Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is, undeniably, about the famed World War II evacuation. But it’s also very much about how Nolan makes movies, and how he wants us to watch them. Like other adventurous projects such as Memento and Inception, his new film is a weirdly structured but tantalizing jigsaw puzzle, its pieces assembled with the ingenuity of a maniacally complicated cuckoo clock. It’s not enough for Nolan that his three storylines unfold side by side—they must track along different time frames, too. The movie is like D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, but focused on a single military event with characters who eventually overlap.
In 1940, Dunkirk was both a humiliating defeat for the Allied forces—the German army having routed the British and French to the sea—and an unlikely morale boost. The hundreds of thousands of soldiers stranded on the beach relied on a withdrawal “navy” partly made of countless small boats and ferries, many piloted by brave civilians crossing the English Channel. The story became the very model of victory snatched from the jaws of defeat.
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.
Many things can be said about Alejandro G. Iñárritu as a filmmaker, but that he’s timid isn’t one of them. The Revenant, the director’s follow-up to Birdman, is as far from a cushy post-Oscar victory lap as one can possibly get, featuring extended takes in hellish locations, stunts seemingly lifted from a snuff film, and well-documented reports of tormented extras. Judged on a scene-by-scene basis, it often feels like one of the most amazing movies ever made, with Emmanuel Lubezki’s breathtaking cinematography capturing every vivid facet of nature’s teeth and claws.
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.
The easiest knock against The Drop is that it operates in an overexposed milieu: current urban American crime. It’s hard to pump something new into this world, but the film succeeds because of its rich attention to detail and a Dennis Lehane script with a surplus of tasty dialogue. Lehane, the author of Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone, adapted the screenplay from his short story “Animal Welfare.” Two initially unrelated incidents make the plot go: the rescue of a wounded dog and the closing-time robbery of a Brooklyn tavern called Cousin Marv’s. The bar’s mild-mannered, mind-my-own-business bartender, Bob Saginowsi (Tom Hardy, late of Locke), is walking home one night when he hears the pathetic mewling of an abandoned pit bull. The abused dog is on the property of Nadia (Noomi Rapace), and these two strangers strike up a friendship around the dog; it is just possible they might be interested in each other. The robbery, meanwhile, puts hapless Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini) in a tight spot; he’s already lost ownership of the bar to Chechen gangsters, who would really like their stolen money back. They play rough.
Locke (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), on its surface, sounds like one of the those high-concept / stunt thrillers and horror films that sprouted up like weeds a few years ago: one actor in a car, driving alone in a stretch of freeway at night, talking to the people in his life through phone calls (hands free, of course; the man is nothing if not responsible).
Except that Locke is not a crime drama or a horror film; there are no villains on his trail or masterminds toying with him by phone. Locke is about a man who, in the space of a 90-minute night drive from a construction site in Birmingham to a London hospital, makes a decision that defines his character and changes the course of his life forever. There’s no twist to the narrative, no shocking revelation, but the meaning of his journey is best discovered along the way as Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy)—husband, father, construction manager—explains it to his family and colleagues.
Tom Hardy is in the driver’s seat, literally and figuratively, for the entirety of the film, and there’s nothing showy in his measured, introspective journey. While those on the end of his phone calls–a wife on the verge of hysteria, nervous sons aware that something is wrong, a construction foreman suddenly promoted to take charge of the biggest concrete pour ever attempted in the UK—unravel at the news, Locke remains calming and deliberate while in conversation and struggles to hold himself together in between calls as he confronts the consequences of his decision.
British filmmaker Steven Knight wrote the tough, lean, uncompromising scripts for Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises. Locke is just as uncompromising, but what’s at stake here is the measure of a man faced with a difficult decision. Knight finds ways to keep the journey from getting dull or claustrophobic with the camera finding new set-ups within the confined space of the car, watching Locke in reflection or lit up by passing cars and overhead lights; imagery that reminds us of the transience of his situation, a man alone in a river of anonymous travelers. But it’s the personal journey that makes Locke, a terribly human story about one man who refuses to shirk his responsibility no matter what it costs to his career, such and emotionally powerful drama.
Blu-ray and DVD with commentary by director / writer Steven Knight and the featurette “Ordinary Unraveling: Making Locke.” Also on Cable VOD.
In Locke, a man drives a car for the 85-minute duration of the film. He is not being chased, nor is there a ticking bomb in the back seat. He isn’t headed for an international border with a suitcase packed with gold, or dying of radiation poisoning and trying to reach the antidote. He drives the car. He talks on the telephone. That’s it.
Why did I find this movie compelling? For one thing, I have a fondness for films in close quarters, like Rear Window. For another, the actor who occupies the driver’s seat is Tom Hardy.
We hear other peoples’ voices, but Hardy—as a building contractor named Ivan Locke—is the only person on screen. Having gotten a reputation for sculpting his physique for movies such as Inception, Warrior and The Dark Knight Rises, Hardy uses his body here almost not at all.