The silly savagery of man

What’s up, doc?

What’s up, doc?

Rated 3.0

When it comes to guitar players, I generally prefer maestros of sweet riffs and solid pop hooks over the endless, filigreed soloing of self-styled “guitar gods.” Play the song, pal, don’t torture it to death.

That same personal preference for excellence within context over groove-killing grandstanding also extends to the world of cinematographers. My favorite contemporary directors of photography, from John Seale to Roger Deakins to Bradford Young, integrate their distinct personal styles into the rhythm and tone of the film, rather than overshadowing it.

Emmanuel Lubezki (The Tree of Life, Gravity, Birdman), on the other hand, is the Joe Satriani of cinematographers—no matter how much I objectively admire his technical prowess, as well as the polish and beauty of his images, the results always leave me cold. All I can see when I watch a Lubezki-lensed film is Lubezki—the film itself becomes secondary to the swooning imagery.

Lubezki’s oppressive style finds the perfect partner in Alejandro González Iñárritu, a hopelessly heavyhanded director who never met a scene he couldn’t suffocate. Much like their previous collaboration, last year’s Best Picture winner Birdman, the gruesome adventure The Revenant is heavy on visual gimmickry and pulses with an aggravating energy, but it also feels strangely empty and unnecessary.

Leonardo DiCaprio is getting the usual Oscar buzz for his highly physical lead performance, but like Lubezki’s cinematography, it falls more into the “neat trick/who cares” category. DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a mostly silent single father working as a guide for a morally corrupt trapping company. When Glass gets ripped to shreds in a horrifying bear attack, he’s left for dead in the snowy wilderness by a ruthless co-worker, but recovers enough to pursue a relentless path toward vengeance.

Tom Hardy plays Glass’ treacherous adversary, and with his wild bug-eyes, bushy mustache and over-the-top accent, he might as well be playing Yosemite Sam. In fact, no matter how grotesque the film gets, it’s so consistently ridiculous (at one point, Glass literally goes over a waterfall) that it plays like an R-rated Looney Tunes short stretched out to 156 minutes.

Although abetted by special effects, DiCaprio clearly suffers for his art here, whether submerging himself in ice cold water or climbing inside of a horse carcass for warmth. It’s impressive as a stunt, but that doesn’t make it good acting—it should take more than some Super Dave-style peril to win a major acting award.

The film works as a visceral experience, yet on the whole The Revenant is a frustrating mess. There is a change jar of messages regarding the pitiless beauty of nature and the savagery of man, but Iñárritu only knows how to lay it on thick, so it amounts to a lot of puffed-up finger-wagging. More than anything, Iñárritu excels at hectoring and exhausting his audience, and The Revenant is no exception—he’s good at grinding you to a nub, and not much else.