Got to admit: not a big fan of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Thought his first feature Amores Perros was a third good movie, a third fairly entertaining episode of The Twilight Zone, a third implausible drama (a homeless hit man?) connected in time by a wincingly violent vehicular collision; thought 21 Grams was more of the same (three stories linked by car accident) only set in the United States; thought Babel was an unholy mess with an accidental shooting as connecting event, its narrative strands scattered all over the world.
Biutiful was an interesting recalibration--instead of several stories united by an incident we have several situations--one more lurid than the next--united by one man's involvement in all of 'em. If Biutiful doesn't quite succeed either it isn't actor Javier Bardem's fault (he gives a tremendous performance despite the fact that he's dying and seeing dead people) but Inarritu's compulsive need to add and adorn and amplify and assault till you want to throw up your hands and say "Back off!"
At this point in Inarritu's career you can't help but wonder what setting could allow for the bizarre behavior he prizes so much in his characters, could account for the multiple story threads he likes to stuff into his narratives, could justify the intense dramaturgy he wields with all the subtlety of a six-pound axe? Turns out there is a venue: the theater stage. Birdman is perhaps the first Inarritu I've really liked, where his love for the metaphysical and the mundane, the demented and despairing is tethered not by a central incident or central character but by a continuous camera shot (achieved by Emmanuel Lubezki) and the insistent tattoo of Antonio Sanchez's drums--where the filmmaker's excesses are matched or even dwarfed by the flamboyance of an art form thousands of years old. With this film and a fistful of Oscar victories you might say Inarritu's career is flying at an all time high.
Hopefully The Revenant represents a temporary dip. It's as far as I know his first feature adapted from another source, and first based (loosely--nearly all Hollywood true-life productions are best appended with the adverb) on a true story. To suit the story's needs Inarritu has abandoned his narrative-jumping, multiple-character schtick to focus on the relatively straightforward trajectory of one Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) crawling through the span of South Dakota (actually Alberta, Canada) seeking revenge.
Not that Inarritu has abandoned all excesses; he begins with an Arikara tribal assault on a band of trappers (again shot in continuous long takes), moves on to Glass' no-holds-barred wrestling session with a full-grown grizzly. His colleagues deem him too wounded to live long and leave him with select volunteers: fellow trappers John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and his own son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). Fitzgerald panics, convinces Bridger to abandon Glass, inflict various injuries and worse to the man--hence Glass' long-distance quest for payback.
Initiating the plot's forward thrust (I guess Inarritu has his central incident after all) is the attack, with much growling and gnashing of teeth and DiCaprio swung violently right to left and back across the mossy forest floor. I found the sequence halfway convincing--yes that's the Academy Award-nominated (four times a bridesmaid, as of this writing yet to be a bride) actor being dragged through earth and rock and tree bark, clods of soil literally flying. The bear though seemed more Baloo than grizzly with its rippling fur and overarticulated gestures (sometimes effects animation is too careful where reality doesn't give a); short of spending months training a real live to follow intricate and specific instructions, I can't see how they could have pulled this off without digital aid--and even then the results are less than persuasive. If this is state-of-the-art (and I suspect it is) then we have some ways to go.
The rest of the film is crawl crawl crawl explosive cauterization crawl dive dog paddle dog paddle stagger stagger sauna smolder fume. Crawl some more. Stagger some more. Smolder incessantly. A little knife-and-axe action, a little gunplay. Quite an ordeal for Glass and the audience (the film clocks in at an attention-stretching two hours and thirty-six minutes) and on the theory that little suffering helps raise one's state of consciousness to a relatively higher level (a la A Man Called Horse or its even better sequel, The Return of a Man Called Horse) one might say one leaves the theater thoroughly purified.
If one however thinks that suffering is strictly for the birds (or bears) the film is one long gigglefest, with the less reverent viewers pointing out this bit of makeup prosthetic or that lock of greasy hair (one imagines the viewer coming home from a screening just itching for a shampoo). To be fair, Inarritu cuts back on too-real details: the historical Glass used maggots to clean his infected flesh, allowed friendly natives to sew a bear hide on his back to cover the exposed flesh. Which may have been a mistake--if Inarritu had gone this far he might as well have gone all the way, at some point forcing us skeptics to choke on our own merriment (not likely in my case but possible).
The film isn't without its humor-free moments, moments that actually touch the transcendence Inarritu toils so heavily to achieve, and in my book that's mostly thanks to Lubezki's magic. In between sadistic setpieces, when it has time to pause and allow us to perceive the surrounding landscape, The Revenant is an entirely different film. Lubezki's lens drink deep of the brilliant cold winter light, allow the spindly trees, the immense mountain ranges, the vast reaches of snow to speak their monumental presence. Then Inarritu's film slows to the pace of our hero's epic crawl, helps us realize that America (or Alberta Canada or--more to the point--Inarritu's vision of America) is so much more than mere backdrop to one man's revenge drama; then and only then is the film as big as it wants to be.
First published in Businessworld 2.5.16