Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Revenant

In the Country of Mann
"This Isn't About the Hunting, Is It?"

The Revenant does in 2 1/2 hours what Anthony Mann* used to do in a trim 90 minutes...and he'd throw in a B-actress love interest to boot. The story of Hugh Glass (played in the film by Leonardo DiCaprio), who survived a bear attack while serving as a guide for a Fort Kiowa (in what would become South Dakota on the Missouri River) pelt-hunting party (which went from 100 men at the beginning to ten at the end), then endured a 200 mile trek to the fort, it is an amazing tale straight out of legend, but has been transmorgrified into a tale of revenge for the big screen. That's not the way it actually happened (the two men who were charged with staying with Glass and left him for dead ended up with no consequences at all), but it's a movie, and the current climate of cinema seems to have demanded that it turn into an obsessive tale of revenge throughout its core.

I wish I could say that the movie thrilled me, but it did not. Perhaps I've seen too much revenge-motivation in films lately (blame those evil superheroes) that I'm a little sick of it—bored by it, even. Maybe it's not just superheroes. Maybe it's the reality show-machinations we've been inundated with or the greedy-gus corporatization of America where it's not enough to make a good life for yourself until you've kept somebody else from having it that has generated this feeling of not just "keeping up with the Joneses," but "getting even" with the Joneses. Do we have to live like a soap opera or The Godfather? I reject that handily. And I object to the real triumph of Hugh Glass in the wilderness being turned into a turf war (that, after all, is what was happening with the Natives—something Iñárritu seems to want to indict them under in this scenario, as well).

The Revenant is receiving all sorts of accolades—and garnered a mail-satchel of Oscar nominations—and one has to give it kudos for being so doggone persistent in recreating the squalor of the world of the Western trapper (credit veteran production designer Jack Fisk for that)—but I think a lot of that hyperbole is for those folks who were a little left behind by the obtuseness of Birdman, and are playing catch up for how good writer-director Iñárritu can be. Here, he's just a little more obvious and on-the-nose than usual, producing great craft, but to a story that says more in the actual truth of it than it does in his dramatization.
It is 1823 and a party of animal trappers are exploring the northern reaches of the Louisiana Purchase by the Missouri River. The group is led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson, last seen auditioning for headliner at a Nuremburg rally in Star Wars, squiring Sioarise Ronan in Brooklyn, and exploring the future of dating in Ex Machina, the guy gets around), their guide is that Hugh Glass who is aided by his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), when they are caught by surprise during a hunting sortee away from the group by the sound of gunfire. The group is under attack by the Arikara tribe led by Elk Dog (Duane Howard) who is looking for his daughter Powaqa, whom he believes was kidnapped by the trappers. The natives decimate the trappers—the Arikara are portrayed as being VERY good shots, with some rather wicked looking arrow-hits, and the trappers have a tendency to fall down even after a single arrow hit in the leg—and a dozen of them are able to get to their keel-boat to distance themselves with what pelts they can accumulate.
They're in a very bad way. Under pursuit and under-supplied, they have barely enough wares to make the trip worth its while. Then there's "The Griper." Every platoon has to have one, and Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) is the self-appointed nay-sayer and whiner, the guy who thinks he should be in charge. He'll pick a fight with anybody and when challenged, backs off, complaining about his treatment. Fitzgerald does a little antler-locking with Hawk and it's only Henry's and Glass' interference that keep the two from coming to blows. Hardy, who has been so good for so long, is fiercely committed to the role, creating a sand-paper-irritating character that makes you crave his demise by any means possible. I'd give him an Oscar just so he'd shut up, already.
But, it's Glass who suffers misfortune. Separated from the troop, he unfortunately gets between a mother grizzly and her two cubs and the animal savagely attacks him (the sequence, done with special effects and CGI—of course—is a wonder, horrible and savage, while having a fascinating quality of animal logic—or illogic—to it, and just when you think it's over, it goes on and on). He's found alive, but just barely, and Henry's men do their best to patch him up—Fitzgerald, sensitive soul that he is, notes that Glass' cries of pain might lead the Arikara's right to them. Travoising Glass up steep terrain doesn't make their escape any easier, so Henry charges two men to stay with Glass until they can get a rescue team from the fort to help. Glass' son Hawk won't leave his father's side, and Fitzgerald and the youngest member of the party, Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) volunteer to stay with the guide.
Captain Henry (Gleeson) and Fitzgerald (Hardy) very much alive.
I guess when you're down to ten men, you can't be too picky about volunteers. Fitzgerald is convinced that Glass is done for and is more than willing to finish him off and move on. But Glass' son will have none of it and is the only thing keeping Fitzgerald from abandoning his post and the crippled guide.

Glass didn't have a son, historically, but inserting one into the narrative up's the ante for drama and provides one more subsequent reason for the movie-Glass to swear vengeance beyond what really happened—in reality, he just wanted answers and his rifle back, actually.  
Motivated by the movie's events DiCaprio's Glass gropes out of the sloppily constructed grave Fitzgerald has prepared for him and starts the slow trek back to the fort, evading hostile Natives (still searching), crawling initially, then trudging using a stout branch as a make-shift crutch, and using all the survival skills a lifetime has taught him. This part is true. And except for Glass' radical method for fighting infection and necrosis, it's pretty much the way legend has it. The "revenge" factor is thrown in, as is a back-story that has Glass in moments of fever and dream envisioning the spirit of his Native wife (Grace Dove), killed in a raid by soldiers of a more European military costume, letting the Cavalry off the hook this time.
One of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's magnificent panoramas.
"As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight" is the chief mantra of The Revenant and so there's a lot of breathing on the soundtrack (and, in fact, the film begins and ends with that sound, disembodied from image). But, mid-way through the film another comes into play: "Revenge is in the creator's hands." If, indeed, the Creator cares. The creators of The Revenant care, obviously, but that might be to tie the film into the movie-trend of revenge at all costs. But maybe it's time for there to be a moral re-alignment in films. What made the recent Spectre interesting was its denouement on Westminster Bridge where James Bond has the drop on long-time nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld and is emplored by the villain to "finish it." With the authorities standing nearby, Bond merely unloads his gun and says "All out of bullets. And I have better things to do." Even Christopher Nolan took that most vengeful of super-heroes, Batman, and gave him the valuable lesson he never learned in the comics—living well is the best revenge. We have better things to do.

So do we all. Perhaps, revenge should be relegated to villains and not those we consider heroes, who would have better things to do than be compulsively vindictive. Hugh Glass, Jim Bridger, John Fitzgerald, and Captain Andrew Henry all lived without it.

The Hugh Glass marker—Shadehill Lake, SD
A portrait of the real Hugh Glass
Leo in another western
(cleans up real nice, don't he?)

* The reference to director Anthony Mann comes from a series of "psychological" Westerns that director Mann, screenwriter Borden Chase (and others) and star James Stewart made in the 1950's, which showed the deterioration that Nature and Man can cause in even the most charitable of people and showed the parallel between the "civilizing" of raw country and the "civilizing" of man's baser instincts. They're all great films: Winchester '73, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, The Far Country, and The Man from Laramie. Oh, and there's a trick at the end that's owed to a Howard Hawks subterfuge employed by Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep and John Wayne in Rio Bravo. Unfortunately, the person portrayed as dying in 1823 actually died in 1832. Yeah, don't let facts get in the way of enjoying the movie...just like a political campaign.

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