If there’s one movie that’s had its box office results significantly after the nominations, It’s The Revenant. If you’ve seen it already, you’ll easily see why it could have done excellently even without the Oscar buzz.
It’s 1823 in an unsettled wilderness part of the northern area of the Louisiana Purchase. A group of trappers under the command of Captain Andrew Henry search for pelts until a surprise attack from Arikara Native Americans kills many from the camp and cause the survivors to flee on a boat. Part of the camp is Hugh Glass who is on friendly terms with the Natives–even being a widow to a Native American woman and fathering their ‘half-breed’ son Hawk who’s part of the camp– and knows the area well. At Glass’ recommendation, they abandon ship and walk on foot to return to their outpost Fort Kiowa. This does not settle well with some of the trappers including John Fitzgerald who has a hostile attitude towards Natives after being scalped years ago. He is noticeably hostile to Hawk.
Glass scouts ahead alone for a while but he is mauled by a mother bear protecting her cubs. The attack is brutal and Glass is severely mauled but he’s able to stab the bear. The other people in the camp find Glass but doubt his chances for survival. Henry commands to three men in the camp–Hawk, Fitzgerald and the young Jim Bridger–to stay with Glass until he dies and give him a proper burial. Fitzgerald tries to smother Glass when alone but Hawk stops him. Unfortunately stabbed is killed by Fitzgerald as Glass can only lie and watch. Fitzgerald attempts to bury Glass prematurely but stops when he sees Bridger flee and follows.
Abandoned with only a canteen, Glass is somehow able to survive and slowly heal. Days later, he’s able to heal to the point he can move, then crawl, then walk. As he heals he’s haunted by visions of his deceased wife. He even sees visions of her as he comes across an abandoned church. However he also has to deal with the Arikara whose chief is searching for his kidnapped daughter Powaqa and trusts no white man.
Both Fitzgerald and Bridger are heading to Fort Kiowa but Fitzgerald scares Bridger into being fully under his control. One at the Fort, Fitzgerald tells Henry that Glass died and Hawk was attacked by the Arikara. Henry gives both Fitzgerald and Bridger a cash reward. Fitzgerald accepts without guilt but Bridger refuses.
Glass encounters Hicuk, a friendly Pawnee who gives him food and shelter and helps him along the path back to Fort Kiowa. Hikuc has also lost his family. Upon hearing from Glass his intent for revenge, he tells Glass “Revenge is in the Creator’s hands.” The day after the blizzard, Glass wakes to find Hikuc hanged by French pelters. Not only that, he finds Powaqa being raped by leader of the French pelters. He’s able to kill the two leaders and free Powaqa but has to escape with Hikuc’s horse and Bridger’s canteen. An ambush by the Arikara causes Glass to flee on horse only to fall off a cliff. Glass survives but the horse is dead. Glass uses the horse’s carcass as a shelter overnight.
Meanwhile word has gotten around to Fort Kiowa that Glass is in fact alive. This is known as a French hunter brings Bridger’s canteen there. Henry however thinks it’s stolen from Hawk and organizes a search party but Fitzgerald knows the truth and flees. Henry finds Glass alive in the search. Infuriated, he charges Bridger with treason after returning to the Fort but Glass insists it’s all Fitzgerald’s doing.
The operation then goes to find Fitzgerald and bring him to justice. Henry however is caught by Fitzgerald in an ambush and is killed and scalped. It’s now up to Glass who hatches a plan to finally get his revenge. It works in catching Fitzgerald and having him shot but not without Fitzgerald being able to run off. It then comes down to a fight between the two for Glass to get his revenge. It ends with Glass making a decision and an ending we’re all left to decide for ourselves Glass’ fate.
Now just to get things straight, this is not the true story of Hugh Glass getting revenge on John Fitzgerald. In fact historic documentation shows Glass let Fitzgerald live because he knew the heavy penalty of killing a soldier in the U.S. Army. Fitzgerald became a soldier in the U.S. army and was stationed in Fort Atkinson, Nebraska. Fitzgerald did give Glass his rifle back.
This film is actually a revenge story adapted from the 2002 novel The Revenant: A Story Of Revenge by Michael Punke. I think the focus of the film is more about telling the story than it is about retelling history. I have not read Punke’s novel but I’m sure that was how Punke would have wanted Fitzgerald to face the music upon abandoning Glass to die. There is actually very little information about who John Fitzgerald was or even what type of person he was in real life. We have the historical documentation of what happened to Glass and what happened in his pursuit of Fitzgerald but not much else. The novel was not only Punke’s chance of creating his own revenge fantasy in Fitzgerald but giving Fitzgerald a character of his own. The film helps Punke’s story come alive and even paint a picture of Glass, Fitzgerald, the times, the terrain and the domain of all that happened.
This revenge story is not your typical revenge story you’d see in your typical Hollywood movies or even from the likes of Quentin Tarantino. This revenge story is also a story of survival and also shows a human side of the perpetrator Hugh Glass. Yes, he was as tough as a frontiersman and a trapper of the time should be. However he did have a soft side. He still has feelings towards his deceased wife who was a Native American woman and he truly loved his son despite others seeing him as a ‘half-breed.’ He also had to be tough as he needed to survive the brutal bear attack and recover from his wounds in order to pursue Fitzgerald. He also had to develop the will to live knowing that his son was killed by Fitzgerald. He also had to be right in his mind in deciding what he had to do to Fitzgerald in the end.
I will admit there were times when I questioned if this film was becoming too much of a tall tale. One example is when seeing Glass pursue Fitzgerald in what appeared to be just days before his attack. I often asked: “Would someone who suffered such a brutal bear attack recover in that fast of a time?” Even that scene where Glass and his horse fall off a cliff. The snowy tree broke Glass’ fall and helped him live without any severe bodily damage but the horse died. That scene also had me scratching my head. Maybe those scenes and the elapsed time were also part of Punke’s novel. Nevertheless it still had me questioning its believability.
First off I’d like to give respect to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for delivering an excellent movie. He may be renowned for his ‘filmwork’ but here he takes his first steps in directing a movie intended to draw big crowds while still maintaining some top film making qualities. Very little was compromised and the end result was excellent as it both succeeds as a film and as a movie. I’ll admit I was unhappy about Birdman winning Best Picture last year because it didn’t give much for a film audience to either enjoy or appreciate. Yes, it had top-notch acting, directing and scriptwriting but who truly enjoyed it? This is ten times more enjoyable while still maintaining top acting and directing. Yes, there were some scenes that can scare many. In fact I’ll admit the film made me hope I never walk in the woods again. Nevertheless it was a very good movie full of drama and thrills. As I said, I have never read Punke’s novel but the script Inarritu co-wrote with Mark L. Smith definitely makes the novel come alive. I know the script was not nominated for an Oscar. However the unspoken scenes in the movie told as much as the scripted scenes.
The film would simply be a popcorn movie if it weren’t for the acting. Leonardo DiCaprio did an excellent job of Hugh Glass. He said a lot especially in the scenes where Hugh Glass was unable to speak. His performance was as much about telling a lot through physical actions as it was through dialogue. Hey, it’s been said 80% of communication is non-verbal and Leo was able to say a lot in those scenes. That’s why I’d be shocked if he doesn’t win the Oscar. Also just as excellent is Tom Hardy. He didn’t play your typical rotten-to-the-core villain. He gave John Fitzgerald some fears and insecurities to the role and conveyed them well. Nevertheless he also made Fitzgerald hateable as a remorseless villain who even calls the dead Hawk a ‘pussy’ in Glass’ face. Additional performances of respect include Bill Poulter as Jim Bridger, the young trapper who possesses the conscience Fitzgerald lacks, and Forrest Goodluck as Hawk.
Additional qualities of acclaim is the cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki, the costuming by Jacqueline West including its use of furs and hides, the film editing by Stephen Mirrione, the visual effects including that of the bear attack, the excellent use of both natural settings and constructed sets that fit the times and scenes perfectly and the film’s score by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Carsten Nicolai and Bryce Dessner.
An additional note. I also give the film respect for its treatment of Native Americans. I may have been a baby when Sacheen Littlefeather refuted Marlon Brando’s Oscar on his behalf and spoke of his protest to the on-screen depiction of Native Americans or First Nations peoples as Canadians commonly refer to them as. However I already know of Hollywood’s past and how they’re famous for shelling out ‘cowboys and indians’ movies from decades past. I can completely understand why Brando would have been angry with that depiction as Brando has had a history of activism in the 1970’s on behalf of people of various races. I will admit Hollywood has been better at its depiction of indigenous Americans from films like 1990’s Dances With Wolves and even the character of Chief in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest that was shown in theatres a mere three years after Brando’s Oscar protest. I’m sure there are some people that can spot imperfections in Hollywood’s current treatment of Native Americans including in this film but I found it hard to pinpoint a scene that was insulting to them. Sure there were battles with tribes and there were bigoted attitudes among many white characters but there were many positive Native American characters in this movie. In addition the main protagonist Hugh Glass had positive interaction with the Native people including marrying one and treating his son with love while many despised him as a ‘half-breed.’
The Revenant isn’t just a dazzling movie. It’s one that will keep you intrigued from start to finish and not know what to expect next.
I know the awards season is just starting to declare winners en route to the Oscars. I will have a lot of movie watching to catch up with. I finally did see Birdman, one movie with a lot of big buzz, and I’m glad I did.
Riggan Thomson is a former Hollywood movie star who hit the big time as Birdman: a movie that propelled his fame and had him act in two more sequels. However he soon became yesterday’s news after he left the Birdman franchise and he’s aiming for a Broadway comeback. His plan is a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love which he plays lead, directs and writes. However something is knwing at him. He hears a voice and he has telekinetic powers.
Upon rehearsal, he is pissed off with the male lead actor. Suddenly a stage light lands on his head. Everyone is shocked and fearing for his life except Riggan, who just walks away. He soon admits to his lawyer friend Jake that he rigged the light to fall on him to get popular stage actor Michael Shiner into the play. Getting Michael came from him refinancing a house that should belong to Sam, his recovering drug-addict daughter and assistant.
However friction eventually happens. Riggan is unhappy with how Mike does a scene during rehearsal and he storms off violently. Even Mike’s suggestion of using a more realistic gun for the suicide scene doesn’t sit well with him. The feelings are justified when Mike is scene in a news story and how he mentions Raymond Carver made him want to become an actor. On top of it, reviews of the dress rehearsal are not impressive at all and it hits Mike bad. Meanwhile the voice inside his head is either supporting him or mocking him for turning his back on Birdman. Adding to it, Sam is unhappy with him and tells him that his play is garbage and that he doesn’t matter. Not in this day and age of Facebook and Twitter, media streams he consistently rejects.
Things actually take a turn for the better but through some of the most unlikely of methods. Right in the middle of a preview, Riggan accidentally locks himself out of the theatre with the door accidentally catching hold of his robe. He impulsively walks around Times Square in nothing but his underwear to get back to the theatre and catches the notice of everyone whom he walks by and even enters the theatre leaving the audience confused and delighted. After the show, he gets drunk and encounters theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson who says she will crucify his play because of her detest of Hollywood movie stars trying to pass themselves off as legitimate actors. The next day, a drunken Riggan actually has a hallucinative conversation with Birdman and he gains powers including flight. It’s like he became Birdman again as he’s flying all around Manhattan.
Then opening night for the play happens. Riggan uses a real gun for the suicide scene shooting himself in the head in front of the audience. Everyone in the audience gives him a standing ovation but Tabitha just walks out without emotion or applause. Turns out Riggan didn’t kill himself. He survives but wakes up in a hospital bed learning the bullet badly damaged his nose. On top of that, he learns from Jake that Tabitha gave the play rave reviews. He’s even able to spend a poignant moment with Sam in his hospital bed. After Riggan is left alone, the film ends in a way I don’t think most people will understand. I guess the point was to have you the audience decide the ending. You’ll have to see it for yourself.
This film is a unique method of telling a story and giving portraits of the characters. The film’s method of following characters around and often appearing like one non-stop shoot adds to the film and can make the audience curious to what will happen next. However the most striking thing for me about the film is how it shows actors and even those involved in the whole showbiz scene. We have a lead actor who’s a former movie star now struggling to re-establish himself. We have a daughter who’s loving but ill-tempered and frequently at odds with him. We have a supporting actor who isn’t as big a name but well-respected and tries to use this opportunity to promote himself further. We have both an ex-wife and a current flame struggling with personal issues with him. We have a theatre system that demands the movie be a hit for the sake of the show, the sake of the theatre and for the sake of Thomson’s finances. We have the fame system which has had major changes in the ‘fame game’ in recent years thanks to online technology giving us video sites and personal homepages. We have media critics who not only make judgments about plays but are egotistical enough to unapologetically trash a work if they see fit. It’s no wonder an actor/director like Riggan Thomson drinks a lot. Heck I’ve frequently said: “Actors and drinking go together like ham and eggs.” Here I’m finally shown why!
The funniest thing about the film is that while I was watching, I was constantly sensing that Birdman may be about Michael Keaton himself. For those that don’t know, Michael Keaton was the first Batman when the franchise was revived on the big screen in a big way back in 1989. He also starred in the second Batman movie Batman Returns from 1992. The role of Batman has since gone onto Val Kilmer and now Christian Bale. Michael Keaton had some continued commercial success for a few years after his last Batman movie. Actually he even had some healthy commercial success before thanks to 80’s movies like Mr. Mom and Beetlejuice. So it had me wondering if Riggan’s struggle of coming back while having the baggage of being famous as Birdman was a parallel reflection of Michael Keaton being famous as Batman. I found it odd because I’ve never heard of Michael having a struggle with it. I even looked over his biography and info of his personal life at Wikipedia to see if it was. Although I saw some parallels, I was still left without a conclusion. I haven’t even seen an interview of Michael Keaton where he publicly declared it synonymous.
I will say that Keaton did an excellent performance as Riggan. This is not like any performance I’ve seen from Keaton and this is the best acting I’ve seen from him. Possibly the best acting performance of the year. Edward Norton was also great as Michael Shiner and did a great job of showing ego conflict between actors. Emma Stone also delivered her best ever performance as a daughter who’s also an assistant with the same showbiz-style nastiness to her own father. Zach Galifianakis gave what I feel to be his best acting performance and one where I actually end up liking him in a film. Additional standout supporting performances are Amy Ryan as the ex-wife, Andrea Riseborough as the new girlfriend and Lindsay Duncan as the theatre critic who did a lot in that one scene of hers.
The technical aspects are also excellent and one-of-a-kind for this film. Emmanuel Lubezki did a smart job with having the follow-around method of filming. Usually such a method is risky in the storytelling aspect of film making but it works to near-perfection here. Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione also did an excellent editing job especially in how they made it look like there was a single non-stop scene for over an hour. Of course modern technology can do the film fakery to make it look like a non-stop scene but Crise and Mirrione did it all right and made it work. Also kudos to composer Antonio Sanchez. I like how he delivered a score that was a jazzy style of music for the stageplay scenes and then our typical grandiose orchestrated score for the Birdman scenes. That score that corresponded with the themes was an excellent choice for the film.
Birdman is not your typical Hollywood fare but it’s all the better for it. It doesn’t make sense to a lot of people but would make more sense to those who see it twice or even those that know acting or showbiz as a whole.