Friday, January 8, 2016

The Revenant: Grim survival drama

The Revenant (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for strong gory violence, dramatic intensity, sexual assault and profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.8.16

Rarely has the rugged American West been portrayed with such grim, unforgiving brutality.

Hollywood seems to view the holiday season as the time for historical sagas of astonishing survival. Unbroken opened on Christmas Day 2014; In the Heart of the Sea occupied movie theaters during much of this past December. To their company we now add The Revenant, based in part on the gruesome event that defined the life — and legend — of early 19th century American fur trapper and frontiersman Hugh Glass.

Seasoned frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) understands that he can't
necessarily trust some of his human companions. He also understands that far more
dangerous creatures roam the wilderness ... and none more volatile than an enraged
mother bear trying to protect her cubs.
This incident, and its aftermath, first hit the big screen in 1971’s Man in the Wilderness, with Richard Harris starring as “Zachary Bass” (the sort of dumb name-shift that made eyes roll, back in the day). Author Michael Punke subsequently employed Glass’ experiences as the backdrop for his fictional 2002 “augmentation” of the trapper’s life, The Revenant; director Alejandro González Iñárritu and co-scripter Mark L. Smith have based this new film on that novel.

While the bloodthirstier elements of Glass’ saga have been heightened here (and in Punke’s novel) for greater melodramatic impact, that isn’t as unreasonable as it might seem. Glass was guilty of exaggerating his exploits during his own lifetime, so we really aren’t able to separate fact from fancy ... except with respect to the seminal incident.

As the film begins, Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is guiding a fur-trapping expedition led by Capt. Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), commander of the trading outpost Fort Kiowa, located on the Missouri River in South Dakota. The group is ambushed by an Arikara war party — once-peaceful Native Americans who, at this point in their history, are thoroughly fed up with having been repeatedly displaced by white settlers — that decimates Henry’s company.

The fleeing survivors regroup, with Henry accepting Glass’ suggestion of the safest — but hardest — route back to the fort. This decision doesn’t sit well with the outspoken John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), mostly because he neither likes nor trusts Glass. The latter doesn’t regard Fitzgerald as worthy of concern, which of course enrages our de facto villain even further.

Fitzgerald also is a vicious racist who despises the presence of Glass’ half-Native teenage son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). Although father and son are devoted to each other, the boy is withdrawn and fearful: forever traumatized by a childhood event that claimed his mother’s life (and which we experience, in brief chunks, via flashback).

The remaining trappers also include young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), a name that should be familiar to those who remember their grade-school American history; Bridger would become one of our foremost mountain men and guides.

The secondary crisis strikes when Glass, hunting for food, stumbles across two bear cubs. Knowing full well what that means, he’s nonetheless unprepared for their mother’s savage assault.

This sequence is horrific, unyielding and very hard to watch; Iñárritu doesn’t leave anything to the imagination. The attack seemingly lasts forever, after which Glass is a mangled and shredded mess ... but still clinging stubbornly to life.

The honorable Henry initially insists that Glass be carried on a makeshift litter, but the harsh environment and encroaching winter soon make this impossible. Henry therefore requests volunteers to remain with Glass until he dies, at which point he’s to be buried, after which his companions then can catch up with the rest. Hawk insists on remaining with his father; Bridger does the same.

Improbably, Fitzgerald agrees to chaperone this sad little group, insisting that he’ll “do right” by Glass. We’re screaming at the screen by now, hoping that Henry won’t be hoodwinked by this obvious liar ... but that’s precisely what happens. Henry and the rest move on; Fitzgerald craftily assesses his two young companions.

The situation worsens, after which Glass finds himself abandoned.

DiCaprio has the film’s lengthy second act to himself: an impressive exercise under any circumstances, but even harder when the storyline’s harsh weather necessitates exposing little beyond his eyes. It’s the ultimate acting challenge, and we marvel when it’s handled successfully, as with Tom Hanks in Cast Away, or Robert Redford in All Is Lost.

DiCaprio does even better, in terms of raw intensity; Glass is fueled by primal rage, and we believe it. His gaze is unyielding, his determination unquestioned; we readily accept that this man is sufficiently tough, smart and resolute. The means to continued survival at times become as harsh as the initial bear attack; Iñárritu makes the process persuasively credible.

Indeed, he and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki — Academy Awards for both Gravity and Iñárritu’s Birdman — make a supplementary character of the harsh landscape. They favor a rotating camera shot that swings around a central subject, granting a full-circle view of the surroundings, and often concluding with a vantage point that yields a hitherto-unglimpsed detail. It’s both exhilarating and somewhat unnerving, because at times the final reveal signals more bad news.

We’re wholly drawn into this environment, feeling the punishing weather, practically smelling the stink of long-unwashed men forced to wear bulky clothing in order to stay alive. As was the case with In the Heart of the Sea, we’re reminded that the men drawn to such difficult and dangerous jobs, aren’t likely to be individuals worthy of much trust. The larger group dynamic is fragile at best, and Henry’s hold on his men always seems just one squabble away from full-blown mutiny.

The closer interpersonal relationships are equally wary, particularly the bond of necessity that forms between Fitzgerald and Bridger, once left with the badly wounded Glass. Young Bridger is a callow farm boy, wholly out of his element and unaccustomed to duplicity; Poulter plays him as the ultimate innocent, initially drawn to Glass, with puppy-like devotion, as a resourceful father figure.

In great contrast, Bridger regards Fitzgerald with a blend of horror, anger and bone-deep terror: absolutely the last man on which to rely, and yet necessity eventually forces as much. Poulter deftly shades his performance, demonstrating the acting chops I expected after seeing his spunky youthful debut in 2007’s charming Son of Rambow.

Hardy has the showpiece role: as quietly nasty a piece of work as we’ve seen in awhile. Fitzgerald is motivated entirely by greed and preservational self-interest; he’s entirely soulless, more animal than man. His cunning gaze often looks feral, his bestial comportment so intense and absolute, that we’re often surprised when the man speaks.

The scariest part: It’s not necessarily appropriate to tag Fitzgerald as “evil” per se. He’s simply and utterly amoral.

Gleeson shines as the weary, overwhelmed Capt. Henry: an ethical man aware of his precarious position, and surrounded by brutes who’d likely cut his throat over a minor disagreement. Arthur Redcloud makes a strong impression as the dignified Hikuc, a solitary and mostly silent Native American who encounters Glass when the latter is in desperate need of help.

Goodluck exudes vulnerability as the emotionally damaged Hawk, and the bond he shares with DiCaprio is palpable: Each is the only thing the other has, in this hostile and unforgiving world. Duane Howard, finally, is imposing and ominous as the Arikara war party leader Elk Dog; he’s on his own mission of vengeance, determined to find his kidnapped daughter Powaqa, and kill all those responsible for her capture.

Having spent time with the likes of Fitzgerald and an equally motley crew of rival French trappers, our sympathies naturally lie with Elk Dog, Hikuc and the various other Native peoples in this story ... even when some of them behave viciously themselves.

This is a bleak, nasty story: a saga in which even our core protagonist, Glass, is far from untarnished. While the drama is fueled by Glass’ quest for vengeance, it’s perhaps more important to focus on Bridger: He’s the character who undergoes the greatest change.

Ultimately, though, this 156-minute film is much too long. It lacks the visual pizzazz that made Birdman so exciting to watch; the narrative and execution here are much slower and more grindingly methodical, mirroring the undeniably gorgeous and yet quietly foreboding environment itself. The Revenant doesn’t quite become boring, but it is self-indulgently slow; Iñárritu should have let editor Stephen Mirrione trim at least half an hour.

Once again, though, we’re given a movie that demands subsequent research into its primary characters. The actual Hugh Glass was quite a figure, and I suspect he’d be pleased by his depiction here ... factual, fictitious or otherwise.

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