A dinged-up Grand Marquis rockets through Mexico City traffic, straddling the white line; two young guys inside, very hyper, have a dog gushing blood in the back seat, and, a couple of car lengths behind, some character in a van sticking a pistol out the window and trying to punch a bullet at them. Amores Perros, the most exciting rival of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the recent foreign-film Oscar race, begins at a screaming dead run and maintains one kind of intensity or another over the next two and a half hours.
The Revenant (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD, 4K, Digital HD) has been called a revenge movie, which is true enough. Leonardo DiCaprio is Hugh Glass, a real-life 19th century mountain man and guide whose story inspired legends, books, and at least one previous film (Man in the Wilderness with Richard Harris). Left for dead by a particularly mercenary member (Tom Hardy) of the hunting party he guides through the mountain wilds, against all odds he literally rises from his grave to pull himself from certain death and claws his way back to what passes for civilization for revenge against the man who murdered his son and buried him alive. Vengeance makes for a primal motivation but The Revenant is really a tale of survival: the settling of America as an odyssey of mythic dimensions in an untamed wilderness determined to kill all who fail to respect it.
It’s 1823 in the still unexplored (by white men at least) frontier and an expedition of fur trappers are on the run after being attacked by a local Indian tribe searching for a maiden abducted by white explorers. The assault is swift and brutal and filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu sends his camera gliding through it in a rush of fluid long takes, a mix of mesmerized observer and panicked victim. Losing their canoes and most of their supplies in their escape, the few survivors have to hike out through the frozen mountains, where Glass is attacked by a mother grizzly bear protecting her cubs. It’s one of the few digital effects in a film that prides itself on its physical realism but it feels disturbingly authentic thanks to DiCaprio’s intense performance and the naturalism of the CGI bear, clearly based on behavioral observations of wild creatures. It’s like a natural history study let loose in a wilderness drama.
The Revenant is a huge whopping spectacle, the likes of which have rarely been seen since Cecil B. DeMille ordered Charlton Heston to part the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments. It’s unlikely that anybody compared Revenant director Alejandro González Iñárritu to DeMille back in the days of Amores Perros and Babel?; the somber Mexican filmmaker demonstrated little interest in cultivating the gaudier possibilities of cinematic fun, even as his compatriot/friends Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro flaunted their showmanship. Iñárritu’s role was to ponder the deep questions of whether misery has a breaking point, and how to measure the weight of the human soul.
2014’s Birdman signaled a change. Exuberant and funny—while still carving out room for lofty ideas, sometimes to the film’s detriment—it showed off a new playfulness in Iñárritu’s approach. (He took home the Best Director Oscar as a reward.) Now comes The Revenant, and while nobody would tag this movie as “fun,” the great Hollywood huckster DeMille would surely approve of its incredible scale. This thing is a lollapalooza.
That’s not me talking. That’s what the great editor (great friend) Dov Hoenig said about Birdman the other day, as his wife Zoe and I were trying to shorten the distance between London and Seattle over the phone.
My enthusiasms you can take with a giant grain of salt. Dov’s you should take very very seriously. The secret in the IMDb listing of his 40+ films, abroad and crucially with Michael Mann, is that it spans movies shot on film (Thief, Manhunter, Last of the Mohicans) and digitally (Heat, Collateral Damage) and he knows the virtues and frailties of both. Never heard Dov — impassioned but also measured and serious — be this swept away before and this seems the time to share his fervor.
What particularly revved me up was seeing Birdman a second time last week. I’d forgotten just what a deckle-edge comedy it is, with all its soulfulness. I think it’s a reflection of my inner Olive Kitteridge that I’ve held fast (for 3 months!) to not just popping in the screener so that my husband could see what I’ve been hyperventilating about, but insisting on a dark quiet theatre, so he could see it as it should be seen, in its full wonder. Worked, too; he has come back to moments from it, again and again.
Even if it doesn’t live up to its festival reviews or its crazy possibilities, Birdmanserves so many heady moments it qualifies as a bona fide happening. The movie begins quietly enough—an actor meditates in his dressing room before a stage rehearsal—but there’s a curveball. The actor is floating in mid-air.
No mention is made of this, nor of the other apparently telekinetic powers that belong to Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton). A movie star in a career skid since he stopped playing a masked superhero named Birdman back in the ’90s, Thomson is preparing his big comeback. Unless it kills him first.