Did Alejandro G. Iñárritu run around as a child stealing future movie critics’ bikes? I’m inclined to think so since there isn’t much else to explain the strange cadre of critics who seem almost incapable of liking anything this guy puts his name on. Critics were pretty solidly on board with his 2000 debut Amores Perros, which was something of a small underdog (no pun intended) and the backlash was still pretty low-key when he made his English-language debut 21 Grams, but a cadre of critics really started to revolt when he made his 2006 film Babel which many dismissed as the second coming of Crash. Make no mistake, a sizable number of critics liked all of these movies, nothing that Iñárritu has ever made has dipped into “rotten” territory on Rottentomatoes, but the people in the backlash are loud and insistent. Few of Iñárritu’s critics question his technical skills, most focus their anger on his sensibilities. The argument is that he’s a “miserablist” who likes to make characters suffer and then wallow in their anguish and I can maybe sort of see where that sentiment comes from. I can certainly see why, for example, his 2010 film Biutiful could be seen as being a bit too dour for its own good, but I thought for sure that the Iñárritu haters would eat their words once they got a gander of his 2014 film Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), a film which channeled his usual intensity into a rip-roaring satire which was both funny and a great technical showcase. That was certainly his most critically acclaimed film and even went on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards and yet there still seemed to be a notable cadre of critics who were less than grateful for the creative and exciting film they were just handed and declared that they not only disliked but outright hated the movie. Haters gonna hate I guess, and it sounds like there are still people out there with knives out for his latest movie, a frontier adventure film called The Revenant.
The film is set in Montana and the Dakotas circa 1823, about twenty years after the Louisiana Purchase and before the period typically associated with the “wild west.” The film begins as an American fur trapping party being led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) is attacked by Arikara Indians. The ensuing battle kills a sizable portion of the hunters and the survivors soon find themselves on the run and forced to hid most of the valuable furs they managed to save. Their guide, a mountain man named Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) who is accompanied by his half-Indian son named Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), is soon leading them through the forest. It looks like they’re going to make it when suddenly Glass stumbles upon a giant grizzly bear who believes him to be a threat to her cubs and he is suddenly finds himself on the wrong end of a mauling. Glass survives this encounter but is seriously injured and it soon becomes clear that the remaining trappers cannot carry him all the way on a stretcher so the Captain offers extra money to two volunteers to stay behind to see if Glass recovers or dies. The two who offer to stay behind are a young recruit named Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and a grizzled veteran named John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and while Jim’s intentions appear to be pure it soon becomes clear the Fitzgerald is only doing it for a quick buck and when he decides to betray Glass he’s left having to fend for himself and also seek his revenge.
If I have one major complaint about The Revenant it’s probably that the characters in it generally lack complexity. Captain Andrew Henry and Jim Bridger are both unambiguously noble characters while Fitzgerald borders on being cartoonishly evil. The film does a fairly credible job of explaining the financial stakes that lead Fitzgerald do what he does but you can’t help but think the guy is a bad seed the second you see him and you instantly wonder why anyone else in the hunting party is willing to trust him for a second and the movie could have done a lot more to sympathize with the somewhat legitimate concerns that might have led him down the path he goes. If there’s ambiguity about any character here it’s probably our main protagonist in part because he’s driven by both an admirable will to survive as well as an unhealthy if understandable thirst for revenge. Di Caprio has been getting a lot of acclaim for his acting in this movie and while he’s clearly dedicated to his work here and gives a great physical performance I don’t think his transformation was quite perfect. As grizzled as Di Caprio looks, to me he still sounds like he has the voice of a 21st century millionaire, especially when compared to Tom Hardy’s dedicated rasp.
It is best not to get too wrapped up in the themes of revenge and the occasional bits of psychological character study that the film barters in. The Revenant is first and foremost an adventure story and is best viewed as such. That’s the lens through which I viewed it and the lens through which it thrives. It reminded me a lot of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, which was another film that was shot like a prestige project and had certain flashes of supernatural import but was at its heart a brutal little action movie about a guy who goes on a trying odyssey of survival and revenge. As a pure action movie the film is really effective. Alejandro G. Iñárritu has always had a certain visceral quality to his filmmaking and Birdman was obviously a technical showcase but this is the first time he’s worked with a 100+ million dollar budget and the first time he’s really tried to make large scale set-pieces. He sets the tone early on with a blazing action scene where the trapping party is attacked by an Indian raiding party. Iñárritu moves his camera with that calculated intensity that the best modern action scenes tend to employ and really gets the view in on the action. There are other cool scenes throughout the film like its climactic knife fight and then of course there’s the film’s central bear mauling scene which is effectively suspenseful even if some of the ursine CGI wasn’t everything it needed to be.
2015 has had an odd surplus of movies like Spotlight and Bridge of Spies that hardly has a thing in them that I’d change and yet they still never really felt like something particularly special despite their seeming perfection. The Revenant is kind of the opposite, there were definitely aspects of the movie that I think are flawed but they really don’t matter because the parts that work are so damn good that they elevate the whole damn thing. I’m inclined to play the “pure cinema” card with this one. Lubezki’s cinematography is so beautiful and the action scenes that Iñárritu has created work so well that I’m inclined to overlook the suspicion in the back of my mind that the film is ultimately just a shallow action movie when you boil it down. Even on that purely visual level there are things that still bug me like the CGI bear, so why did I still love the movie? Maybe there’s just something about the way Iñárritu crafts cinema that appeals to me, even when he was making something as actively unpleasant as Biutiful I couldn’t help but be sucked in by his filmmaking and seeing his take on the action/adventure genre was really cool.
**** out of Four