Here’s a fun game of “Would You Rather?”:
1. Would you rather be Saul, a Hungarian-Jew tasked with cleaning up scenes of mass extermination and burning the bodies in Auschwitz, desperately seeking a rabbi who can aid him in the proper Jewish burial of a boy he believes to be his son?
2. Or Hugh Glass, a widower caring for his teenage son, until he is brutally mauled by a bear within an inch of his life, only to witness his son being murdered and left for dead and forced to crawl through the icy wilderness to survive?
If your answer is “neither!”, I am right there with you. But it’s awards season, and that means you’re going to see protagonists put through all sorts of harrowing circumstances in the movies, and many of them will win Academy Awards for their troubles. Oscar’s a sadist, after all — he mostly hates laughter, preferring topics like slavery, war, cold-blooded murder, and the Holocaust. (He’s also a narcissist, because what he really loves most of all are movies about himself.)
Leading the nominations (with 12) this year is The Revenant, which also recently won the Golden Globe for Best Drama and is one of a handful of frontrunners that are still pretty close in the race. Working against it is the fact that Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu already won Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Picture last year for Birdman, Or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance, which has been decried by some (including myself) for baiting voters with a slick but superficial tale of celebrity that panders to their basest self-congratulating sensibilities.
Had Birdman not made such a splash last year, the buzz this season would be another conversation entirely. Imagine, for a moment, if Richard Linklater’s wonderful Boyhood had instead won both prizes, as I, and many others, believe it should have. Fans of Inarritu’s style and sensibilities would be clamoring for The Revenant to take the night’s top prizes, and without another clear frontrunner in the race, it would. That’s the way this should have played out. But attempting to rewrite Oscar history is a complicated and thankless game. Change one win, and so many others fall like dominoes.And then there’s Son Of Saul, the awards season’s requisite Holocaust movie, most likely to nab the Best Foreign Language Film prize next month. Because like I said, the Academy just adores the Holocaust. I don’t like to be cynical about the subject, because if you have a great story set during the Holocaust, why not go ahead and tell it? Son Of Saul, however, illuminated for me how easy it is for once-powerful images to loser their efficacy upon repetition.
Son Of Saul depicts a few atrocities occurring at Auschwitz, which are still appropriately grotesque to behold. (Even after so many movies, it’s hard to believe that this actually happened.) Saul and many of his fellow prisoners have grown numb to the abject horror that meets their eyes on a daily basis. Their stoicism achieves the result of making the audience desensitized to most of the tragedy, too; it’s difficult to attach to any of these characters emotionally, most of all Saul himself, whose quest to find a rabbi to bury a dead child ends up costing the lives of others. Perhaps Saul has had a psychological break. That’s certainly believable and understandable in such circumstances.
But Son Of Saul is a punishing experience without an ounce of lightness. Maybe that’s the most accurate way to portray one of humankind’s darkest moments, but isn’t necessarily the most compelling way to tell a story. Son Of Saul restricts us to Saul’s point of view, blurring out a lot of the disturbing imagery and using sound to suggest more than it shows. From an artistic standpoint, I can admire director László Nemes’ approach, while also not quite understanding the point of it. Son Of Saul is the anti-Life Is Beautiful, but so is the Holocaust itself. Just putting us there amidst the misery doesn’t achieve much without a strong story to latch onto. There are many global tragedies that deserve further exploration on the big screen, but not so much the Holocaust. We’ve been exposed to that enough. Son Of Saul made me feel trapped in Auschwitz, with no hope and no emotional attachment to anyone or anything, and all I wanted was to escape. The filmmaker would probably be pleased with that response, so mission accomplished, I guess. See you at the Oscars!
An equally harrowing but more entertaining grueling slog is found in The Revenant, which also features a grieving father searching for a way to make right the death of his son, and ultimately finding nothing. The Revenant borrows Birdman‘s flashy fetishization of long takes, though not to the same extreme. Inarritu used natural light and shot in an extremely challenging climate, which has become so much a part of this movie’s narrative it feels as if it was written into the script. You don’t watch the film without thinking all the while: Did Leo really do that?? It’s almost a shame, really, that we think more about what the actor is going through than the character Hugh Glass.
The Revenant begins with a truly breathtaking action set piece: a troop of fur traders are viciously attacked by Native Americans aiming to steal the pelts for resale to the French. Heavy casualties on both sides. It’s one of the most thrilling and visually dazzling cinematic sequences of the year.
And then The Revenant slows way down, which is not inherently a bad thing. The script, by Mark L. Smith and Inarritu, takes its sweet time getting to the much-ballyhooed bear attack, (unfortunately) rape-free. That attack is appropriately brutal and seemingly endless, and puts to bed once and for all any inklings that the Goldilocks fable could be an accurate representation of what happens when you fuck with a bear’s valuables.
Glass gets a few jabs and shots in at the bear during his extended mauling, and the beast dies, orphaning its cubs. (Aww!) He’s so close to death you could make one of those Christian “I went to Heaven and saw Jesus!” movies, but Inarritu has a different plan in mind. The bear is skinned, because you don’t waste a fuckton of perfectly good bear fur in 1823 when you’re a fur trapper, and Leo spends much of the movie wearing said fur, which is how I got my title for this review. Over the course of the next two hours, we see Glass kill lots and lots more animals. If a bear, a horse, a fish, and a buffalo teamed up to make a horror movie, it would be exactly like The Revenant.John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) volunteer to stay behind with Glass’ son Hawk when carrying the gravely injured Glass becomes too perilous for the surviving trappers to make it safely back to the fort. Fitzgerald decides to put Glass out of his misery, and when Hawk interferes, he stabs the boy in the belly. Then he lies to Bridger about what happened, and Glass is left behind to succumb to the elements. A lot of us would choose this moment to die — because, at this point, why not? But not Leo. Because… REVENGE!!
But first, there are several more twists and turns. First, Glass hauls himself out of the hole he’s meant to die in and crawls, crawls, craaaawls across the dirt floor of the forest. It was at this point that I first imagined Inarritu just out of frame, dangling a gold statuette from a fishing pole. (“Just a little further, Leo! Come get it!”) Then Glass escapes from the clutches of some arrow-happy Natives yet again, this time by freestyle swimming through an ice-cold river. Then befriends a lonely Pawnee man who takes pity on him by sharing some yummy dead bison innards. Glass has flashbacks to the murder of his wife. He eats a live fish. (Did Leo really do that? Yes, he did.) At one point, Leo strips naked and crawls inside the carcass of a newly deceased horse for warmth. (Did Leo really…? No. The horse is fake.) Intercut between all this are several scenes of Fitzgerald and Bridger making their way back to camp, then explaining a made-up version of why they left Glass to die in the wilderness to the Captain (Domnhall Gleeson, appearing in a staggering total of four Oscar-nominated films this year).
And then, finally, Glass makes his way back to the fort to exact his revenge. But Fitzgerald takes off. Glass and Captain Henry pursue. And now it’s Fitzgerald who is like one of the trapped animals the party has been hunting. Kind of. All in all, it’s a serviceable story that mostly seems like an excuse for some showy cinematography and other technical razzle-dazzle — though for such an otherwise accomplished film, this one has some shockingly bad ADR. In most scenes in which Native Americans are speaking, their lips don’t match what they’re saying… at all. The ADR is so bad it looks like they’re mouthing an entirely different language than the one we’re hearing. (I found this incredibly distracting.) Still, Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is truly top notch. Inarritu really likes lingering shots that look up at the trees, and he gets carried away with his unnecessary dreamy flashbacks. Aside from these complaints, the film is well directed.
But what is it about? The Revenant is first a story of survival, then a tale of revenge. These two pieces don’t necessarily go together. Fitzgerald is not a good guy, nor is he so purely evil that we’re rooting for Glass to exact his revenge, the way we might in, say, a Tarantino film. (Not this year’s Tarantino film, but others.) Leonardo DiCaprio is earning raves for his performance, and he capably conveys the horror and anguish of the physical experience he’s put through — in large part because Leo himself was being put through the ringer during the shoot. (Did Leo really do that? YES!!)
But there’s very little to care about in the film otherwise. We don’t have an attachment to Hawk as a character, nor do we really invest in the relationship between father and son, so when he’s murdered, we can intellectually understand why Glass would go after the man who did it, but we don’t feel it. Inarritu doesn’t convey Glass’ anger building up to the final act’s revenge sequence. It’s more like Glass arrives at his destination, having survived, and then goes off to get his revenge because why not? And it’s hard to get on board with the finale when Glass and Captain Henry decide to go after Fitzgerald by themselves. Why would they do this? Fitzgerald has proven himself to be a dangerous, cunning killer. They bring more guys than this to take down an elk!For a movie that clocks in at nearly three hours, The Revenant is surprisingly thin on character development or thematic weight. Its take on revenge echoes so many other films. It has nothing new to say on the subject, except maybe “I put the star of Titanic in a horse belly!” It’s a bloated, indulgent film with an unfocused screenplay that shares a lot of flaws with Birdman, which means that the Academy will probably love it and anoint it Best Picture.
I’ll give The Revenant this, though: I was mostly entertained while watching it, even if I was rarely as riveted as I was by that stunning opening set piece. Leo’s inevitable Oscar win will be deserved, even thought it’s largely a belated kudos for his entire body of work. I don’t think Inarritu’s not-entirely-inevitable Oscar win is so justified, unless “Best Direction” just means whoever made his crew suffer the most. What Inarritu has done here is impressive, I guess, but what would be more impressive is if he’d applied the same level of craftsmanship to his screenplay, in service of a tighter, more original story. (The Revenant isn’t nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, and there’s a reason for that.) But hey, at least it doesn’t just borrow all of its major plot points from a recent Darren Aronofsky movie.
The Revenant is a perfectly decent movie dressed up as a really good one. Like Leo in that bear fur, from far away it looks like much more than what it ultimately is. But the Academy has fallen for such fare a few times in recent years; it seems very likely that they’ll fall for the film that looks the most like it should win Best Picture, rather than the more understated Spotlight. Like Inarritu, more often than not they go with bombast, even when something more subdued would do just fine.