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?
The Leeds International Film Festival Catalogue has this film described as
“a tense, atmospheric Romanian western . . . “
I rather wondered about this but several friends recommended it. The film does bear comparison with quite a few westerns though it is set in the early C19th. It is set in Wallachia, which is close to Bucharest and includes rolling plains, but also woodlands, rivers and some hills.
Across this territory ride Costandin (Teodor Corban), a constable, and his son Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu). They are chasing a runaway gypsy Carfin (Toma Cuzin) on behalf of a local Boyar (noble and landowner). Carfin, like many of the servants in this time and area, is equivalent to a serf, at the mercy of the lord. In fact, as the plot progresses, it becomes clear that Carfin’s sins are greater (or lesser) than this.
The gypsies, as it still the case in parts of Europe, are on the end of racist exploitation and oppression. Costandin represents this hierarchical and privileged system. And his conduct is ensured by the system whereby he is paid by results rather than by wages. This is no independent police force, and a judicial system seems entirely absent. The power of the Boyar is apparent in the submissive response that Costandin receives on almost every occasion.
As Costandin and Ionita ride the father talks incessantly: much of the time imparting his experience to his son. Other character also talk volubly. They meet an Orthodox priest whose long rant exhibits prejudices about almost every conceivable class and ethnic group except the ones to which he belongs. Also along the way the pair meet an encampment of gypsies, poor rural peasants and craftsmen: and late in the film a fair where among the items for sale are adult and children sold as slaves.
The film offers a caustic portrait of this reactionary and oppressive society. But it does so with great skill both in the performances and in the production values. The film was shot in black and white anamorphic Eastman 35mm film stock. It has a tendency to site people in landscapes in long shot, visually pleasing and reminiscent of some classic westerns. It runs for 108 minutes and has English subtitles. However, it has also been copied onto a DCP (very likely only 2K) and I am sure that 35mm would have given greater definition, especially in the depth of field. It has an 18 certificate in the UK, due to very strong language, some violence but presumably also for a sequence where Costandin arranges part of Ionita’s education.
This Western, directed by Edward Dmytryk and adapted by Robert Alan Arthur from a novel by the Western writer Oakley Hall, had been rather forgotten but has now been restored by Twentieth Century Fox. It’s a familiar story set-up found in several 1950s and 1960s Westerns – an isolated town is terrorised by a local rancher and his group of cowboys/’gunslingers’. The Deputy Sheriff is rarely in a position to resist the mayhem and the nearest lawman with real power is 50 miles away. At the end of their tether, the leading figures of the town decide to pay a significant salary in order to attract a notorious ‘enforcer’ who arrives with a business partner, a saloon owner. Henry Fonda, playing against type (well before Once Upon a Time in the West) is the enforcer with the ‘gold-handled colts’ and the snappy suits and a grey-haired Anthony Quinn is the saloon owner (with a limp). Later on a third new arrival, who clearly has history with the other two, arrives on the stagecoach in the form of Dorothy Malone – and the film gets a lot more interesting.
I did feel that this was a fairly pedestrian Western in some ways, but the casting is interesting and the script and dialogue are intelligent. There is something different about the Fonda-Quinn-Malone triangle. Equally, the ranks of the cowboys include Richard Widmark in an interesting role that plays with his good/bad star persona. Here he switches sides in the confrontation and becomes almost saint-like. More surprising still is DeForrest Kelley, aka ‘Bones’ in Star Trek as the most interesting of the cowboys. I didn’t know about his long TV career and many film roles in Westerns.
The film is unsurprisingly in CinemaScope, which is fine, but I thought that the DeLuxe Color had a rather yellow palette. I’m not sure if this was intentional or whether it was not a priority in the restoration. Overall, I didn’t think Dmytryk made the most of the location of the story in Utah. The extreme long shot in the opening looked like a model until the tiny figures moved. But clearly the film is about the characters. It’s a narrative in which characters actually seem to change in order to deliver the conventional resolution and along the way there is a hint that Quinn’s devotion to Fonda’s cause might be be based on more than just old times’ sake. In his paper on ‘Social class and the Western as male melodrama’ in the Movie Book of the Western, David Lusted includes an analysis of Warlock. He places it as a ‘township Western’ and discusses it in terms of the split between romance and melodrama, bracketing it with similar films of the period which he describes as ” . . . clearly melodramas, disturbed and disturbing, at times hysterical in their character relations and fevered in their crises of male identity”.
Lusted identifies the ‘romance of the hero’ in the way that Widmark becomes decisive and eventually wins the day and the separate but related narrative in which Fonda makes a decision to finally reject his capitalist enterprise of ‘legalised crime’ (i.e. effectively extorting a high salary from the town via his gunfighting prowess) for the more acceptable bourgeois world embodied in a woman with capital in a mining operation. Quinn comes between these two and ignites the melodrama. Indeed Fonda’s ultimate response to Quinn’s action is almost operatic in its excess. I’m less convinced by Lusted’s class analysis, though I very much support his intent in trying to explore ways in which these 1950s Hollywood Westerns appealed to male British working-class audiences. Lusted sees both Fonda and Widmark as working-class characters (both are cowboys/gunfighters) who make attempts to operate as individuals in the new social structures offered by towns like Warlock. The image of Widmark above is misleading – he is in ‘Sunday best’ for a a meeting with Dorothy Malone – and most of the time he is in cowboy denim. My feeling is that David Lusted’s analysis fails to deal with the star personae of the leading players. Widmark is perhaps a little too old to be rebel cowboy who puts himself in danger (his younger brother in the film, who stays with the cowboys, is played by an actor 20 years younger). I know Fonda played the great working-class hero in The Grapes of Wrath (1940) but I can’t see the Fonda of 1959 as a working-class figure, or more pertinently, I can’t imagine him as having once been a working-class figure. This doesn’t mean I don’t value David Lusted’s analysis and his discussion of the ways in which interior and exterior locations are used for the ‘romance’ and melodrama scenes is very useful.
The main interest in the film is probably the homoerotic charge in the relationship between Quinn and Fonda and the balancing charge of revenge directed towards the pair by Dorothy Malone. This is a good 1950s Western and I love melodrama but I’m still glad that Peckinpah and Leone appeared in the early 1960s to shake up the Western genre.
On the audience angles of the film, I noted that although there were many grey heads at the Vue in Islington, there were a number of younger men and women – so perhaps the male melodrama will get some support in future.
Reference: Lusted, David (1996) ‘Social class and the Western as male melodrama’ in the Movie Book of the Western, eds Ian Cameron & Douglas Pye, London: Studio Vista
Slow West is beautiful to look at. It includes several stunning set pieces and it is well-researched and carefully prepared – but I couldn’t help feeling that it didn’t quite produce the coherent narrative I was hoping for. Perhaps the main issue is whether or not this is ‘a Western’? There has been plenty of critical weight behind Slow West including a piece on the ’10 Great Modern Westerns’ by the BFI and the implication that Slow West belongs in such company.
John Maclean was previously a musician in The Beta Band and he directed the band’s videos. One of these was seen by Michael Fassbender and eventually Fassbender appeared in two short films which both won prizes for Maclean. Slow West, written and directed by Maclean is his first feature. Maclean’s parents are both well-known visual artists and he studied painting at Edinburgh College of Art. It’s not surprising then that there are some wonderful compositions in Slow West. With the highly talented Robbie Ryan as cinematographer, Maclean is also served by a marvellous use of natural light. There are several scenes in the film I would like study in detail once it is available on DVD.
The film’s story involves a quest by a teenage Scots boy Jay (played by the gangling Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee) searching for the girl he loves whose family has been ‘cleared’ from the Highlands. He believes she now lives in Colorado with her father. (Jay claims to be the son of ‘Lady Cavendish’.) At the start of the film’s narrative we meet Jay in a forest clearing in the first of many dangerous encounters. He’s rescued by Silas (Michael Fassbender), an experienced but clearly suspect ‘drifter’ (the character repeatedly refers to ‘drifting’ and Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter may be a reference). The rest of the narrative takes the pair through a series of other similar encounters until it reaches the inevitable climax. Maclean also uses flashbacks and dreams experienced by Jay and voiceovers offering forms of narration by Silas. Maclean’s musical background means that there is an appropriate score composed by Jed Kurzel, the Australian musician who also scored The Babadook, plus a campfire song written by Maclean himself.
Apart from a few scenes in Scotland, most of the film was shot in New Zealand. Many critics have suggested that the setting could easily be the Rockies and that audiences won’t notice. I’m not sure about this. It seems to me that the story could have taken place in New Zealand anyway and still allowed Maclean to make all of the points he wants to make (i.e. about racism, colonialism, violence etc.) – ‘Westerns’ have often been set outside North America. It’s certainly the case that everything in the film could be an element in the repertoire of the Western. Maclean has done his research and he is aware that until recently Westerns were more mythological than realist. He wants to emphasise the various European migrant groups in the American West in the late 19th century, the ‘real’ Native Americans etc. – though I’m not sure about the three musicians from Francophone Africa (French imperialism in Central and West Africa was mostly later than 1870). According to this Guardian online piece by Rowan Righelato, Maclean himself has described his film as “an existential European road movie”. That seems a pretty good description for the overall ‘form’ of the film. It seems to me that although all the Western elements are ‘authentic’ they don’t all fit together either as a realist historical drama or as a traditional Western genre film. I’d be interested to see what academic scholars of the American West make of the film. Reviewers seem to refer to the setting as ‘1870’ but if this information was conveyed in the film (perhaps a date in a newspaper?) I missed it. It is clearly ‘post’ Civil War but some of the incidents suggest earlier or later periods – and different locations.
Does all of this matter? Probably not or probably only if, like me, you are expecting a Western. The Western was once the American genre par excellence and whatever the ostensible narrative intentions, Westerns always conveyed something about American myths and changing ideologies as well as broad statements about the history of the frontier. Even the revisionist Westerns of the late 1960s and 1970s conveyed something, perhaps more than before, in their discourses about the end of the West and the corporatisation of Western activities. I’m not sure that Slow West tells us anything apart from its fairly universal story about a young man’s dream and an older man’s survival instinct. That’s not necessarily a bad thing and in this case Maclean’s film is entertaining and its relatively brief running time (84 minutes) is packed with sounds and images to stimulate. Nick, my viewing companion did also question whether the script did enough to establish the relationship between the two central characters, citing the shaving scene. Are we meant to think of a surrogate father/son relationship? Michael Fassbender will attract many audiences to the film and he gives a strong performance, but I wonder if in this case his star persona is too powerful for the overall balance of the film, especially with his cigar-chomping flashing smile?
Reading through the reviews and audience comments I think that Slow West is being enjoyed in much the same way as the Coen Bros. films – and enjoyed in terms of its dark humour and intelligence.
On a technical note, Robbie Ryan’s images are presented in the old European ‘widescreen’ ratio of 1.66:1. I’m not sure why and because I saw the film in a real cinema with proper tabs and masking I didn’t really notice. But it looks great.
A short clip from the opening sequence in the film: