Sunday, January 24, 2016

Best of 2015 Runners-Up: The Revenant

This year was nowhere near as strong as last year. (At least for the movies I saw. As usually, I’ll start with a list of some of the many I didn’t see: Brooklyn, Room, Amy, Creed, Straight Outta Compton, and Sicario.) As a result, we’re back down to five movies this year, but I thought I’d jump in first with some runners-up, and why they didn’t make the big list:   

The Revenant (BIG SPOILERS)

It should start out by saying that this is one of the most beautifully-made films I’ve ever seen, and well-acted by all concerned, so I wish I liked it more, but alas…

When I first read about the true story of Hugh Glass a few years ago, my first thought was, “That would make a great movie”: He gets mauled by a bear, gets abandoned, crawls for days, finds the people who abandoned him, and decides to just demand his gun back. But then I had doubts: Why would we care about this anti-social guy? And wouldn’t the ending be anti-climatic?

The movie’s solution to this was invent a half-Indian son/companion for Glass and then have one of the abandoners kill the son in front of Glass before abandoning him. The son makes Glass more likable, and turns the rest of the movie into an epic revenge quest with an ultra-violent ending.

But this change makes no sense: Okay, the son catches you trying to smother Glass, so you gut his son in front of him. But why on Earth would you not then finish the job on Glass? Your partner would easily believe that Glass finally died of his injuries, and you can then justify the disappearance of the son easily: His dad was dead so he had no reason to stick around.

For that matter, in this version, why didn’t they just kill Glass earlier? He was suffering! He couldn’t speak! He was sure to die! It literally would have been a mercy killing. And later, when they realized they had to move on and couldn’t take Glass with them, why not at least do it then?? The only reason not to kill Glass either time is because you think that any killing of a non-enemy is wrong.

Like so many other recent stories, this is supposedly set in “a time when life was cheap”, but the facts of the story prove otherwise: These men stayed behind for days in hostile territory just to give this guy a decent burial after his natural death, then reluctantly abandoned him to nature rather than kill him, even for mercy’s sake.

In retrospect, seeing how ethereally beautiful the movie is, and how powerful the long close-ups of DiCaprio’s face can be, I think my original assessment was wrong: Glass’s true story could have made for a great movie after all. In the first half, he faces the ultimate physical challenge while the men who abandon him deal with a heart-rending dilemma, then in the second half he deals with a huge dilemma (revenge or not) while they deal with the horrible consequences of their decision, both internal and internal. The final forgiveness then, would be anything but anti-climactic, but rather the momentous pay-off of a spiritual and physical ordeal for all three men.

The movie is in such a rush to get to its roid-rage revenge story that it ignores the very human dilemmas at its core: If it had combined its beauty with a serious consideration of the painfully human decisions each of the three men had to make, this power of the story would have matched the power of the visuals.

(Of course, the other problem with this movie is that it starts with a “too wild to be made up” fact [a man crawls back to civilization after a bear attack] and then adds a bunch of “too wild not to be made up” stuff to it [the cliff/horse scene, and many others] which loses the movie’s credibility, and makes it all seem ridiculous, even the true stuff. By the end, it just feels like Superman vs. Zod + beards.)


Austim said...

Hey, I think you meant Hugh Glass, not character actor Ned Glass.

Matt Bird said...

Ha! Right.

Unknown said...

I'd be interested in hearing your take on Brooklyn when you see it. I somehow went from actively disliking the movie for the first two acts, but then being really caught up in the story by the end. I have no idea how that happened.

h.s. said...

Hey Matt, would be very interested in you thoughts on Sicario (site search only bought up this post). Have you seen it? Interesting choices made re passive protagonists, hero reveal, withholding information (significant changes from the script to screen via cut scenes and character background) which serve the theme strongly.