The Revenant (2015)


Leo in the wilderness.

Leo in the wilderness.

(2015) Western (20th Century Fox) Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck, Paul Anderson, Kristoffer Joner, Joshua Burge, Duane Howard, Melaw Nakehk’o, Fabrice Adde, Arthur RedCloud, Christopher Rosamond, Robert Moloney, Lukas Haas, Brendan Fletcher, Tyson Wood, McCaleb Burnett, Grace Dove. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu

Nature has a way of reducing us to our primal, primordial selves. Life becomes reduced to a single choice; survive or die. There is nothing complex about it – but nothing simple either.

Loosely based on an actual incident, the story is about Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), an explorer and trapper in the 1820s American frontier who is leading a party of trappers set upon by the Pawnee, who erroneously believe they kidnapped one of their women. The Americans, under the command of the dauntless Captain Andrew Henry (Gleeson) are forced to stash their hard-won pelts and flee, led by Glass and his compatriot John Fitzgerald (Hardy). When Glass is attacked by a bear and gravely injured and the Pawnee hard on their trail, Captain Henry is forced to leave him under the care of three men, including Fitzgerald, young Bridger (Poulter) and Glass’ son Hawk (Goodluck), who is half-Native American. Glass’ wife (Dove) had been killed by soldiers a few years earlier.

However, the cowardly Fitzgerald, thinking that Glass is a goner for sure, decides to bury him prematurely while Bridger is away. Hawk discovers him and tries to fight him off but gets stabbed to death for his trouble. Fitzgerald quickly buries Hawk and then convinces Bridger that the Pawnee are almost upon them, and throws Glass into a shallow grave, still alive. Bridger reluctantly agrees but his conscience is absolutely bothering him.

The trouble is, Glass is not quite dead yet. And having witnessed his son’s murder, he is full on with a thirst for revenge. The trouble is, he is hundreds of miles away from anything and anyone and he can barely walk. It is the middle of winter and his chances of survival are nearly nil, but never count out the human spirit – and the thirst for vengeance.

This is one of the most beautifully shot films you’re likely to see. In my admittedly inexpert opinion cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is far and away the Oscar favorite and this has been a superb year for cinematographers. It is bleak and cold, but there is so much beauty. The shots are carefully constructed to frame the action but at the same time look like works of art, with the trees and the sky and the snow all combining to bring the audience into the frame. I couldn’t help but shiver at times.

DiCaprio was nominated for the Golden Globe for his work here and also has been nominated for an Oscar which are a few weeks away as of this writing and while his performance isn’t my favorite of the year, it was certainly worthy of the nominations and has a good shot at winning the statuette, Eddie Redmayne notwithstanding. He doesn’t have a whole lot of dialogue here and has to communicate much of his performance through wild looks, spittle blown out of his mouth and wordless screams. As elegant as Redmayne’s also-Oscar worthy performance was, this is primal and raw, a caveman to the sophisticate of Redmayne. It is rare to see such diversity of styles in a single nominated group and I don’t envy the Academy voters their task to pick just one winner.

Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto provided the minimalist score which often was comprised of found sounds, both natural and man-made. The composers also knew when silence would be more effective; the entire bear attack scene had no music other than DiCaprio’s agonized screams and the bear’s grunts and groans. As that scene almost has to be the most effective in the movie in order for the film to work, Iñárritu made some wise choices in setting up and executing not only the action (the bear was CGI from what I understand and quite frankly I couldn’t tell) but also in how that action was framed.

Iñárritu is a bit of a mystic and some of the scenes have that sense, almost like Carlos Castaneda translated to celluloid. He captures the brutality of life on the frontier almost too well; at times the intensity and the starkness is hard to watch. More sensitive viewers may find the film too grim for their liking. While this isn’t my favorite movie in the director’s filmography, it may well be his best in many ways but for reasons that may well be personal (I was literally exhausted while I was watching it after a sleepless night the evening before) it didn’t connect to me the way his other works have. In my case, this is a film that I admire more than I love, but that doesn’t mean you won’t love it. This is certainly when all is said and done essential viewing if you intend to capture the very best of 2015.

REASONS TO GO: An amazing technical achievement. One of DiCaprio’s finest performances of his career. Realistic almost to a fault.
REASONS TO STAY: Not for everybody; grim, relentless and sometimes too intense for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Along with frontier violence and some gory images, there’s also a scene of sexual assault, brief nudity and some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: DiCaprio, a vegetarian, at an actual raw buffalo liver in the scene that called for it.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Man Called Horse
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Road to Nowhere

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The Lone Ranger (2013)


Armie Hammer isn't quite sure how to tell Johnny Depp he has a dead bird on his head.

Armie Hammer isn’t quite sure how to tell Johnny Depp he has a dead bird on his head.

(2013) Western (Disney) Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, Tom Wilkinson, William Fichtner, Helena Bonham Carter, Ruth Wilson, Barry Pepper, James Badge Dale, Bryant Prince, Leon Rippy, Stephen Root, Rance Howard, JD Cullum, Saginaw Grant, Mason Elston Cook, Harry Treadaway, James Frain, Joaquin Cosio, Damon Herriman, Freda Foh Shen. Directed by Gore Verbinski

John Reid, the Lone Ranger, has been an iconic American character in nearly every medium that a character can come to life in, be it comic strips, radio, television or the movies. However as Westerns fell out of favor, so too did the masked Texas Ranger who rode his white horse Silver like the wind, accompanied by his faithful Native American sidekick Tonto.

Now Jerry Bruckheimer, Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp who together made the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise the most profitable in Disney history (at least until another couple of Marvel movies and the next Star Wars trilogy fatten their coffers) are back with a reboot of the great American hero. Is the 21st century ready for him?

Reid (Hammer) is an Eastern-educated lawyer returning home to his native Colby, Texas as the county’s new Assistant District Attorney. There he will meet his brother Dan (Dale), a well-respected Texas Ranger who has always overshadowed young John. Dan even got the girl that John wanted, Rebecca (Wilson).

However also on the train west is notorious outlaw Butch Cavendish (Fichtner) who eats human flesh and has a pretty sadistic streak in him – and is on his way to a hanging (his own) – and a Comanche known as Tonto (Depp) who has a dead crow on his head and perhaps a few loose neurons rattling around between his ears. Of course, you just know that Cavendish is going to be broken out of jail or in this case, train. You also know that Reid and Tonto are going to be at odds and not think too terribly high of each other.

Faster than you can say plot complication, John joins his brother Dan on a posse to collect Cavendish so he can be properly hung Texas-style (methinks Rick Perry might be a descendant) and faster than you can say “I saw that coming” the Rangers are massacred by the outlaws and Butch chows down on Dan. John is left for dead.

Tonto wanders upon the scene and buries the dead, including John who, it turns out, isn’t quite dead yet. Tonto identifies him as a spirit walker, one who has come back from the Other Side…and a white spirit horse that John eventually names Silver agrees with him. Silver is probably the smartest character in the movie, possibly in ANY movie. Okay, I made that last part up.

Anyway John has his mad on and he wants to get his hands on Cavendish in the worst way and as it turns out, Tonto has plenty of reason to want to stomp a mudhole in Cavendish as well. However as it turns out Cavendish is working for someone, someone quite powerful who has interest in the Transcontinental Railroad making its way to Utah to be completed. Someone who will change the course of the United States in his greed and lust for power.

This is definitely a much more modern retelling of the tale of the Lone Ranger. While there are elements that tie this film to the illustrious past of the character – the soul-stirring swell of the ”William Tell Overture,” Tonto’s laconic nickname for his partner kemosabe and the silver bullet, this isn’t retro in the least. One element I really like about it is that the story is told by Tonto to a young boy in San Francisco in 1933, some 60 years after the events took place (which if Tonto is Depp’s age in the movie in 1868 makes him a centenarian). This makes it clear from the get-go that this really isn’t John Reid’s story as much as it is Tonto’s and I like the change of viewpoint very much.

The Natives aren’t treated like cannon fodder as they were in most Westerns of the era but are given a surprising amount of respect and deference, although Depp’s Tonto can be Looney Tunes from time to time. That’s a nice touch.

Depp is of course the star and like Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies takes center stage not because of his bravery or heroism but more because of his quirkiness, albeit a different kind of quirky. Think of it as the difference between using peyote and getting rip-roaring drunk on grog. But even the best quirkiness can get a little grating after awhile.

Hammer is an able heroic sort in a gee-whiz kind of way and while on the surface seems well-suited for this sort of role, I don’t think that at the end of the day he’s memorable enough in it. Don’t get me wrong – he does as good a job as you can ask for but his character is made to be an imbecile at times and Hammer is much too intelligent a guy to believe as an idiot for even a second.

There are some fine supporting turns by Carter as a one-legged prostitute and Wilkinson as a railroad baron but they are largely wasted in a movie that is too long in a big way. So much of the middle third is unnecessary and slow that by the time the movie’s climactic scenes roll around you might be checking your watch which is a shame because the action sequences that begin and end the film are spectacular indeed and are worth the price of admission alone.

There are a lot of good ideas in this movie and also a few bad ones. Trimming the movie down to a more manageable two hours might have been more advisable but for whatever reason there is a trend this summer for longer running time which might well thrill consumers who are getting more bang for their buck but has to disappoint exhibitors who have fewer screenings to bring customers into their theaters.

REASONS TO GO: Even Depp’s missteps are entertaining. Some pretty nifty action sequences.

REASONS TO STAY: Way too long. A little silly in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are plenty of Western action sequences, some of them intense and some suggestive material.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first version in any medium that the actor playing Tonto gets top billing over the actor playing the Ranger.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews. Metacritic: 36/100; it’s pretty obvious the critics hated it.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rango

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Divide