Will Schube was the first choice to play Reggie and Ronnie Kray in Legend before he let Tom Hardy give it a shot.
Can the process be more important than the result? Is there a work of art of which its creation overshadows the final thing? If there’s ever a movie to approach this question, it’s Alejandro Iñárritu’s latest feature, The Revenant (2015). The rumors started circulating during filming. People talked of exotic locations—split between the Canadian Rockies and the mountains of Argentina; the exclusive use of natural light; a limited use of CGI (which, when considering some of the scenes is staggering); and an insistence on shooting the scenes narratively.
This isn’t only bold, it’s also stupid considering the various locales the production utilized and the grueling nature of the shoot. Iñárritu’s process sounds less like filmmaking than it does boot camp. But holy shit does it pay off. The Revenant may not be the most entertaining movie of the year, but it’s certainly the most impressive and important (in terms of filmmaking, certainly not socially), and possibly one of the best films of the decade.
I’d happily choose an audacious trainwreck over a safe 90 minute flick. Of course, most of the deliriously bold films I love are also tremendous pieces of art, but the groundbreaking should never be confused with attempts at perfectionism. Some of my favorites of these are wild films—Magnolia (1999), The Tree of Life (2011), Chafed Elbows (1966), which plays with more of a formal experimentation than temporal or narrative innovation; and Heaven’s Gate (1980). I love them precisely because of the mess they create. The whole journey vs. destination cliché is stupid, but these are all films about the cathartic process elicited from the emotions stories can convey.
I’m not going to call Magnolia a perfect film when it’s climactic moment centers around frogs falling from the sky (ed. note: this makes plenty of sense in LA so whatever), but what makes it wonderful is what that scene conjures — the observation from boy genius Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman): “This is something that happens.” That line arrived from a thought Paul Thomas Anderson had while his father was dying. He found the rapid decay of his dad less believable than if someone had told him frogs were falling from the sky. In short, death is so weird. Suddenly, the film is a coping mechanism. And that’s what great art has the power to do: Transcend the limits it sets for itself. All of this being a roundabout way of saying that The Revenant isn’t great because of its intended scope, but because these limits disappear over the film’s almost three hour duration.
If you come to The Revenant looking for three hours of DiCaprio kicking ass, you’re in the wrong theater. And I can’t stress enough the necessity of seeing this film in theaters versus on a shrunken screen. While The Hateful Eight attempts to steer a conversation on the importance of film and theaters and the viewing experience through its technical applications, The Revenant lets the work speak for itself. This stuff just looks better the bigger it is. DiCaprio is fine in the film—good, even—but he’s not much more than grunts and vengeful eyes. His role is the narrative itself, but the plot unveils itself within the film’s first 30 minutes, so the last two and a half hours have to depend on something else. That something else is John Fitzgerald, played by Tom Hardy. It’s not necessarily fair to say that Hardy acts circles around DiCaprio, because Hardy’s given so much more to work with, but he manages to turn a tale of the human will into his personal theater of evil and villainy.
Part of what makes Tom Hardy so fantastic is his ability to convey a personal history without actually expressing it. This trait is at the root of every character actor, but Hardy takes it to another level. In Locke (2014), he elicits sympathy as a father and husband heading to London to help a woman he had an affair with give birth. The film’s entirety exists in Ivan Locke’s car, yet there’s not a second of boredom or meandering. Hardy carries a lifetime of choice in his voice. In Bronson (2008), he loses himself in character. He dismisses the method of method acting and simply becomes somebody else. It’s a legendary role, the sort of thing that defines a career if people weren’t too busy yelling about Bane and Mad Fucking Max.
This is Hardy’s film to steal and steal it he does. He looks vulgar and grotesque, and that’s before we hear him speak. I think it sells him short to simply say that Hardy disappears as Fitzgerald emerges, but from the moment we first see him, he occupies the entirety of the film’s massive vision.
And the scope wouldn’t seem nearly so large if Emmanuel Lubezki wasn’t behind the camera. The dude is just over 50 years of age, and I’d already make an argument for him as one of the most innovative cinematographers in film history. He’s Terrence Malick’s go to guy, same with Alfonso Cuarón. He’s redefined cinematography multiple times, from his work on The Tree of Life and Gravity (2013) to last year’s Best Picture winner Birdman (2014). Lubezki is the sort of cinematographer directors go to when they’re working with scripts that don’t quite cohere as fully-formed stories. Films in which visuals and story are on the same plane, if not the former superseding the latter. Lubezki’s filmography is littered with treasures, but The Revenant boasts a double-digit list of shots each of which could I’d be happy to argue for as the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
The Revenant createes far more conversation and examination about process than it does the film itself, which is okay because thinking and talking and writing about film is fun. But if theoretical examination about process, art, creation, and ultimately, history is as important as the film itself, can the work truly be canonical? Who gives a shit! I’ve gone 1,000 words without mentioning the infamous bear attack that seems to be the only thing people are talking about. There’s so much loaded into this movie, so much stuff constantly unfurling and doubling over itself that each viewer is able to latch onto and discover a different minutia and argue for its irrevocable importance.
It’s all important, including its savage portrayal of Native Americans; its lack of female characters for anything other than plot movers and dream sequences; and its reliance on gruesome, blood-spilling violence. That’s sort of what you always get with Iñárritu: A lot of truly spectacular, breathtaking stuff, a few things that make you grimace, and more often than not a mess so hot you can’t help but love the man brave enough to stand behind it and defiantly champion its importance. This movie is amazing and I’m still jittery thinking and writing about it two weeks later. That should be the goal of every filmmaker, not just the great ones.
Rating: See this movie and then probably step away from it for five years. Unless you’re braver than I, in which case, watch it a lot.