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The Revenant

“The Revenant” is set in what is now North Dakota/Montana in the 1820s.  (The film fudges a little on its location – it was shot in British Columbia, which is a great deal more mountainous that North Dakota) It’s a time period and location seldom explored in movies – it’s a Western in some senses, and definitely not in others. A band of fur trappers, led by Domnhall Gleeson, who find themselves in conflict with the indigenous people of that land (called by their nickname the “Ree” in the film, they are actually the Sahnish, or Arikara) because of a misunderstanding. As they struggle to make it to a safe place, their scout, Leonardo DiCaprio, is mauled by a bear and nearly killed. Left in the care of his son (Forrest Goodluck) and two other trappers (Tom Hardy and Will Poulter), DiCaprio is betrayed by Hardy and left for dead.  The rest of the movie is the story of his unlikely survival and quest for revenge.

A lot of the reviews I’m reading think that, if “The Revenant” has a thematic element, it’s that nature is brutal and merciless and there are a million ways to die in the West.  It’s certainly a harsh and unrelenting film. But I think that reading of it misses a major point, and the film bears closer watching. DiCaprio is attacked by a mother bear because she sees him as a threat to her cubs (legitimately, as he has one in his rifle sights when she attacks.)  This bear is not being ruthless, it’s being maternal. Caring for one’s offspring is a theme running through the film, and connects the bear to the humans. After all, DiCaprio keeps himself alive in order to avenge his son who he could not protect, and the Ree war party is trying to find their leader’s kidnapped daughter.

And then what follows, really, can be seen as a brutal kind of mercy.  Over and over again, DiCaprio faces almost certain death, and is rescued by some kind of natural event.  When the Ree hunting party comes upon him, it is the river that saves him – without it, surely they would have killed him. When he is nearly starving on the riverbank, it is the herd of buffalo that attracts the wolves, and the wolves that attract the Pawnee wanderer, who saves him. And the second time the Ree war party finds him, he unwittingly rides his horse over a cliff – but if he hadn’t, if he’d ridden in any other direction, they would certainly have killed him.  Nature, or Creator, delivers DiCaprio from things that would kill him into things that nearly kill him. It’s a severe and bloody kind of Deus Ex Machina, but that’s what it is, all the same.

Inarritu’s constantly moving camera and regular bag of tricks drew my attention for the first half hour or so of the film, then the tension ratcheted up – the half hour mark is about where the bear attacks – and I mostly stopped noticing.  There are definitely some whip-pans that should’ve been replaced with cuts, but nothing terribly irritating. Not like in “Birdman.”  Two sequences particularly stand out as excellent, astonishing filmmaking – the first, of course, is the already famous bear mauling, which lives up to the hype.  The second involves a horse and a giant fir tree – it comes suddenly and as a surprise, so I won’t say any more than that.

DiCaprio will probably when Best Actor at the Academy Awards for this, and that’s fine.  He’s a good actor who’s never won despite a solid body of work.  But if it was up to me, the award would go to someone else.  Much has been made about the hardship DiCaprio went through for this role, but while I guess that’s respectable, it’s not the same as acting. When I look for great acting performances, I want to see layered, subtle, carefully shaded performances, which requires complex characters with multiple motivations. There should be a lot going on under the surface, and what is one the surface should be carefully calibrated from moment to moment to capture the truth of the character.  This isn’t an award-worthy performance not because DiCaprio is deficient, but because this isn’t an award-worthy kind of character. His motivations are pretty simple and straightforward.  He wants to survive, and get revenge. Nothing else is going on, and nothing else should be going on.  This is a movie about a guy who wants to survive and get revenge. DiCaprio plays the character exactly as he ought to, but you can’t squeeze blood from a turnip.

And let’s talk about another Oscar-worthy actor.  Tom Hardy has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and while his character has a little more emotional range — he’s a nihilistic survivalist, with a great, brief speech about how God only exists for him insofar as he is useful – it’s probably not an Oscar-worthy performance, either. The truly remarkable thing about Hardy, though, is his chameleon-like ability to create vastly different characters for different movies. He has fantastic command over voice, movement, and bearing. The trapper he plays here bears so little resemblance to Mad Max I would not be surprised if many people aren’t aware it’s the same actor. Last year, he was yet another completely different character in “Locke,” a movie where he was on screen – and the only thing on the screen – for almost the whole film.  (I said then, and believe now, that he should have won more awards for that amazing performance.) Some actors – DiCaprio is one of them – bring a distinct screen presence to every role they play and are instantly recognizable, whether it’s Jay Gatsby or Hugh Glass. That’s a unique talent, something you are born with, I think (though Al Pacino’s career is evidence that it can be abused.) Others, like Hardy, clearly put a ton of work into creating a character, inventing every posture, every step, every grunt and intonation.  To me, that’s real acting.  I hope he wins.


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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke, Native & Indigenous Cinema.

2 Responses

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  1. Sam said

    I enjoyed your review Willie. I also enjoyed an interview done with the director on Christianity Today. Of the movies I have seen, I don’t know who I would give the nod to for best actor. The movie that will stay with me the longest is Room. I guess I would choose it for best picture. There are quite a few I haven’t seen. The ones I have are Room, Brooklyn, The Bridge of Spies (My non counting vote for Mark Ryland for best supporting actor goes to him), Revenant, and Martain. I ordered them in how I liked them.

  2. Thanks Sam! Room was very good – I look forward to seeing it again and reviewing it. Brie Larsen is a major talent. Did you see Short Term 12? Great movie.

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