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained” were exercises in overindulgence, it’s impossible to deny that all his work has an inimitable postmodern flair. “The Hateful Eight” applies that flair to the Western genre, resulting in a final product that departs from Tarantino’s recent approaches and successfully evokes the director’s heyday.

(I was lucky enough to snag a showing of the 70mm “roadshow” version – featuring an old-school overture and intermission – and would highly recommend doing likewise.)

For a Tarantino film, “The Hateful Eight” has an uncharacteristically linear plot: bounty hunters Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and John Ruth (Kurt Russell) find themselves escorting captured desperado Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the nearest town to face justice. When a blizzard descends on their stagecoach, they must take shelter in a remote haberdashery along with a colorful cast of other wayfarers. It soon becomes clear, however, that some of the travelers may have violent intentions.

In its claustrophobic setting and ruthlessly linear plot, “The Hateful Eight” evokes none of Tarantino’s movies as strongly as “Reservoir Dogs.” Here, there’s the same combination of knife-edge tension (that inevitably erupts into grisly violence) and effortlessly dynamic clash between characters. Where “Django” and “Basterds” seemed to lose focus partway through, drifting through a series of larger-scale set pieces, the severely restricted setting of “Eight” works to the film’s great credit: every scene crackles with hair-raising intensity. Coupling this ambiance with a dash of narrative nonlinearity (a la “Pulp Fiction”) results in a fusion that feels both classic and fresh.

Tarantino is very, very good at two things – dialogue and carnage – and both of those are on full display here. Whereas “Basterds” and “Django” drew their narrative energy from adrenaline-charged genre tropes (revenge against Nazis and revenge against slavers, respectively), “Eight” is a much slower burn that relies on character interactions to propel its plot. One of Tarantino’s great strengths is his ability to instantly create memorable characters who transcend their settings, and “Eight” demonstrates that proficiency to great effect. (And yes, for those who view Tarantino films to see such things, there’s tons of bloodshed once the guns come out). As an aside: Ennio Morricone’s score (the first soundtrack the composer has done for a Western in several decades) is a major highlight, and probably the best score I’ve heard in months.

“Eight,” like most of Tarantino’s movies, is about half an hour too long. It’s never dull, but it’s exceedingly deliberate in its pacing (which some viewers will no doubt find off-putting) – I found myself often thinking how well it would translate into a stage play. There’s also one groaner of a plot choice (unfortunately present in many other “whodunit”-type stories) that detracts from the cleverly crafted narrative…though this is a small gripe. And it almost doesn’t warrant mention, given the director’s notoriety, but this is by no means a film for all ages (there’s lots of violence, profanity, gratuitous use of racist language by villainous characters, etc.).

“The Hateful Eight” will probably polarize Tarantino fans. Stylistically, it’s a throwback to an earlier mode of storytelling, and departs from the sprawling “epic” approach seen in the director’s more recent movies. As someone underwhelmed by Tarantino’s last two films, I found “Eight” a highly satisfying change-up…but not all will agree.

A lushly filmed, welcome return to form for Tarantino.

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Posted by on January 7, 2016 in Historical


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