FILM REVIEW: ‘The Revenant’

the-revenant-re_r709_mktg_006-088594_rgbWe’ve reached a level of technology where, if something can be imagined, folks in Hollywood can make it happen. The domination of digital effects, in the wrong hands, could result in technicians rather than artists overwhelming our moviegoing experience. (Let’s face it: That’s what superhero movies are.) But when you have a director like Alejandro G. Inarritu in control, the artistry remains intact. To steal from a superhero movie (by way of the Enlightenment), with great power comes great responsibility. And oh, what power is wrought by The Revenant.

The victory of vision with a purpose is evident in almost every frame of this towering yet intimate epic. In the 1830s, trappers in the mountainous Midwest are dealing with Native American raiders. Maybe the trappers are the bad guys, invading sacred lands; maybe the Indians are, ambushing men with a fusillade of arrows while the sit unarmed in camp. Who is right isn’t the point; there’s conflict, and everyone is on edge, from the wily and self-interested trapper John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, in what may be the year’s best performance) to the methodical family man Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who lived with Indians (his teenaged son is on the safari with the white men) and understands the value of empathy. When Hugh is attacked by a bear — in what is the film’s most eye-popping and harrowing scene, one of the most viscerally arresting ever filmed — his survival puzzles his colleagues. Some (Fitzgerald most vocally) want to abandon him; the leader, though, believes he needs to be cared for until he dies … which should be soon.

But Glass doesn’t die that easy. He lives on, to the consternation of Fitzgerald, who plans to speed up nature … and commit heinous crimes in the process.

The Revenant is like Moby-Dick on land, a revenge movie about Glass’ determination not to be left for dead, and to take his pound of flesh from those who would deny him his humanity. For more than two and a half hours, Inarritu drags us through the snowy crags of the Rockies, through starvation, murder, animal attacks, manhunters and the interpersonal dynamics of post-Colonial America with a keenness and insight that feels continually authentic. That’s quite a feat, especially considering Inarritu’s last film, the Oscar-winning Birdman, was set in the constricting tableau of a Broadway theater, with only occasional forays down city streets in what appeared to be one continuous shot. His cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezski, opens up the visuals of The Revenant in staggering ways, doing for the cold American frontier what Freddie Young did for desert vistas in Lawrence of Arabia. He should be coasting toward his third Oscar (he also shot Gravity) in as many years.

The performances are just as essential in convincing us, with DiCaprio conveying mostly with his eyes and body (he speaks only a handful of lines in the film) and Hardy, or course, the scariest villain this side of the Sith. The Revenant is the year’s most anguished masterpiece — Hollywood filmmaking at its very best.

Opens in wide release Friday.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

REVIEW: “The Dark Knight Rises”

I’m not sure how dark of a knight Batman is, but director-writer Christopher Nolan certainly seems to be comfortable with his dark side. In Batman Begins, he posited the tragic origins that led Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) to adopt a secret identity and scours the streets as a vigilante on the side of right. In that film, Batman’s mentor and later nemesis, Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) saw the bleak, stylized city of Gotham as a diseased boil of humanity that needed to be erased. It was an almost Faustian dialectic, with Luciferian Ra’s in a face-off with God-like Batman, arguing with biblical vehemence over whether mankind could — should survive.

Then came The Dark Knight — a longer, crazier movie that really did explore the two sides of mankind (represented, late in the film, with the villain Two-Face). There, Heath Ledger’s iconic Joker — a character without an apparent alter ego, a raging id unleashing meaningless chaos on a city of beings he held in contempt. There was no reason, no logic behind Joker’s trail of havoc; he was torturing the citizens of Gotham (which now looked less like a comic-book fortress and more like New York City) with mind games merely to prove an obscure point about human failings. Unlike Ra’s, his mission was merely destructive.

With The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan seems to be attempting to bridge these similar but unconnected attacks of Gotham into a unified principle. Once again, the villain is a demonic, Joker-like entity operating entirely on evil impulse. We learn a little about Bane (Tom Hardy), who lives his entire existence behind a mask that gives him the skull-like appearance of a tiger perpetually gnashing its fangs. Who he is seems almost irrelevant again — it’s what he represents, the lesser angels of mankind.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

QUEER CLIP: ‘Warrior’

screen-2There are worse ways to spend two hours in a movie theater than watching hulking, half-naked man-meat wail on each other — in fact, it’s hard to imagine a better way. That’s at least part of the appeal of Warrior.

Set in the world of mixed martial arts, it’s a fiction film (it’s from Gavin O’Connor, the director of Miracle, about the real-life 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team) about two estranged brothers who face off for the ultimate glory: One (Joel Edgerton), a family man in financial straights, the other (Tom Hardy), a troubled Gulf War veteran with something to prove. If that sounds cliched, just try watching it.

No really, do — because, as predictable and manipulative as Warrior is, it’s also damned entertaining, in the way only the hokiest of sports movies can be. I grew up in a sports household, so have long held a soft spot for movies like Million Dollar Baby, Rocky III and The Fighter, all of which this resembles more than passingly.

Hardy, a brooding slab of muscle, has Brando stamped all over his performance, and O’Connor effectively evokes the overcast, aimless depression of the Rust Belt occupied by contentious Irishmen. Add a serious dose of homoeroticism. and that’s a recipe — OK, a formula — for a feel-good film.

— A.W.J.

Three stars. Now playing in wide release.

—  Kevin Thomas