The Revenant (2015)

bear

threehalfstar

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest is a difficult film to pin down in terms of quality. The Revenant is at times an intense spectacle of intricately detailed action choreography, but it’s also a meandering slowburner of a film that constantly reminds you that you’re watching Important Art. Its cinematography (provided by master of the form Emmanuel Lubezki) is gut-wrenchingly beautiful, but is often employed for such an empty purpose that it leaves you feeling cold. It aims for High Art severity in its narrative consequence, but the grotesque savagery of its rape & pillage masculinity feels like a well-constructed exploitation pic from a bygone era. I’m tempted to group it in with other arty, all-dressed-up-with-nowhere-to-go slowburners that were impressive but impossible to connect with (for me, anyway) like Only God Forgives & The Tree of Life, but I enjoyed too much of the film to dismiss it that easily. What is clear is that Iñárritu should at the very least be commended for not following up the critical success of Birdman (a film I was less than kind to) with a carbon copy of his most high profile film to date. I appreciate him sticking his neck out there, even if the results were the ultimate mixed bag of soaring successes & cringe-worthy missteps.

Part of what makes The Revenant so frustrating is its daunting 156 min runtime. The film’s opening battles between white men fur trappers & tribes of Native Americans and Leo DiCaprio’s protagonist & a pissed-off mama bear are breathtakingly savage, epically orchestrated orgies of visually striking violence. At the other end of the film, a  concluding knife fight between DiCaprio’s beaten-to-shit protagonist & Tom Hardy’s selfish brute who wronged him ranks up there with Friedkin’s The Hunted as one of the best hand-to-hand combat scenes ever committed to film. The long stretch between those heart-racing anchors, however, are painfully in need of some shrewd editing. It’s tempting to think of The Revenant as a revenge film floating somewhere between a Western & an exploitation, but a majority of the film is a travelogue. DiCaprio, Hardy, two opposing bands of American & French Fur trappers (one headed by Domnhall Gleeson, who’s been batting a thousand lately), and a revenge-hungry native tribe all slowly trudge toward an inevitable climactic bloodshed (while still recovering from the one that opened the film) in an unnecessarily-detailed step-by-step procession. At times the film itself feels like DiCaprio’s broken protagonist, crawling & gurgling blood for days on end under the weight of an over-achieving runtime.   Shave a good 40 minutes of The Revenant by tightening a few scenes & losing a shot here or there (as precious as Lubezki makes each image) & you might have a masterful man vs. nature (both human & otherwise) revenge pic. As is, there’s an overbearing sense of self-importance that sours the whole ordeal.

For the most part, though, the self-importance on display in The Revenant isn’t nearly as off-putting as it can be in Birdman. For instance, Lubezki’s camerawork is just as showy here as it was in Iñárritu’s Oscar Winner, but it ditches the single-extended-shot gimmick of that film in favor of a more tasteful line of highfalutin action cinematography. There are some gorgeous transitions from intense close-ups to long tracking shots in impossibly smooth single-swoops, but these shots are broken up in a way that Birdman‘s unrelenting gimmick of a structure allow for. Plot wise, The Revenant echoes the loud & obnoxious majority vs. the righteous intelligence of the few in the know that turned me off so sharply in Birdman (with Hardy anchoring the obnoxious brute end of that equation & DiCaprio serving as the righteous), but it’s not quite as much of a turn-off here. At worst, the preciousness & empty philosophy of lines like “As long as you can still breathe, you fight”, “Remember what mother used to say about the wind?”, and endless mutterings of “You are my son, you are my son,” (similar to the way Sean Penn whispers “Mother” into the void for hours in Tree of Life) are worth a hearty eyeroll or two. At best, they’re a nice break from watching DiCaprio gurgle & crawl his way through the snow. The dialogue in Birdman was much more off-putting.

Like I said, there’s too much of The Revenant that resonated with me to dismiss it outright. I’m more than willing to forgive an overwrought image or two (there’s a particularly egregious moment when a white bird emerges from a bullet wound, for instance) in exchange for the film’s more successful flashes of brilliance (like the bear & knife fights). For all of The Revenant‘s try-hard stabs at achieving High Art through hyper-masculine brutality, there’s a hell of a lot of praise-worthy ambition & striking imagery that’s well worth the patience required to make it through the perilous journey of its over-inflated runtime. Shorten some its travel time through montage & soften the cheese factor of its philosophical mumblings & I might even have heralded it as a masterpiece of brutish revenge cinema.

-Brandon Ledet

Backcountry (2015)

bear

twohalfstar

There’s so much going for the bear attack natural horror Backcountry that it’s a total shame when the film can’t stick the landing. The opening hour feels like familiar man vs. nature territory, but it’s a familiarity that works. An urban couple slowly losing their way while hiking & camping in the woods has enough built-in suspense that it doesn’t matter too much that it feels like it’s all been done before, especially once the threat of a bear attack begins to build. The problem is that when the shit finally hits the fan in the climactic half hour the mess is disappointingly brief & easy to clean up. After a few minutes of deeply disturbing bear-related gore the movie finds its way back to the trail and leaves the more unfamiliar dangers of the woods behind.

Quick question: Why are couples always calling each other “Babe” in movies? Do a lot of people actually do that in real life? Backcountry proclaims that it’s “based on a true story” and I have to assume that the “Babe” pet names were part of that truth. It at least feels authentic to these characters. The film’s central conflict (getting lost in the woods & stumbling into killer bear territory) is a direct result of a bull-headed alpha male refusing advice, maps, and directions because he feels petty things like safety & common-sense threaten his manhood. This hubris, of course, eventually leads to the life-threatening disaster at the film’s core. His girlfriend, to her credit, sees right through his macho bullshit the entire time, starting with some light bickering early in the proceedings and then resorting to calling him a loser & a fuck-up once things go horribly, horribly wrong.

If those “horribly wrong” things had continued for the entirety of the final half hour, I may have been more won over by Backcountry. The comeuppance is indeed disgustingly brutal, but it’s short-lived. There are about ten minutes of this film that will haunt me for a great while, but that does little to justify the other 80 or so. For the most part, Backcountry brings very little of interest to the table. There’s some killer suspense in the way the central couple is voyeuristically filmed from behind trees and there are a few menacing characters that threaten to take the plot into some unexpected directions, but none of it amounts to much. Ultimately, Backcountry is a bear attack movie that doesn’t have much to offer outside a brief, singular bear attack and a bullheaded alpha male you can’t wait to see punished. A little more effort & creativity in the final half hour and it could’ve been something much more special, “true story” be damned.

-Brandon Ledet