Let’s Talk About…’The Revenant’

Originally published on Mxdwn Movies. Click here to view.

Let’s Talk About…’The Revenant’

The following contains spoilers for The Revenant. You have been warned.

James: The Revenant, the latest movie from Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu has been out in theaters for a while now, yet since the movie has just earned 12 Oscar nominations and has recently performed surprisingly well at the box office, it seems like there’s no better time to really get into it. Kristen, what was your impression of the film?

Kristen: It’s actually quite funny; I went into the theater predicting that I wouldn’t like the film as much, or at least compared to all of the great movies that have been released this past year. However, once I took in the entire film, I had to say that I thought it was amazing, and probably the best film of the year. Although each Oscar-nominated and acclaimed film this past year has been different in their own ways, The Revenant was singular in its experience in which all parts came together to create a vivid and captivating journey.

James: I’m glad the film held up for you. I saw it about a month ago now and while it’s a little foggier in my brain, my first impression was pretty extreme and a bit at odds with yours. I was slightly dreading the movie (Iñárritu has never really done it for me) and I found The Revenant overall beautiful to look at but this really felt like an emperor with no clothes situation. The tone, for me, felt so self-serious that it nearly bordered on camp, the performances felt impenetrable and the overall experience, to me, felt arduous and tedious.

Kristen: I understand why a lot of people may not like it; it is definitely a tedious movie that sometimes drags, as compared to the constant action and suspense that other Oscar contender (with 10 nominations) Mad Max: Fury Road had. I specifically bring up this movie because The Revenant reminded me a lot of it. Although they may contrast in tone and visual aesthetic, the story is not dissimilar, and the themes of survival and revenge in an unforgiving terrain are the main undercurrents of both films (not to mention Tom Hardy stars in both of them).

James: That’s an interesting comparison and something I never really thought of before. It’s true that both Mad Maxand The Revenant are in many ways quite rigorous displays of filmmaking that are propelled by movement. I think my problem with The Revenant comes squarely in that I never felt any sense of joy in the watching it one bit. Yes, Emmanuel Lubezki’s visceral, natural light-soaked cinematography is gorgeous; yes, the editing is graceful; yes, Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance is committed,  but, I feel like that these individuals strains of the film distract within themselves rather than blend particularly well. I never lost sight or was able to succumb to The Revenantbecause I felt to so “aware” of its filmmaking. It seemed like every shot, every garble of semi-verbal dialogue out of DiCaprio’s mouth (or the worse things coming out of Hardy’s), every micro-second of the movie was made with this intention of being “the most epic film ever.” Mad Max, by contrast, while violent, brought tears to my eyes because of its pure energy and consummate joyfulness.

Kristen: I will say that I would only want to see The Revenant once. Afterwards, I’m sure it would lose its enjoyment for me, while I’ve already watched Mad Max several times this year. However, I’m actually not sure if I agree with you about Mad Max being the more violent of the two. While technically more characters are killed and there is more physical violence in Mad Max, I always felt that it was more in the style of Quentin Tarantino violence — beautifully created, but not convincingly real. On the other hand, The Revenant’s violence was almost too realistic. I’m not usually one to turn away from a movie because of too much gore (I enjoy a bloody movie), but I could not watch the entire scene where the bear attacks Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio). Even after I looked away, the sounds of ripping flesh and DiCaprio’s screams made me a little nauseous.

James: You are quite right on terms of the violence in The Revenant, yet I’m not quite sure I totally agree on its realistic nature. That infamous bear scene (the one scene in the film where the film likely earned that odd Best Visual Effects Oscar nomination) is an interesting case. I’m a bit of a wimp in movies (or at least I think I am). I knew it was coming and I had my hands near my face just in case it proved too much for me- there was this seemingly built-in idea that The Revenant poses some sort of an endurance test on its audience- and as it went on, and on and on, I kind of got the “church giggles.” I couldn’t really help it. The sequence (particularly because it felt so extended) went from grisly to silly to my eyes. As wrecked Leo and deceased bear laid atop another after this ultra (and slightly Tarantino-ized) feat of violence, I really couldn’t stop laughing.

Kristen: It is true that the bear fight scene was too long; the bear just kept coming back and attacking DiCaprio too many times. It reminded me of fight scenes in Family Guy where two animated characters just keep beating each other over and over again. Part of me wonders how much of this movie is based on truth. It is “inspired” by true events, but I think Iñárritu took liberties to make the story more dramatic and moving. For example, I’m pretty sure that Hugh Glass never had a son, although it worked better for a revenge movie if there was a more personal aspect to it.

James: Totally felt like an Family Guy gag to me…which is weird since that show will likely do some sort of Revenantgag at some point- it all comes full circle. I want to touch on Glass’ son, but I think we should really get into DiCaprio’s performance since, it’s pretty safe to say, he’s probably going to finally win that Oscar that the internet wants him to have so badly. What was your take on the performance and if this is his Oscar bid, how do you feel about that?

Kristen: I never really liked DiCaprio too much as an actor. I always thought he gave solid performances, and chooses his movie roles very well (he hasn’t been in a lot of bad movies in the past 20 years), but his co-stars always seem to outshine him. I was impressed by his performance in The Revenant though. I think a lot of people regard his performance highly because of his dedication and commitment to the role, which I think is pretentious and unnecessary. The moments where he convinced me that he deserves his long-awaited, continuously-elusive Oscar were not the ones where he survived the elements, but the tender and affectionate moments where he’s with his son or thinks about his wife. A couple particular scenes stand out to me, where DiCaprio curls up around his son’s dead body or embraces his the vision of his son in the church. The raw emotion that DiCaprio portrays in these scenes is more convincing than his last five roles have been.

James: I rather agree with on DiCaprio overall- he hasn’t really done it for me in a while even while his recent filmography is overall pretty strong; I kind of miss the young, charming guy who surprised me in What Eating Gilbert Grape?; there’s something really impenetrable for me about his performance here though. While the commitment is on full display (and stories of him actually eating raw bison liver and sleeping in dead animals and the like are only feeding both the Oscar campaign and my growing contempt of it), the performance never really got under my skin in any real way. On one hand, this is an extreme variant of a character DiCaprio has played a lot recently in that Glass is a consistently tortured, broody type with a requisite dead wife (think Shutter Island, Inception). I never felt bothered or moved by this characterization and the device of the son simply sort of read just like that to me.

Kristen: I will agree that What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? is his best performance to date, and I believe that the reason he succeeded then and with the Revenant is because he humbles himself in these roles. Why he was nominated over a bunch of more deserving actors for The Wolf of Wall Street will always irk me. Although, I also have to mention that he spoke the Native American language (is there a specific one named in the film?) well. Speaking of which, I liked that DiCaprio thanked the Native American actors in his Golden Globe acceptance speech. I wish that the film had acknowledged the Native American legacy, even if that’s overdone or not the point of the movie. A film that shows a white man integrated with the natives happens way too often.

James: The Globes speech was classy and DiCaprio can be a good celebrity when he puts in the effort. However, I’m not quite sure The Revenant is all that interested in either celebrating or offering any sort of nuance to the Native American experience, then or now. Most of the side characters in the film are still presented as either saints or savages and Glass’ son isn’t really given much dimension despite a decent chunk of screen time. One scene that really irritated me was when John Fitzgerald (Hardy, playing the undisputed villain of the piece) was inferring that Glass’ son was less than “manly.” Not only was the “scripting” in this particularly passage rather appallingly bad, but I found it somewhat offensive that this is really the only moment that stirs Glass; the only part in the movie where he raises his voice or seemed genuinely sparked by something. That really pissed me off.

Kristen: I want to specifically take about Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography, since I am a sucker for good cinematography (in another life if I had liked cameras better, I would have been one). It seems almost uncontested that Lubezki will win his third Oscar in a row. At the start of the movie, his cinematography actually irritated me. The long sweeping, unbroken shots felt weird and off-putting, although it certainly was original. Luckily, he did not include a lot of those afterwards, and his elegant cinematography really shined through. One shot that was truly beautiful was the shot of torches between the trees while they were out looking for Glass. I read somewhere that Lubezki only used natural and available light for the shots, which allowed him to get experimental with his cinematography.

James: I’m a sucker for awesome cinematography as well. Lubezki is simply one of the very best in the industry and likely one of the all time greats in the field. Arresting, fascinating and innovative nearly ever go round, his work (GravityBirdmanThe Tree of LifeChildren of Men) is always a treat. The Revenant will surely win him a third Oscar (unless the Academy decides the brilliant insanity of Mad Max– John Seale’s work is a doozy- is worthier; I’ll cosign) but there’s a disconnect with me here as well. Yes, individual shots are beautiful and there’s a fluidity to the camerawork that’s impressive on a technical level, but I was always so aware of everything. Perhaps the narrative outside of the movie of just how “hard” this film was to make seeped into my experience while watching The Revenant but I so distracted rather than transcendentally lulled by the visual style. In contrast, another 2015 movie that’s absolutely beautiful (and perhaps was equally “difficult” to pull off, yet you would never know based on press notes) was Carol, a movie in which I felt the mesmerizing cinematography was compatible with every other facet of the film while still being ravishing in its own right.

Kristen: I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to get over the Academy not nominating Carol for best film, especially over films like The Martian and Room, which I did not think reached the same level. And while we’re still talking about cinematography, Roger Deakins’ work in Sicario was well-deserving of a nomination — and I wouldn’t be upset if it won. But back to The Revenant. I was surprised that it received an Oscar nomination for Best Production Design. I read a tweet that stated, “Best Production Design for The Revenant. Nice work, outdoors!” Besides being hilarious, they had a good point.

James: When word gets out the whole damn thing was actually shot on a soundstage…

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