The Revenant (2016)

★★★★

The Revenant Poster 1Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Release Date: January 8th, 2016 (US); January 15th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Adventure; Drama; Thriller

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter

Before The Revenant, cinematographer extraordinaire Emmanuel Lubezki shot Birdman with such technical wizardry he garnered significant critical acclaim. The floating, stalking style he employed throughout the film manifested itself in the paranoid exterior of Birdman’s central character Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton). Alejandro González Iñárritu’s newest epic is a visual feast that again transcends simple splendour, similarly mirroring the harrowing and heartening journey of its protagonist, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio).

A brutal insurgence sets the unflinching tone while also highlighting the perversely wonderful landscape. Lubezki tags this opening sequence, which goes on for many minutes, with a nauseating sense of disorientation: arrows splice necks indiscriminately as bodies burn and blister. The conditions are pretty horrid and only get worse, and the audience is not let off lightly — Lubezki’s cinematography might occasionally disperse beauty but when the tough times assume focus, you’re right there with the unlucky Glass (at one point waves literally batter the camera lens).

Describing Glass as unlucky is an understatement. Having led a band of fur trappers around the northern regions of America, a bear attack renders the hunter severely incapacitated. His camp, behind on their expedition following decimation at the hands of a group of Arikara Native Americans searching for their chief’s daughter, collectively decide to leave him in the hands of his half-native son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), the inexperienced Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Fitzgerald, consumed by antipathy and greed, subsequently leaves for Glass for dead.

As such, ongoing themes of retribution (“Revenge is in the creator’s hands”) and guilt (“We all saw it,” says Fitzgerald, trying to redirect blame) loom large. The two coalesce to fund this overriding examination of karma’s role in nature — having invaded the Arikara natives’ land, western hunters find themselves either dead, nearly dead, or morally dying. Even Domhnall Gleeson’s character, the captain of the expedition and arguably one of the more righteous on-screen characters, is burdened by a sense injustice and guilt. The Arikara natives, meanwhile, represent karma in human form, defending their honour and fighting capital-driven colonialism: they are judge, jury and executioner.

The aforementioned bear assault is impressive and harrowing, so much so that Glass’ survival actually beggars belief. You really need to buy into Iñárritu’s oft-included spiritual strand at this point and accept that there is some sort of superior healing going on (spirituality later manifests as a dove emerging from the chest of Glass’ deceased wife and as a perched black crow awaiting death). Given his abject surroundings, numerous gaping wounds and eventual solitude, it is miracle that Glass pulls through — to compound the matter, he wears a bearskin coat which reminds us of his survival instinct.

DiCaprio is great, as has become the norm, but the version of Hugh Glass we meet in The Revenant isn’t all that interesting. That we feel anything more than natural sympathy for the fur trapper is a testament to the actor’s rugged portrayal and, crucially, his commitment. Not the method actory stuff like raw bison chewing or raw carcass sheltering, but the emotional commitment DiCaprio shows from start until finish, by which point he did manage to coax some eye-welling out of me. And that’s pretty good going given we only really see the broken, vengeful side of Glass: he carves Fitzgerald’s name into the landscape as a motivational tool to stay alive.

Hardy itches and grunts his way through a performance that might strike some as scenery chewing (there’s a lot of scenery ripe for chewing), but that genuinely had me gripped. He is uncomfortably magnetic playing a truly evil man who does not appear to have any primal strength, only a lawless prerogative and a heartlessness bred out of self-centred durability. Menace blazes from his eyes: “You just have to blink [to die],” he informs a hurt Glass, fully aware the latter’s eyes cannot possibly hold out. Iñárritu shot in sequence and it shows: you can see weariness increasingly impede upon the actors to the point that they mightn’t even be acting. Will Poulter is also excellent as Fitzgerald’s innocent understudy, a spark of humanity among the viciousness.

Snowy forest locales are reminiscent of Edward Zwick’s Defiance, and are just as haunting too. Skyward shots of trees are frequent, depicting a barrage of tentacles ready to strike and engulf those below. Despite the general vastness, the film has a claustrophobic feel denoting no reprieve and no escape. Lubezki shows white mountainscapes and ice-carpeted valleys akin to those in The Fellowship of the Ring, though the visuals extend beyond scope, incorporating harshness and wince-inducing iconography to great effect. The score, a joint effort from Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto, is invasive and chilling — this time it is The Return of the King that springs to mind (see Sméagol’s transformation into Gollum) as eerie whistles build disconcerting tension.

In essence, what we’ve got is Max Mad: Fury Road without the exhilarating zing and character depth. The Revenant is a challenging watch, but not necessarily challenging to process. The themes are broad and like Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, there is an anomalous quality at play in that the film feels both narratively weightless and technically marvellous. You might consider this Iñárritu’s version of 21st century silent cinema; often suffocated by a lack of engaging verbiage, the movie’s main protagonist never feels fully formed. But for what The Revenant is and for what it is trying to do, this Wild Wild North tale has a tendency to stun.

The Revenant - Leo DiCaprio

Image credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox

Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy Look Menacing in Latest Posters for The Revenant

The Revenant Poster 1

Nothing says Guaranteed Oscar Nominee like an A-list cast putting themselves through production hell (and the odd carcass) in the name of their craft. And if that isn’t enough, you might point towards a practically wordless trailer that promotes a truly stunning atmosphere. Now Alejandro Gonázlez Iñárritu’s The Revenant has a pair of striking posters to go with its already heavyweight level pre-release platform.

Having previously issued a poster bereft of everything apart from a frozen landscape image and a captioned title, 20th Century Fox has now unveiled two new glossy sheets bearing the grizzled expressions of stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy. Though a great poster isn’t always a calling card for a great film, some effort on the artistic front can go quite a long way: it fuels excitement, funds intrigue, and at worst is nice to gawk at.

Posters for Iñárritu’s films often hone in on the faces of individuals, indicting complexity and some sort of purpose. That makes sense given the writer-director has a history of working with layered characters who exist in aggravating circumstances — see Birdman’s Riggan Thomson or anybody in Babel — and by the looks of things that isn’t going to change when The Revenant gallops into town.

The Revenant Poster 2

DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a 19th century fur trapper who seeks revenge having been left for dead by those in his company, one of whom is Hardy. The posters separate the acting duo and show them staring menacingly into the distance, their faces carpeted by hair and snow. Perhaps they are staring at each other. Luminous orange sparks can be seen permeating the wintry environment, and you can be sure there’ll be more of those flying when the two hunters inevitably clash.

Domhnall Gleeson (Ex Machina, Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens) and Will Poulter (The Maze Runner) are also involved, and Birdman cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is back behind the camera. Scenes were filmed in various locations around Canada and in southern Argentina.

Only time knows whether or not Iñárritu and co. will be in the Oscar mix come February next year (let’s hope they are for DiCaprio’s sake) but the marketing for The Revenant would certainly have you believe big and compelling things are on the icy horizon.

The Revenant is out Christmas Day in the US and January 15th in the UK.

The Revenant Poster 3

Images credit: IMP Awards

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

★★★★★

Mad Max Fury Road PosterDirector: George Miller

Release Day: May 14th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science fiction

Starring: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult

Vehicles have always played a huge part in the Maxverse and veteran director George Miller decides to hammer this point home in Mad Max: Fury Road. Various characters are seen to cherish steering wheels, hauling them around in the same way Bruce Spence’s Gyro Captain clung onto a spoon in Mad Max 2. His spoon could pick at leftover tinned food, a novelty apparently long gone. Small-scale scavenging is out. This is a world dominated by distance, by grandeur, by gasoline. The spoon has become the steering wheel.

Or, maybe such pensiveness doesn’t exist within these characters. Maybe they just love to thunder across the desert. Maybe they can’t wait to get on the road. Miller certainly can’t.

After a brief prologue from Max explaining his post-apocalyptic mantra (“A man reduced to a single instinct: survive”) we hurtle into a half hour opening sequence that obliterates anything remotely resembling action we might have seen in previous films. These thirty minutes of total carnage, of collapsed worldbuilding, shoot past in an aluminium whirlwind, leaving your eyes watering and heart bellowing. It’s almost as if Miller has been waiting three decades to get something off his chest.

The plot is simple but by no means inadequate: Max (Tom Hardy) finds himself in an unlikely partnership alongside Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) as the pair attempt to evade the monarchical clutches of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a slave-keeping cultish leader. The destination, or “Green Place”, dreamt up by the formerly shackled wives of Joe, is unknown. It is more or less a mystery, the characters unable to shed much light and, as such, we are left in the dark. This doesn’t matter, the journey does.

The best thing, unquestionably, about the franchise has always been Miller’s ingenious and realistic-looking action sequences. They are here in abundance, bearing the hallmarks of even greater ingenuity and somehow appearing just as authentic. Oil trucks are christened “War Rigs” and subsequently live up to the name. Amazingly, the majority of effects are practical, in line with the director’s penchant for traditional movie-making. As such, praise should be heaped upon the many stunt performers whose death-defying efforts play a key role in raising the stakes.

We are constantly reminded of the urgency facing Max, Furiosa and company: as the camera pans back towards the chasing pack, all we can see is an ominous mirage, a giant metallic silhouette in the distance. The threat is real and incoming, energised by a booming score that carries more than a hint of Brian May’s earlier franchise work. Other throwbacks to past films include: Master-Blaster-esque siblings (one of whom is former WWE wrestler Nathan Jones), and the occasional lower front bumper camera shot. There’s even that familiar feeling of disorientation, where the screen is so rammed full of carnage that deciphering who is fighting who becomes a task.

Of course, absurdity is tossed around like a hot potato. From vehicles in the form of mechanical hedgehogs, to an electric guitarist who looks like a cross between The Silence from Doctor Who and Klaus Kinski’s Nosferatu, Miller has all bases covered. This includes humour: “Of all the legs, you had to shoot the one that was attached to his favourite”. Nicholas Hoult’s Nux is the ideal amalgamation of odd and funny, his obsession with the Gates of Valhalla both amusing and touching. Hoult absolutely throws himself at the role, which is arguably the best of his career.

Probably for the first time, Max truly is mad. He’s no more than a splash of white body paint away from being one of Joe’s skeletal followers, growling incoherently and shifting his gun aim maniacally. Hardy sometimes deviates verbally back into Bane-mode, but he is mighty impressive as the iconic loner. The Welshman is gruff, a far cry from Mel Gibson’s portrayal in the inaugural instalment and possibly more interesting too.

Hugh Keays-Byrne, the man behind Gibson’s nemesis in Mad Max, returns as new villain Immortan Joe. Perhaps it is not by coincidence that Joe’s world-weary appearance could very well be that of Toecutter after toiling for decades in the scorching desert. Imagine the sunburn? “Do not, my friends, become addicted to water,” Joe preaches to the subservient crowds upon affording them momentary respite from thirst. His voice croaks like the Uruk-hai from The Lord of the Rings, and he is almost as scary too.

In a film overflowing with eccentric and domineering characters, Imperator Furiosa is two things: a warrior and a realist. She handles herself in battle while aiding the escape of five enslaved wives, who are also each pretty handy when it comes to fighting and smarts (and who all somehow manage to keep their white clothing miraculously clean). Rosie Huntington-Whiteley is especially good, steely and determined, as Joe’s pregnant prized possession. The women drive this movie; Max is along for the ride through coincidence, but it is the female characters who initiate the chase because they value life.

“Out here everything hurts,” Furiosa states bluntly. Crucially, Theron does not play her as totally wound up — she is reasonable, and willing to work in a team because it is the right course of action. As a result, the relationship between her, Max and the rest of their ragtag band imbues believability. Some might accuse these characters of being too cordial too soon. They are all survivors though, in a harsh world, with a common enemy.

Without trying to sound overly hyperbolic, Mad Max has hit a new stratosphere. You can just about see Beyond Thunderdome — a perfectly fine outing, by the way — squirming in the corner. The direction, how the film has been pieced meticulously together only to then be blown apart, is all a work of art (in many other genres this would likely demand awards recognition). John Seale’s cinematography is wonderful — a night assault has the dreading echo and gloomy manifestation of something straight from Saving Private Ryan.

A Furiosa moment towards the end should, in time, cement its place in action movie lore alongside the likes of “Yippee-ki-yay motherfucker” and “Hasta-la-vista baby”. This is seminal cinema. The 80s had Die Hard. The 90s, Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Give it 20 years and we’ll be talking about Mad Max: Fury Road as the go-to action jaunt of the early 21st century.

Mad Max Fury Road - Hardy and Theron

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros. Pictures

Locke (2014)

★★★★

Locke PosterDirector: Steven Knight

Release Date: April 18th, 2014 (UK); April 25th (US)

Genre: Drama; Thriller

Starring: Tom Hardy

For Ivan, every bump in the road signifies another life collision. As he gazes through the car window, eyes lamenting, a struggling reflection cast before us, we recognise him as a decent human being in the midst of self-inflicted calamity. Phone calls offer a moment of salvation: relief, anger, humour, misery. But still, salvation from lawless thought. Often, Ivan — a man of structure — joins up the dots in his own life by relating an ingrained knowledge and valuing of cement and stability to the current unsavoury predicament in which he finds himself, and occasionally the driver turns to an empty back seat in order to converse with his deceased father. It’s in these moments of spiritual bartering that Locke struggles to maintain order. Remember, Ivan is a man of structure and the film thrives not through obvious semiotic links, but by way of his empirical, rubble-gathering conversations. Not to mention an exceptional solo performance.

As the night’s misty ambience shrouds his car, construction boss Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) finds himself driving away from a highly imperative job at work through circumstances stemming from a past action that was not at all beyond his control. From home, his son continues to phone and commentate the latest football match, and from work, higher-ups and lower-downs transmit more bad than good news. But it is a situation on the periphery of his normal day-to-day existence that has Ivan abandoning domestic and occupational ship tonight. A birth — one primed to send a stake through his life.

Locke is about as ambitious as any film can get within the confines of a car and boasting a solitary character hampered by a snivel-inducing cold. Plot doesn’t really exist, at least not in its customary tangible form that encourages the camera to follow the actions of different people, to different places, in order to relay new actions. Rather here, any quintessential plot twist or narrative advancement lies at the mouth of Tom Hardy, whose words and facial expressions both have a defining hand in dictating every element of the film. At its core then, in order to be a success Locke perilously relies on a compelling central performance. And it certainly gets one.

At no point does the cinematic spotlight retreat from Tom Hardy. The Londoner has nowhere to hide — just like the man he is portraying, the car is his temporary prison; a voluntary prison, one that both Hardy and Ivan choose to enter. (His name, Locke, hints at confinement.) Further complicating matters, the actor must relay a rich Welsh accent for film’s entirety. It’s put up or shut up time and at no point are we crying out for Hardy to shut up. His dialogues caressed by a wonderfully thick cadence, the man behind the wheel not only garners audience sympathy, but also demands a degree of exasperation by way of an incessant need to fix everything (not to mention a prior noteworthy error in judgement). When Ivan converses with his son Eddie, voiced by Tom Holland, we can hear the compatible trust and loyalty between the pair. Misguided trust? No, not all. Ivan is too genuine in repentance. Yet when we ear-drop in on a discussion between Ivan and Donal, a colleague, it is obvious that the former’s practical desire to amend is being dispersed in the wrong direction. (“I want to talk about a practical next step,” he repeats.) That is, towards his job and not his family.

In establishing Ivan as an ambiguous sort, Hardy leaves it up each individual eavesdropper on his journey to decide whether or not his moral compass is shattered, cracked or still intact. Writer/director Steven Knight plays a role in formulating the character, of course, but Hardy’s delivery must be spot on otherwise the film is doomed. The lead is wearing so many different hats too: father, husband, son, consulter, instructor, peace-keeper. There’s not a single moment of respite in sight, not until he reaches his destination and by then, we’ll be gone. Hardy must relentlessly alter appearance without taking a breath. His character Ivan says it himself: “I have a list of things I have to do tonight when I’m driving.” Carrying wholesale weight on his shoulders, the actor remains poised throughout. If he hadn’t already appeared as Eames in Inception, or as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, this is the type of performance that would’ve propelled Tom Hardy up an acting echelon or two. Instead, it’ll simply cement his lofty place.

In a film as minimally scoping as Locke, a slow and effective plot that builds towards an emotive, tense crescendo is necessary to go alongside a commanding central performance. When Ivan converses with air over his own mistakes and resultantly flip-flops between placing blame on his father and on himself, the outing loses some tension-building momentum. The character is one stimulated by integrity — a structurally damaging change in cement for his building enrages him, and he is left disheartened by a self-generated misdemeanour, two varying instances of corrupt integrity that affect Ivan. Whenever a phone call ends, the car dashboard re-manifests as an electronic satnav, telling us all we need to know about Ivan’s life and where it is headed: straight ahead, approaching isolation, dictated by others. Simple aesthetic insights such as the one offered by said satnav are alluring, unlike the occasional obvious and over-egged metaphysical spiels that don’t do Locke any favours.

Unlike Buried, a film that spends its runtime trapped within a coffin alongside Ryan Reynolds, there’s ultimately no concrete pay-off. Perhaps this has something to do with the aforementioned philosophical interceptions in narrative, jarring much pressure-building. It is also conceivable that Knight writes himself into a tricky conclusion, where there is no justification for an unambiguous ending. This isn’t necessarily a negative — credit must go to Knight for sticking his neck on the line and making a film as experimental as Locke, particularly in an era pillaged by financial behemoths where even low-budget productions cough up allocations of around £10 million. (Locke was made for less than £2 million.) At heart, it is the typical redemption story, only without any typical advantageous factors apart from dialogue — no emphatic score, or distressed damsel, or soaring visual palette. Not even an outright hero. The closest we get to unbridled tension comes during conversations between Locke and any other voice, rather than an empty back seat. Confusion rears and urgency arises, compounded by the screeching sound of sirens and flashing lights from police cars that intermittently race past in the outside world.

Ivan’s journey to London is an exercise in personal demon exorcism, and you are the judge in this tale of uncertainty. One thing is for certain though — Locke is a damn good attempt at something different. Narratively-speaking, the film doesn’t scintillate as much as it wishes to. Performance-wise, it just might.

Locke - Hardy

Images credit: IMP Awards, Vulture

Images copyright (©): A24