Monday, January 18, 2016

The Flawed Genius of The Revenant

Revenant – noun – one that returns after death or a long absence.

The great motivation for me to see this picture, which has been flying under my radar for some time, was quite honestly it’s astonishing 12 Academy Award nominations. That number of nominations puts “The Revenant” on par with films such as “Gone With The Wind”, “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “From Here To Eternity”. Could this quiet, un-hyped film I’d barely heard of really be an equal among such auspicious company? My answer is absolutely yes, and yet somehow, no.

Set deep in the Colorado Rocky Mountains of 1823, “The Revenant” is pure adventure in the classic sense. A visceral tale of survival, fear, revenge and loss, the story harkens back to the works of Jack London and James Fenimore Cooper. Frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is abandoned for dead by two trappers (Tom Hardy and Will Poulter) after a savage mauling from a momma bear defending her cubs. Glass regains his strength during an agonizing journey back to “civilization” where rumors of his demise have been greatly exaggerated. The violence is remarkable and raw, the setting primal, nearly every quality of this film’s production is worthy of highest praise.

I make no secret of being a fan of Leonardo DiCaprio. Since before “Titanic”, I’ve appreciated his talent and in recent years his dedication to certain causes as well. DiCaprio’s performance as the historical legend Hugh Glass has already garnered a Golden Globe, it should bag him the Oscar as well.

Tom Hardy’s work in “The Revenant” tops his portrayal of British convict Bronson in the film of the same name. In fact, Hardy’s seething portrayal of Fitzgerald, a strong if scared man, proves that being the new Mad Max is a greater boon to that franchise than his career. Even Will Poulter’s Jim Bridger is an honest redemption from being the geek boy in “We’re The Millers”.

The cinematography is beyond Oscar worthy, it’s groundbreaking. What else to expect from the man who photographed “Gravity”? Many of the action scenes – attacks, chases and the bear mauling – included long single shot takes that took you into the moment in ways no amount of quick cut editing will ever achieve. This film’s imagery, sometimes majestic, sometimes grotesque, was captured (aside from one scene only) entirely with existing natural light. Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki did more than earn his paycheck, he crafted another genuine masterpiece.

Positively phenomenal production value, cinematography, acting, sound, costumes, make-up, so many incredible pieces were assembled by director Alejandro González Iñárritu that it should go without saying that the whole is as great as the sum of its parts.  Yet, somehow, “The Revenant” is lacking. It’s a cinematic fact of life, really. A great director can take a good script and make a good movie. A great director cannot take a good script and make a great movie; the script must be great first. The script here was not great, these characters and their travails never engaged me emotionally in any substantial way. González Iñárritu’s $135M epic is nominated for 12 Academy Awards, which component is missing a nomination? You got it – the screenplay.

“The Revenant” is really a very, very good movie - a must-see adult adventure with real people, not comic book superheroes, outer space warrior-shamans or magic rings. However, it is simply not a great movie. It’s no “Ben-hur”, hell, on some levels it’s not even “Titanic”. Well, I guess, some years really, really good is good enough for greatness.

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