The Revenant is a $135 million film that runs for 156 minutes, has taken box offices worldwide by storm and gathered armfuls of awards nominations. In virtually every sense it is a ‘big picture’ that can’t fail to impress the viewer. But I wonder what it all adds up to? I found the film to be visually stunning and I recognise the extraordinary lengths to which the cast and crew must have gone in the most difficult filming conditions. It’s a film to watch and think, yes it’s all on the screen and it’s a great technical achievement. Unfortunately though, as a film narrative it seems to me to fall short.
I should confess that I’m not familiar with the films of Alejandro González Iñárittu. The subjects of his previous films haven’t attracted me apart from Biutiful (Mexico/Spain 2010) which I hope to see at some point. I’m not, therefore, interested in any kind of auteurist study. I came to The Revenant because I thought it must be a Western and I read the film in that context. My interest in the Western is in terms of both its relationship with American history and its universal themes which have been taken up by filmmakers around the world. In my conception there is a narrow definition of the Western repertoire that locates narratives in the uncharted territory of the western United States between the end of the Civil War (1865) and the ‘closing of the frontier’ in the late 1890s. A much broader definition of the Western covers the whole period of ‘American’ history from the first contacts between settlers and indigenous peoples right up to the present day and ranges north into Canada and south into Mexico. Contemporary Westerns do, however, have some kind of geographical and/or cultural connection to the 19th century ‘frontier’. Within these broad definitions, various sub-genres or fluid repertoires can be discerned. The Revenant is a ‘survivalist Western’ – man versus the natural environment – and a ‘frontier Western’ focusing on the upper Missouri River in the 1820s when the huge territories of the Louisiana Purchase (1803) were still being ‘absorbed’ by the US. The new territories represented a third of the total land area of the US in the 19th century and the two big issues were the resistance of the various indigenous groups and the commercial interests of British and French trappers and fur traders. The story of The Revenant is based on what happened to a real character, Hugh Glass in 1823. This was in turn used for a fictionalised account by Michael Punke published in 2002 and it was this that prompted the adaptation by Iñárittu and Mark L. Smith.
A fundamental aspect of Iñárittu’s approach appears to be to ‘tell’ his audience as little as possible. We aren’t told the date of the story nor where it takes place. Instead we are required to think through what we see. We note first that the ‘Americans’ have flintlock muskets and pistols – placing the story earlier than the 1840s. The names of some of the Native American peoples are mentioned fairly early – as is the presence of French fur traders. The Americans are slaughtering animals for pelts and they have to get them back to a fort. The leader of the group is a quasi-military figure. Is he employed by one of the trading companies? Later we will hear mention of the Missouri but at first we have no real idea where we are. (The film was mostly shot in Canada, but some scenes were shot in Argentina when the snows left the Canadian mountains.) Does it matter where and when the action takes place? Possibly not, but Iñárittu goes to such lengths to ensure ‘authenticity’ that there seems to be a contradiction here. It would have been simple enough to include a title saying simply “Upper Missouri River: 1823” and perhaps “American and French fur traders compete for pelts” or something like that. On the other hand, with no context, the film narrative could have been solely about survival.
As it is, the story becomes incomprehensible. Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) survives through miraculous escapes, severely wounded but able to withstand immersion in freezing waters. He leaps over cliffs etc. and is able to jump onto a horse despite being barely able to walk and to fire his flintlock pistol twice in quick succession with remarkable accuracy (and no reloading). None of this would matter in a Western ‘adventure’, but cumulatively such feats undermine the seriousness of the existential struggle for survival. If it is going to be a ‘man against the wilderness’ narrative, we need something else – a sense of what Glass is feeling and thinking. I’m not sure we get this – instead we are asked to focus on the idea of revenge. Glass is motivated by what one man in particular (the Tom Hardy character) did in leaving him to die (and much more). This is the plot line that prompts the film’s title. Glass is not just the man who ‘comes back’ in the literal meaning of the title, but also the mythical avenger who returns from the dead (also an established meaning of ‘revenant’). There are in fact a couple of fantasy sequences when Glass dreams about his Pawnee wife but otherwise the potential of ‘revenant’ in its more mythological sense is not exploited. Caught between survivalist and revenge narratives, I felt that the film was incoherent and the final section of the revenge narrative was tedious. This is a very violent film and by the end of 150 minutes I’d already had too much. The ending does, however, have one saving grace in the re-appearance of a group of Arikara ‘Indians’. For me, the various indigenous groups and individuals represented in the film are its major bonus and I was struck by what one unnamed reviewer suggested was a nod to John Ford’s The Searchers, reversing the structure of that film’s search with a tribal chief leading a group of braves on a mission to find his daughter who has been abducted by French trappers.
Despite all the potential, The Revenant fails as a Western narrative. I recently watched a TV showing of Jeremiah Johnson (1972), the Sidney Pollack-Robert Redford ‘survivalist Western’ which is equally ‘epic’ in its vision but more coherent in execution. I’m also intrigued to have been reminded of the Richard C. Sarifian version of the Glass story, Man in the Wilderness (1971) with Richard Harris. Harris had already appeared in A Man Called Horse (1970), a film in which an Englishman is captured by the Sioux and becomes a warrior and leader. With two remakes for this film, the early 1970s saw a cycle of films with similar elements to The Revenant. Iñárittu tried to place Glass’s story in a wider context with the ‘opening up’ of the frontier to trapping and trading. I did at some point think of films as different as McCabe and Mrs Miller and Heaven’s Gate – films about the much later influence of American capitalism. Again, there was a film to be made about the early period of capitalism on the frontier (and racist exploitation) but The Revenant can’t fully accommodate it.
I mustn’t give the impression that I disliked the film completely. Most of the time I was engaged by the story, even when I wanted to critique it, and the cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is astounding. The opening action sequence matches his celebrated sequences from Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) and his mountain vistas and long shot compositions are indeed ‘breathtaking’. I don’t think I was able to fully appreciate the music score written and arranged by Alva Noto and Ryûichi Sakamoto, but I was impressed by the range of pieces selected. I must also say something about the performances. I’ve never been a fan of Leonardo DiCaprio and I don’t really understand his appeal. Here he is asked to do a great deal without dialogue and to express himself from inside a mountain of skins and coats and a large beard. By all accounts it was a tough shoot and he put himself through it to perform the role, but is that enough to win all those awards? Tom Hardy (who does seem very versatile as an actor) is as effective as DiCaprio but I was equally impressed by Domhnall Gleeson who has been excellent in films as different as Ex Machina and Brooklyn in 2015 and manages here to be convincing as the trappers’ leader.
Alejandro González Iñárittu’s early films used scripts written by Guillermo Arriaga who in 2005 wrote one of the best contemporary Westerns – The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones. Perhaps with Arriaga and Jones he could have made a great Western from The Revenant?
If there is one thing that depresses me as much as some of the programming by exhibitors it is some of the published criticisms of the films themselves. Trumbo (USA 2015) is essentially a biopic of one of the Hollywood Ten, the victims of the House Un-American Activities Committee of the US Congress, the heads of the major Hollywood Studios, cranky right-wingers who presumably would now be members of the Tea Party, and quite a few members of the film industry who owed their careers and their profits to this group, predominately writers of scripts.
The Guardian review (05-02-16), by Peter Bradshaw, opens on this
“heartfelt, stolid picture about an important period in American history”
and adds this peculiar comment,
“the petty Maoism of 1950s Hollywood…”
In fact, the target of this hysteria was the Communist Party USA who, by the late 1940s, were not even Leninist, let alone Maoist. Presumably Bradshaw or his editor thought the epithet would make a change from their regular target, Uncle Joe.
At least there is a greater sense of history and politics in the interview of the star Bryan Cranston by John Patterson. They do add the point made in the end titles of the film, that the victims of this witch-hunt came from all professions and all walks of life. I was a little surprised to find out recently that our own Richard Attenborough was honoured by inclusion in what was known as ‘the blacklist’. The latter term is slightly unfortunate given this is the period of a rising Civil Rights movement.
To be honest the production team, and certainly quite a few of the critics, should read the excellent
The Inquisition in Hollywood Politics in the Film Community, 1930 – 1960 by Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund, University of California Press 1979.
I also recommend it to our readers interested in the topic or indeed who just see the film.
Whatever its limitations Trumbo is a worthy addition to the films dealing with what became popularly known as ‘McCarthyism’. Intriguingly it offers a rather different slant on Woody Allen’s The Front (1976). And for a parallel story watch, [if you can], BBC Screen 2’s Fellow Traveller (1991).
I chose to see Creed because I wanted to see an African-American film (not always easy in the UK outside London and a few key cities). I missed Fruitvale Station (which certainly didn’t have a wide release) from director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan. I saw the original Rocky film starring Sylvester Stallone in 1976/7 but I don’t think I’ve seen any of the sequels. Creed sees the illegitimate son of Rocky Balboa’s greatest ring competitor Apollo Creed trying to live up to his father’s name in the fight game. Creed has had a wide release in the UK, probably because of Stallone as actor, producer and co-writer – i.e. the Stallone factor gives distributors more confidence that the film will appeal beyond the Black British audience. I find this sad, but that’s the way the industry in the UK is. Even so, I was once again the only person in a 90 seat cinema. I like being on my own, but I do wonder how the cinema keeps going. Anyway, I had a great time. I’m glad I saw this in the cinema and I have to say I was surprised on several counts.
Creed has been widely discussed as a ‘reboot’ of the Rocky ‘franchise’. I’m not sure that knowing this is particularly helpful if you haven’t seen the previous films. My impression is that this is a much more sober/sensitive feature than much of Hollywood’s output while still adhering to the generic structure of the sports drama and particularly the boxing drama (boxing being one of the few American sports that has appeal outside North America). Ryan Coogler is a remarkable young director, here also responsible for the story with a co-writer’s credit for the script itself. The film is well-cast – more on that later – and brilliantly photographed by Maryse Alberti. Alberti has had a long career, much of it in TV and independent film productions. He was one of the cinematographers on the Muhammad Ali documentary When We Were Kings (1996) and on The Wrestler (2008) by Darren Aronofsky. I’m no expert on boxing but I’ve seen a few boxing films and Creed convinces me with its fight sequences. Coogler elects to use a long take and sometimes long shot style familiar from arthouse/independent cinema and his editors Claudia Castello and Michael P. Shawver both worked with him on Fruitvale Station along with production designer Hannah Beachler. I’m sure if I looked, I could find more personnel who were on both films. Creed cost around $35 million but has already grossed $161 million worldwide. This demonstrates that a film can be a global hit without resorting to a fast-cutting ‘immersive’ style. Creed is 133 minutes and some have argued that it is ‘flabby’ and could be tightened. Ash Clarke in his very good Little White Lies review uses this term and suggests that part of the Rocky Balboa personal story could be cut. I don’t think that would be a good move, but I concede that a little tightening up in some sequences could trim off a few minutes from the running time. I have to say though that for me there was no flabbiness. Aesthetically, Creed works well. The music seemed fine as well. But what of the narrative?
I think an important issue might be whether Creed is an ‘African-American’ film in the sense that, to take polar extremes, a Tyler Perry or a Charles Burnett film might be so described? Or is this a mainstream genre American film that just happens to have an African-American central character and director? To some extent that depends on whether there is a genuine exploration of a specifically African-American cultural milieu. And this is possibly what makes Creed different. Professional sport, alongside popular music, has long offered opportunities for young Black people to make a decent living and achieve a public profile in both the Americas and Europe. Creed offers us a young Black boxer (Michael B. Jordan), two boxing gyms in Los Angeles and Philadelphia and a relationship for young Adonis Creed with a promising Black singer played by Tessa Thompson (recently seen in UK cinemas in a lead role in Dear White People and in a smaller supporting role in Selma). The sport/music combination is sometimes seen as a restrictive/constraining factor in terms of Black culture, limiting the range of opportunities and typing Black characters in particular ways. Creed partially avoids this charge by making Adonis a character who spends time as a youth in a wealthy home and who gets a good education followed by an executive job in the finance sector. When he ditches the job to follow his dream to be a boxer and goes to Philadelphia he is therefore a ‘different’ character to the other boxers he meets. The film is also interested in Stallone’s Rocky Balboa who must be tempted out of retirement to train Adonis (‘Donnie’) and when he has the big international fight, Donnie and Rocky travel to UK to fight ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan in Everton’s Goodison Park football stadium. My feeling was that the script didn’t attempt to type the fight as ‘black v. white’, though I was concerned that the Liverpool boxer was being typed as a working-class ‘Scally’ figure. Again, however, I think the script handled this well in the end. The ‘real’ pro boxer Tony Bellew plays Conlan and I thought the fight was credible. I’m guessing that the inspiration for this pairing was the recent history of Ricky Hatton’s fights in the US. By all accounts it was Stallone’s interest in Everton that located the fight on Merseyside. Some location footage of the stadium on a (football) match day helped the fight sequence feel genuine (though I was disappointed not to hear the Z-Cars theme and I’m sure someone was waving a Liverpool scarf).
Michael B. Jordan is excellent as Creed and I was impressed by Stallone’s Rocky Balboa and the way the script handled the relationship between the two. Tessa Thompson was also very good and it was a shame that her role was not explored a little more. One potential narrative about her career and tensions between Adonis and a group of musicians seemed to be cut off too soon. If there is a follow-up, her role and that of Phylicia Rashad as Apollo Creed’s wife and the woman who fostered Adonis Creed after he was placed in juvenile detention could be usefully developed. Overall this film has helped restore my faith in the potential of Hollywood genre movies and I’ll certainly seek out a follow-up if it is made.
I didn’t think much of American Hustle, but I liked The Fighter and David O’Russell’s 1999 film 3 Kings. Joy seems to have had very mixed reviews and has been treated as almost an independent film with a reduced release. It hasn’t been a massive box office success and its IMDB rating reflects audience disappointment. I wondered about seeing it but it does feature Jennifer Lawrence in the lead and she’s always watchable. So, I ended up as the sole audience member in a tea-time showing in my local 300 seat cinema. The manager even came into the auditorium to see if I was OK and to offer me blankets for the cold. And it was cold. But I still had a good time.
I’d heard radio reviews and read press reports that this was a mish-mash – several films jumbled up etc. etc. But I thought it was totally coherent with great narrative drive and 124 minutes sped by. Perhaps I was simply mesmerised by Ms Lawrence? I guess the film is a form of biopic about Joy Mangano, the inventor of the Miracle Mop and other products for her company Ingenious Designs and subsequently an important presenter on the Home Shopping Network. I knew nothing about this so I think I followed the narrative that Russell and Bridesmaids writer Annie Mumolo created without every worrying about its ‘fidelity’ as a biopic.
What did strike me was the way in which Jennifer Lawrence completely controls the narrative – and dominates every scene. Given the strength of a cast that includes Robert De Niro, Isabella Rossellini, Diane Ladd and Virginia Madsen (and later Bradley Cooper) that’s no mean achievement. At one point I thought to myself, “she’s got it” – the star image of the great female icons of Studio Hollywood. This could be Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Crawford. I was pleased to find these thoughts echoed by Graham Fuller in Sight & Sound (February). As Fuller points out, Russell presents a strong woman without the need of a love interest (the suggestion of how she might feel about the Bradley Cooper is at the end of the film and doesn’t drive the narrative). There is a brief moment where crime/physical/judicial jeopardy is a threat but other wise she is Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce sans sex and crime – and still riveting to watch. What does drive the narrative is her dysfunctional family and the shenanigans of small-scale manufacturing as an entrepreneurial activity. Since the ideological discourse of the film is about entrepreneurs and the American Dream (with an anecdote about David O. Selznik and Jennifer Jones underpinning Joy’s determination to make it) I should feel antipathy towards the film, but identification with Joy takes over. Fuller is again on the money with his reference to Erin Brockovich and perhaps what is attractive is the class struggle embodied in the narrative. The time period of the film did not feel very specific to me, partly because Russell uses such a wide range of popular songs and music from TV and films. I was quite happy watching the film as if it was a 1970s blue-collar film. The factory that Joy sets up reminded me of various films, including The Pajama Game (1957) with Doris Day and, much more recently, the sweat shop in Real Women Have Curves (2002). Watching various trailers and online promotional features, it’s evident that Russell had the rights to a lot of music material, some of which he uses very well. I was most affected by his use of ‘Expecting to Fly’ by Buffalo Springfield, but also puzzled by the preponderance of music from the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Is there some kind of commentary on Joy’s story in this?
I’m not sure why the film has been criticised for jumbling different genres. Perhaps it is the narrative strategy that allows Joy’s grandmother to have a voiceover narration or her mother to dominate the narrative at times via her immersion in soap opera worlds as a form of escape. Both these seemed fine to me as aspects of the influences, positive and negative on Joy’s story. The film is frequently referred to as a comedy. I suppose it is, but for me it was more like a melodrama. Two other thoughts that don’t seem to have got much attention elsewhere. One is the confirmation of the ‘women’s picture narrative’ via the best friend, Jackie (Dascha Polanco) whose action at a crucial point saves Joy. The other is just to mention Édgar Ramírez, the Venezuelan actor who plays Joy’s ex-husband. I knew I’d seem him before and I later realised he was Carlos in the Olivier Assayas film about Carlos The Jackal.
I’m sure that there is a lot more to say about Joy and I would be interested in it as a student text – except it’s rather long at 124 minutes (though it isn’t too long as a narrative). In the third image above, you can get a flavour of the ‘overdetermined’ nature of Russell’s imagery. Having dealt with the opposition, Joy in her aviator shades, leather jacket and rough cut hair peers in a Christmas shop window in downtown Dallas. She looks at a Christmas display of a trainset with scenery and models as artificial snow falls from above the window (an interesting invention in itself). Joy is thinking about the world she created out of paper cut-outs, damaged in a row between her parents. I think it was Nat King Cole on the soundtrack and for me snowflakes always make me think of Citizen Kane. There are many commentators online who thought that Joy was boring. I despair.