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The CHIRP Blog

Kevin Fullam writesThe Fourth Wall: The Revenant

[Welcome to The Fourth Wall, CHIRP's weekly e-conversation on cinema. This week's subject is the Leonardo DiCaprio epic film The RevenantThis edition is written by CHIRP Radio volunteers Kevin Fullam and Clarence Ewing.]


Clarence: This week’s film is a big shift from last week’s selection. We go from technology to the primal forces of nature in The Revenant, directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu and starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Set in the 1800s, this is a tale of survival centered on wilderness guide Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), who, along with his son Hawk, is escorting a group of fur trappers through wild territory as they collect a fortune in pelts. A group of Indians attack, and most of the trappers are killed. The remaining group members try to make their way to the safety of a fort. Along the way, thanks to a bear attack and deceit from one of the other trappers, Glass is left for dead and must fight the elements and hostile native American warriors in his quest to get back to friendly ground.

The photography in this movie is drop-dead gorgeous. This didn’t feel like an almost three-hour long movie because there’s so much amazing scenery to look at. The “spherical” camera style of Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is a perfect fit to capture the vastness of the American wilderness.

One of the key scenes involves Glass being mauled by a bear, a scene I would compare to a car wreck. Movie car wrecks are, in general, fun to watch. But if you had to sit and watch an actual car wreck happen, complete with full views of flesh being torn apart, bones being broken, etc. the effect would be as sickening and disturbing as exciting. Same as with this animal attack scene. There’s a next-level attention to detail and effects that’s pretty amazing.

DiCaprio won a Best Actor Oscar for his role as Glass. I’m not going to say he didn’t deserve it, but overall I was more interested in the characters Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a veteran trapper whose motives create most of the story’s conflict, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), who is trying to lead what’s left of his men to safety, and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), a young trapper who must make some pretty heavy moral choices under not-at-all-ideal circumstances. Hardy, in particular, gives a fantastic performance as Fitzgerald.

All that being said, I think the movie is ultimately hampered by the romantic intentions of its revenge plot. Plus, as I watched the narrative unfold I couldn’t help but notice how certain story beats, plot turns and dramatic themes from other movies kept popping up. At various points, watching The Revenant gave me déjà vu for Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Cast Away, Fight Club, The Searchers, Saving Private Ryan, Kill Bill, and even Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back. If it happened just once, that would be one thing, but I feel there’s something particularly derivative in the overall plot structure.

I’m not sure if I would have the patience to sit through it again from start to finish, although I would very much enjoy re-watching certain scenes. Plus, I have two problems with the ending, one of which I’m fairly certain I can pin on a certain creator of a certain famous mob franchise. I’ll get to that later. But what did you think of the movie?

Kevin: And here I believed Reese Witherspoon was a hardy soul for simply hiking up the west coast in Wild!

The thought that I kept returning to, time and time again, is how much tougher frontiersmen were than yours truly, and likely much of our current generation. Besides the Native Americans, the grizzly (probably the most frightening animal attack I've ever seen on film), and treacherous trappers, the primeval forces emerge as the most fearsome adversary for poor Glass. While struggling to navigate his way back to civilization, he's repeatedly punished by an unforgiving landscape. On more than one occasion, Glass is forced to plunge into frigid waters, and above all, there's the brutal, unrelenting cold.

[* During a particularly nasty blizzard, he slices open a dead horse and cocoons himself inside to survive one snowy evening. I'm guessing this is what jogged your Empire Strikes Back memory?]

Completely agreed on the photography -- Lubezki won an Oscar for his efforts, and The Revenant is one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen. And there certainly was a bit of method acting involved with the shoot. Said DiCaprio: "I can name 30 or 40 sequences that were some of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do. Whether it’s going in and out of frozen rivers, or sleeping in animal carcasses, or what I ate on set. [I was] enduring freezing cold and possible hypothermia constantly." Are we to assume that Leo was actually consuming raw fish and bison? Egads.

I agree that the mano a mano struggle at the conclusion of the story was a bit anticlimactic and, as you said, derivative. But I think the revenge angle does work in as much as it provides Glass with the will to keep churning forward despite grave injuries and nigh-impossible odds. And while The Revenant is a simple story at its heart, I was completely sucked in for the duration. This was a magnificent tale.

What did you think of the split narratives, namely the branch involving the Native American tribe which was trying to recover their chief's kidnapped daughter? And on that note, did you hear that the French were not happy with their portrayal as rapists in the film (especially as they claim that American trappers behaved far worse than their French counterparts)? What are your thoughts regarding historical accuracy -- how much leeway do you give filmmakers in tales such as this one? 

Clarence: It’s interesting, between this movie and The Wolf of Wall Street, how DiCaprio is really pushing the physicality of his roles and performances. The scene with him crawling into the horse was the one that reminded me of Star Wars. It’s not the movie’s fault the other movie did it first, but it’s such an iconic scene I think comparison can’t be helped.

Here’s my couple of quibbles with the last part of an otherwise excellent movie: It just doesn’t make sense to me that Glass and the Captain would go out alone to look for Fitzgerald, when it’s been firmly established that Glass is still half-dead and the wilderness is way dangerous for a fully equipped and healthy search party, let alone two men looking for vengeance.

Plus, at the very end of the movie, Glass looks into the camera at the audience, and then…cut to black. Not only was this a bit of art-house technique thought was completely out of character with the rest of the film, but I got the same sense of frustration as with the final episodes of The Sopranos. Hey directors, it’s okay for your story to have a definitive ending! It almost felt like the film makers needed to leave the door open for the obligatory sequel.

I don’t think there was enough there in the tribe chieftain’s quest to find their kidnapped daughter to involve me in that part of the plot. That was the part of the movie that reminded me of The Searchers, with John Wayne relentlessly looking for the Indians who kidnapped his daughter. There’s a lot of cultural baggage in that kind of narrative. It wasn’t too long ago that the native Americans were routinely shown as the aggressors in that kind of scenario. As far as the French being upset by their portrayal in this movie, they have as much right to be annoyed as any other group that Hollywood routinely ignores. I don’t think American studios have it in for the French, but a few more diverse portrayals certainly couldn’t hurt.

The idea of a film being “based on a true story” or “inspired by true events” has been so overused in movies that it’s lost most meaning to me. The Wizard of Oz is based on true events if you squint hard enough and apply the same standards used today. What matters far more to me is “Did you tell a good story?” rather than “Did you tell a completely accurate story?” Studying the differences between a movie and a real life story is actually a great way to learn about history!

Do you downvote films that fudge the truth? And how do you feel about actors who go to the extremes DiCaprio did to perform their role? I don’t know much about acting technique, but I’ve heard that The Method is popular and controversial especially among American actors. Is that level of physical risk, whether it’s someone who gets out in the elements to do their role, performs their own stunts, or physically transforms themselves in extreme ways, something you notice and/or react to in films in general?

Kevin: Someone at TV Tropes had the same criticism regarding the hunt for Fitzgerald -- "they had 10 guys on the previous search party, and only two for what presumably would be dangerous prey?" One of the counter-arguments was that, since Fitzgerald had looted the company's safe, what was to prevent the rest of the men from doing away with the captain and keeping the money for themselves if they'd found him? Still, I hear you, it seems as though a bit of good-ol' Hollywood logic was employed in an effort to manufacture more drama.

Hey, I enjoyed the ending to The Sopranos! (Wasn't it later agreed upon that Tony bought it in that diner...?) But I do acknowledge that one's Mileage May Vary -- not only with the conclusion, but also with the Terrence Malick vibes sprinkled throughout via dream sequences and ephemeral flashbacks. Perhaps this was a bit too soon after our Song to Song experience? Considering the amount of physical and emotional trauma that Glass had suffered, though, it made sense to me that his grip on reality might falter from time to time.

I own a book called Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, which looks at how some classic films have lined up with the truth. Of course, once you go back far enough, what serves as "the truth" becomes murky itself based on the recordkeeping of the age. HBO's Rome is perhaps my all-time favorite television show, and while the major events and figures of the time are faithfully represented... well, there is also a wide swath of characters that were practically conjured out of thin air. Perhaps for historical epics -- including The Revenant -- it's simply enough to capture the feel of how the people of a particular era and place lived? The magic lies in the atmosphere. And afterwards, some filmgoers might be inspired to seek out the truth (or in this case, Glass' novel) for themselves? Long story short -- I wouldn't downvote films for taking liberties with the facts, as long as those transgressions aren't egregious enough to pull you out of the story.

As far as the sacrifices made by certain thespians, one can rattle off a long list of impressive (albeit frightening) achievements. How 'bout de Niro putting on 60 pounds (!) for Raging Bull? Or Christian Bale starving himself down to 121 pounds for The Machinist, and then bulking back up for Batman Begins? And then there's My Left Foot, where Daniel Day-Lewis plays a painter with cerebral palsy; he stayed in character for the entire shoot, and even had to be lifted in and out of his wheelchair. This is all a bit like sausage-making, no? We want to enjoy the finished product (namely, a strong acting performance and film), and don't care too much about what had to be done to achieve it. Sure, Dustin Hoffman didn't have to actually stay up for three days straight for a torture scene in Marathon Man... but it probably made for a performance that was much more believable.

[Did you see the movie? Want to add to the conversation? Leave a comment below!]



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