The Revenant ** - Alejandro González Iñárritu
Verisimilitude is not Art. The universal critical acclaim The Revenant is attracting, reflected by its 12 Oscar nominations is surpassed in absurdity only by the bewildering 10 nominations for Mad Max – Fury Road. That is beyond parody.
The Revenant, if successful on the night will be a first: a 'Best' picture no one ever sees twice: not because of its relentless brutality, though it is relentless and brutal; but because of its unrelieved one-dimensional tedium.
Director Iñárritu’s film is the latest and by far the most comprehensive example of confusing empirical truth with artistic truth. It takes to almost life-threatening lengths (to the actors) the belief that conveying a sense of the hardship and brutal challenges of the 1820’s South Dakota wilderness is entirely predicated upon a forensically literal attempt to recreate in every detail, the life, time and circumstance of the period. This is to substitute research and analysis for imagination and insight: mechanics for Art.
This is just an extreme example of Hollywood's current Philistine obsession with literalism of word and image: unless we see the lumps we can’t imagine what vomit is like; to appreciate the profound complexity of a woman having a pee, we must of course accompany her into the toilet and be close enough to hear the trickle. I’m not sure any of the hundreds of great films of the past ever lacked any sense of realism or authenticity just because it was taken for granted that people puke and women pee. The sublime paradox is of course that this obsessive search for authenticity is itself a lie: as the vomit is as phoney as the mistaken effort to make us believe otherwise.
The Revenant elevates such trivial cases to a point of principle: absolutely nothing is left to the imagination: a flesh-ripping bear attack; being buried alive; and everything imaginable in between is shown with pathological attention to detail. There are many issues raised by this ‘colouring-book’ conception of Art which must ‘fill-in’ every square inch of narrative dramatic space as the viewer cannot be credited with the imagination or intelligence to respond with their own creative understanding. The actual narrative of The Revenant is almost totally without resonance. Cries of horror from the universally smitten Critical community: but I stand by the claim; with this proviso; that the only genuine ‘resonance’ the film has is in the cinematography, which veers wildly from occasional moments of a genuine bleak depth, to ‘arty’ devices like swaying tree-tops seen from below: a visual cliché that Terence Malik has long ago sucked all the metaphorical juice from. One of the worst consequences of this literalist directorial style is that everything takes an infernally long time to communicate: talk about not seeing the wood for the trees! Although there are of course moments of drama and tension in the film; it only rarely has any genuine sense of pace and virtually no dramatic, narrative cadence. This isn’t surprising as virtually all the action of the film takes place outdoors in an implacably hostile freezing climate requiring everyone to be reduced to anonymous multi-layered bundles of skins and furs which more than once leaves us confused as to who the hell we are watching do what. In such an environment, never venturing indoors or even very often to the relative peace and quiet of a camp fire; if screenwriters Iñárritu and Mark L Smith had wanted to give the characters anything interesting to say – we wouldn’t have heard a word of it over the cruelly hostile weather they are constantly battling.
Revenge is the perfect emotional dramatic drive for a movie: think of two perfect examples; John Ford’s clearly parallel but infinitely better The Searchers (1956); or John Boorman’s equally superior Point Blank (1967). But even revenge needs characters as well as circumstances, actions and events. There isn’t for me a single developed character in The Revenant: Leonardo Di Caprio’s Glass is an anonymous bundle of fur and matted hair grunting and groaning his way from one physical disaster to the next. Tom Hardy does actually get a chance to at least sketch in his treacherous nature but ‘sketch’ it is and so sketchy it remains. It is very hard to give a damn about anyone in The Revenant because Iñárritu is content to leave them as virtually anonymous elemental forces of nature, completely subsumed within an unforgiving, utterly indifferent natural environment.
Perhaps this is the conception the Critics have bought into: Man and Nature, elemental, primal, morally determined by physical necessity. But even that seems to me to fall into the same ‘literalist’ trap. The person I saw the film with when I expressed some reservations, immediately remarked – “well that was what it was like!” I very much doubt she had any actual historical evidence for this categorical remark but it demonstrates our overwhelming tendency to want to believe the most extreme interpretations of historical events and especially people and communities of the past.
Philosophically it seems to me to be a grandiose intellectual conceit to believe that we can actually, from within our present culture, truly understand “what it was like” to live in such unimaginably (sic) different circumstances. This fallacy of what we might call factual infallibility troubles me with many films of which the recent Turner was a good example. It is what you do with the facts you choose to represent that offers the artistic dimension; not an obsession with the ‘accuracy’ with which you represent them.
Di Caprio speaks as if their intention was to make an Art-house docu-drama. But this is a slippery genre that precisely raises serious questions about the distinction between artistic and empirical truth. These are related, but fundamentally different values at root. In the context, setting of the The Revenant: however remote, however hostile, the Natural world, the miracle was that communities were formed; people lived everyday, albeit physically arduous demanding lives. They married, had children, formed tribes and groups with rules of behaviour and conduct within a culture. There are other profound truths ignored by Hollywood History: the tenuous survival of early white settlers in the hostile environment Iñárritu is so taken with, was firstly in part due to the assistance and help they were given on how to live under such conditions, by the indigenous, Native American peoples who had been doing so successfully for thousands of years before them. Also: for many if not most, testosterone-soaked Hunter/Warrior Men it is pretty clear that there were many wives and sisters and other women without whom it would have been impossible for communities to have even been formed, let alone sustained once established. The kind of withstanding courage over time required to survive under such adverse conditions seems to me much more feminine than male in character.
There are virtually no women in The Revenant: Glass’s Native American wife whose killing, by we know not who; and who gave him the son whose killing drives the movie; is little more than an ethereal plot device – we know absolutely nothing about her except that her loss left him bereft. In this irreducibly macho-centric world the occasional hand-me-down shag is the kind of woman implied. Even the daughter of the Native American chief who he believes has been captured and abused by White Men: is simply a clichéd victim stereotype whose rape by an (infernal) French Trapper is interrupted by Glass’s need to steal French horses to escape.
How in the name of sanity can Leonardo di Caprio be even nominated for an acting Oscar for this film? By what acting criteria can he be judged? His body is virtually invisible beneath the endless layers of fur and skins; his face is rarely genuinely visible and when it is he must have been so bloody cold it is virtually expressionless. As discussed above, he has virtually nothing to say, and spends most of the film dragging himself from one physical hardship to another, his gait and bodily movement impaired by the results of the Grizzly attack suffered early in the film. We might as well say in a film of Richard the Third that the Oscar should be awarded to the hump.
I am a great admirer of Iñárritu – Babel was in my view a masterpiece: and Di Caprio has made some excellent films; for which he is long overdue for recognition of his acting talent. But it will be an offence against reason and anything remotely approaching sound judgement, to reward him here for a role where acting is reduced to a cross between a brutal version of ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here: Olympic gymnastics; and Bear Grylls lost in the Jungle without a camera team.
To reduce acting to this macho, testosterone-driven, self-flagellating exercise in pointless self-imposed privation is perverse when there are other candidates in what is admittedly a pretty lean year artistically, who deserve proper consideration for genuinely nuanced, subtle acting performances.
As for Mad Max: frankly I think the Academicians are simply taking the piss.