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The Revenant (2015)
Iñárritu's surprsing blockbuster.
One year after the release of Alejandro G. Iñárritu's Oscar winning effort, Birdman, he and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki look to take their seamless, almost cut-free brand of cinema, from the ultra-intramural of their previous effort, and apply it to the diametric opposite; the wide-open, exhilaratingly earthy, extramural scene of a brutal 1820's Dakota. Following the mourning Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) traipse his broken body in pursuit of vengeance across the fledgling American frontier.
Sometimes trippy, sometimes telluric, always proximal to the action of the unfolding events for better or worse, this is oft poor Leo's bared, mud-clagged incisors. This new piece stays away from the naval gazing, creative existential crisis of Birdman, in favour of a surprisingly straightforward blockbuster romp; if that's what you want from it.
Being an Iñárritu film, there is plenty going on beneath the clart cosmetic. Since its release, a number of those involved in the film have gushed about the West's treatment of indigenous peoples; if bringing this subject to a wider discourse was the film's intention, I must admit, I find myself at a loss to have recognised it. While we are subjected to a very corporeal painting of atrocities against such peoples, the film never seems to go beyond a 'we did this and we should feel bad' level of insight. The focus of the goings-on is much more on the Caucasian players, namely the fur- trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio).
The ill-starred Leo, over the course of the film, falls and, quite literally, hits every branch on the way down. In one of the film's most indulgent moments, it does fall prey to crossing into self-parody as it turns into a DiCaprio suffer-a-thon. A rather inapt laugh was uttered when upon seeing what next disaster was befalling the protagonist, a mental image was conjured of Homer falling for a second time into Springfield gorge. This is done with relatively early on in the film's substantial 156 minute running time, however, and soon gets back on track, never missing a beat until its climax and allowing Leo to show some range beyond exhausted, in pain, getting spittle on the lens and so on.
The manner of DiCaprio's performance leads me to address the bison in the room: The Academy Awards. The timing of the film's release, along with the casting of the 'always the bridesmaid never the bride' Leo is a shame, because the film stands to be notably excellent when viewed in a vacuum, whether it boards the band wagon of Academy attention or not. The idea that an actor must suffer 'x' in order to get the gong they so crave is a shame; perhaps, without that unfortunate, extraneous thorn in his mind, Leo would have given a more nuanced, less grimacing and frothing approach to the character. Tom Hardy as the wild eyed, mumbling, but brilliant John Fitzgerald and Dohmnall Gleeson as the sober and solemn Captain of the beleaguered band, have the room to fully showcase their expertise in their craft and really impress. Will Poulter equally inspires and shows competence far beyond his years as the baby-faced voice of morality amongst growingly desperate men.
A somewhat unforeseen turn in Iñárritu's body of work but one that is no less valid: We are given a spectacle that feels truly like something never done before in the way which it is presented. Amalgams between real, in camera work and CGI are seamless, performances, when viewed on their own merit, are colossal, and if there was ever a film to make you subconsciously want to pick the grime from underneath your fingernails, or take a shocked breath of the imagined frigid air, this is it.