Western Wednesday: The Revenant (2015)

Note: I know I said I would watch this a lot sooner than I did, but I got sick the week it came out and the following week shit happened, as it’s wont to do this early in the new year. 

I’ve always wondered why we’re drawn to stories in which a hero we can relate to is put through absolute hell. I think the first stories ever told were about untrustworthy companions, rival tribes, and dangerous animals like bears and wolves—the very things The Revenant is about. It’s in our nature to wonder “What if…?,” especially when the terrifying scenario involves us personally. What if your family was murdered? Would you have the strength to avenge them? Or, as one character puts it, is revenge best left to “the creator?” I love a good revenge story as much as the next guy (calling The Revenant a revenge story is kind of misleading, by the way), but I think I would have liked this movie a lot more had it been about how something like that can eat you up. I think you might agree after you see it in its entirety. It would have made the conclusion a lot more powerful.

I have mixed feelings about featuring this film for Western Wednesday. It’s no more a traditional western than a horror film. In fact, the best horror movies I’ve ever seen have more in common with The Revenant than the impotent shit that passes as horror today (this week’s dishonorable mention is The Forest, the latest in a long line of PG-13 horror films starring attractive blondes who will never be actual movie stars). I don’t know why it’s so compelling to see good people put through terrible situations, but it is, which is why I don’t understand moviegoers who shrug off the entire genre as an invalid art form. Yes, ninety percent of horror movies suck, but ninety percent of anything sucks. (See: Sturgeon’s Law.)
What makes The Revenant so much more compelling than a lot of horror films is Leonardo DiCaprio’s willingness to get the shot. There is so little cheating here: when you see him plunging into freezing-ass water or crawling through the snow without a stitch of clothing, it’s really him and it’s all real. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who won the Best Director Oscar only last year, wants us to know it’s real, too; he doesn’t bother using a different take when his actor’s breath—or blood—gets on the camera lens. It’s one of the most authentic films ever made and I’d say DiCaprio is a shoe-in for Best Actor if the Oscars didn’t inexplicably snub him every chance they get.
It’s the early 1800s and Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) and his “half-breed” son are trackers in a fur trapping outfit. Fellow trapper John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) has a problem with Glass because he’s the kind of blowhard who has a problem with everyone. When another character suggests their lives are worth more than their pelts, Fitzgerald argues his life is his living and his living just happens to be pelts. The money isn’t just more important to him than his own life, but the lives of everyone. 
Fitzgerald is, without a doubt, the biggest asshole in movies this year. People like him still exist to this day and we all have met them—they’re usually found seeking easy-to-obtain positions of pseudo-power in home owner associations or the DMV when they can’t get their own radio talk shows. You don’t love to hate him like most villains, you just fucking hate him, period, the way you hated Nurse Ratched and Dolores Umbridge. Those characters are so easy to hate because they’re the kind of confident idiots you know in real life who simply know what’s best and everyone else is a fucking moron. When Glass is gruesomely mauled by a bear, what Fitzgerald thinks best is suffocating him so that he can no longer slow the others down. When Fitzgerald’s son tries to stop him, he stabs the boy in the belly and hides the body. This incident incites Glass to crawl out of his shallow grave and seek revenge.
The Revenant is a beautifully nasty movie, shot on lenses so wide the vast landscapes almost curl around the edges. There’s at least one ham-fisted visual metaphor, which you wouldn’t expect from an Oscar-winning director in his prime, but overall I enjoyed it a little more than Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, if only because Iñárritu forces himself to step much farther from his comfort zone… again. Yet beyond its lead performances, the only thing The Revenant really has going for it is its technical accomplishments. I don’t think it will win Best Picture, if only because Iñárritu’s last film did, but it’s almost good enough to deserve it.

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