To The Wild: A Few Thoughts on THE REVENANT (Iñárritu, 2015)

The Revenant receives my vote for the best event film of the season. It all comes together far more effectively, and is far more engaging visually and dramatically for longer stretches, than The Hateful Eight, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, or Spectre, if one can reach back that far. And now, deservedly so, the film has been nominated for no less than twelve Oscars.

That said,  Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s latest isn’t as rewarding as I’d hoped it would be. It’s mainly a script issue. Two issues, actually.

First, the film has five acts, which which ends up being one act too many. The momentum toward the final feat of retributive violence–Glass (DiCaprio) settling the score with Fitzgerald (Hardy)–is considerably dulled by the script’s focus on twists and turns in Glass’s ordeal in the wild and an anticlimactic concentration on Glass’s recovery once he returns to the fur trader’s camp in act 5.

A highly structured narrative experience (about which more below), Iñárritu gives us four major turning points at 25-30 minute intervals, each introducing a new act:

  • Glass is nearly killed by the momma bear (perhaps the most intense action sequence I’ve seen in some time–not for the faint of heart)
  • Glass’s son Hawk (Goodluck) is murdered and Glass is left for dead by Fitzgerald
  • hitting the lowest point in his attempt to crawl back to the fur trader’s camp, Glass is saved by the Pawnee Lone Wolf, who had also lost his family
  • Glass is discovered by the search party from the camp

By the time act 5 revs up–there’s a lull between the time Glass is found and the time he finally confronts Fitzgerald on the snowy riverbed, where Glass is tended to by a doctor, bathes, and convinces the party that’ll hunt down Fitzgerald to bring him along–the viewer’s interest in and sympathy for Glass’s desire for vengeance dissipates, quite markedly I’d say. Act 4, it seems to me, needed to move in a more focused way toward the confrontation with Fitzgerald, and culminate with a sudden burst of intense violence–perhaps like the bear attack on Glass earlier in the movie. The wild as a space where violence suddenly erupts is a theme the film had, until act 5, been exploring quite successfully.

Second issue: Hardy’s character Fitzgerald is an opportunist. Not a coward. Iñárritu and his cowriter slipped up a bit in my view by having him attempt to flee from Glass in Act 5. By the end of Act 4, Fitzgerald has nothing–he’s not being paid for months of fur-hunting. He’s boozed out. Have him wait for Glass in the fort–if one even needed to have him catch word that Glass is still alive. Have him accept the inevitability of the confrontation. He’s a creep who saves his hide, sure, but not one who’s lacking in confidence in his own ability to take Glass out, especially when he’s in a weakened state (which Hardy would surely have known, given how he left him).

Visually, this is one of the best films of the 2015. I only wish the film had been shot and projected in 70mm, like The Hateful Eight. DCP’s dull colors, the range of tones. It would have been nice to see the subtle gradation of hues created with the extraordinary play with aerial diffusion in the wintery Alberta settings chosen for the shoot.

Stylistically, Iñárritu, his DoP Emmanuel Lubezki and editor Stephen Mirrione have created a post-Thin Red Line film, to employ a very crude expression. This is not to reduce what they’ve done to “Malick.” It’s to suggest an artistic context for their work–to give a label to the cultural resources they’re working with. The Revenant opts for a different admixture–a different balance–of melodrama (pathos, overwrought emotion, moral polarization, graphic sensationalism), spiritualism, atmospheric tonalism, thematically and symbolically rich flashbacks and insert shots, philosophically ponderous dialogue, and genre revisionism than The Thin Red Line.

The Revenant‘s brilliant first-act action set piece–where Arikara attack the fur traders’ camp–draws on, and pushes in new directions, the scene in The Thin Red Line when the Americans attack a Japanese camp, after taking the hill. A 360-degree playing space, a stimulating use of all six zones of offscreen space, a wide-angle lens-equiped steady cam making axial movements forward through the camp as DiCaprio and the traders evade attack, suggestive tilts upward that give us low-angle framings of trees towering above-head, creating radial designs as tree trunks rush in toward an empty interval at frame center–The Revenant picks up on all of these strategies and, if you like, intensifies and builds new visual attractions into them (like–somehow!–mounting the camera on horse-bound Snorricams in single, fluid takes).

More could be said about how Iñárritu and his team tweak all of these dials, but I think the major difference between The Revenant and The Thin Red Line–whatever the causes–is that Iñárritu is much more of a classicist as a storyteller. This can be measured according to plot structure. The Revenant relies entirely on goal-oriented characterization to give the film its overall design, while The Thin Red Line relies on a hybrid of classical and art-film strategies at the macro level (like theme-based organization of acts, where characters remain goalless). What’s more, in terms of scene construction, Malick experiments with ways to corrupt the integrity of scenes, with fragmented actions, inserts, cross-cutting and the like, to the point where recent Malick films like To The Wonder (2012) offer few, classic scenes with a beginning, a middle and an end and tension built along the way. Iñárritu remains committed to building classic dramatic tension within scenes.

Iñárritu is something of an experimenter. It may cost him an Oscar nomination or two, but perhaps what he ought to consider for his next projects, to truly push the envelope in terms of storytelling, is loosening up his plots and developing his very own post-classical narrative form.

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