‘You don’t like the people…’: In which I try to work out my feelings about The Revenant

It’s January, which means that there is a lot on at the cinema that I want to see. For all I rage about the Oscar nominations failing to reward the things that I actually think are good every year, I still normally want to see a bundle of them and do ‘Oscar Duty’ on the others.

Oscar Duty is where, because I want to be an opinionated-so-so, I feel bound to see the things that are slated to beat my personal favourites – even if they’re not that appealing to me.

So this weekend I took myself off for a double bill of Creed, which I was surprised to discover I wanted to see based on the reviews and trailers (and because my fondness for Michael B. Jordan dates back to the days when I watched Parenthood), and The Revenant. Creed made me cry and I commend it to you. I had to look up what ‘Revenant’ meant in the dictionary, and I was there on Oscar Duty.

All0w me briefly explain my relationship with the films of Alejandro González Iñárritu. The first I saw, at the age of 21, was 21 Grams, which I was very impressed by. A year or so later, on a recommendation, I watched Amores Perros on DVD. I could understand why people raved about it, but it left me cold. I went to see Babel at the cinema, because I had liked 21 Grams, I liked a lot of the actors, and I had heard interesting reviews. I was not so much left cold as left bemused. I continue to think that Babel is utter bobbins of the most pretentiously bobbinsiest kind. I took a pass on Biutiful: not even Javier Bardem could get me there. I began to wonder why I had liked 21 Grams. I’ve never seen it again, and I don’t want to. I’ve put it down to being easily impressed by the kind of film that it was without being mature enough to assess whether it actually worked for me. I might be being unfair, but life’s too short to find out.

Last year, in Oscar season, I saw Birdman. I didn’t actually regard it as Oscar Duty, because both trailer, reviews and plot synopsis made me want to see it. I though ‘Guy trying to break away from his superhero role past and do something different’ could be good. I enjoyed it. I laughed, I thought it was bright, much less pretentious than previous offerings, with an interesting point of view – and I am completely there for Ed Norton chewing the scenery on toast. But – I confess – it hasn’t really stuck with me, beyond Norton. Also, I’m cross with it, because Boyhood should have won every best picture in every possible universe, and Birdman made that not happen.

This is all by way of me getting into working out why The Revenant did absolutely nothing for me this afternoon. I was going back and forth on seeing it: I’m pretty busy, I want to stop seeing films just because I think I should and I want to be informed to talk about them, and neither the trailer, the synopsis nor the reviews reaaaaaally convinced me. But equally, I wasn’t not intrigued, and it has a bundle of actors in it I generally quite like (Di Caprio, Hardy, Gleeson – Domnhall variety – and Will Poulter).

It left me nearly as cold as the icicles that form on Glass’ beard. I can’t even call the cinematography, which is stunning by the way, breathtaking – because my breath wasn’t taken. It was incredibly bleak – but that’s not necessarily something that means I won’t be moved by a piece of work. Jude the Obscure is my favourite Thomas Hardy, for heaven’s sake. So why?

I was musing on the way home. I found myself comparing it to a couple of things in trying to work this out: Boyhood, because I am still cross with Iñárritu and Birdman for making off with Richard Linklater’s Boyhood awards; and Tree of Life and To the Wonder. In its meditation on nature and in its cinematography, The Revenant reminded of nothing so much as a Terrence Malick film – perhaps unsurprisingly given that Emmanuel Lubezki shot both The Revenant and Tree of Life and To the Wonder for Malick. Yet while Malick’s films make me soar, The Revenant gave me nothing. What makes The Revenant so different from Malick, or from Boyhood?

And then – I had a lightbulb moment: both Linklater and Malick like people. Their films, no matter how much they are aware of the flaws of their characters and the problems of the world are always, but always, optimistic about humanity. Linklater is the more humane – or perhaps more interested in the minutiae of daily life – while Malick is always aware of the tiny human in the bigger landscape. And Malick bears witness to the beauty and grandeur of nature but, while seeing its power, he does not seem to think it bends towards cruelty. When his camera seeks out the light, it seems to make its filming an act of worship of the creator. He understands the awe in awful. He seems to believe that people can be redeemed. That Sean Penn’s alienated office worker, in Tree of Life still has it in him to fall to his knees on a beach.

tree of life_ paradise penn

Iñárritu, on the other hand, in The Revenant does not have an optimistic view of humanity or of our potential to exist in a way in which we might thrive – even though there may be struggles. I don’t know if his films ever have – by and large I think of his characters as people who break themselves and are broken on the world around them – it’s just more obvious here in man-in-raw-nature.

Here man challenges nature: nature exerts a terrible force on man. These men do battle with the forces of nature: even the man who respects the world he finds himself in – Glass – is slowly demolished by its harsh power. They also do battle with the Arikara, who seem here to be at one with nature in a way that allows them to survive but which does not make a case for the value of their humanity distinct from the natural world – they are as unrelenting as the frozen plains when it comes to the trappers and to Glass. Man must adapt, or die. The Arikara are adapted. Everyone else dies.

Perhaps these are not good men. Perhaps at best they are potentially good men living in bad times, mostly uncomprehending of what they are doing. But that should not eliminate the possibility of finding the potential for more in them, of being optimistic that humanity can do better at respecting other people, at respecting the land. But The Revenant doesn’t find it. It does not like these humans. Does not love them. Glass may be different to his peers, but he is definitely the exception; there is no sense that he is forerunner of a better humanity and the hope he offers is all destroyed by a merciless tide of white men who strip him of the things that mark his difference. He cannot win – and his ever more desperate attempts to survive cannot convince the audience that the struggle is worth it. It brings him no peace, no joy, and the only satisfaction is grim vengeance.

Mark Kermode, who is one of my favourite film critics, likes to talk about filmmakers (especially Werner Herzog) looking into the abyss. Based on The Revenant, I think when Iñárritu looks into the abyss and I don’t know if the abyss even looks back. When Malick looks into the abyss, I think he sees a tiny spark.

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