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

The Maze Runner (2014)

★★★

The Maze Runner PosterDirector: Wes Ball

Release Date: September 19th, 2014 (US); October 10th, 2014 (UK)

Genre: Action; Mystery; Science-fiction

Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Will Poulter, Thomas Brodie-Sangster

Twilight kick-started the craze only for it to ripen amongst the chaos of The Hunger Games’ Cornucopian anarchy. The young adult adaptation trend is sweeping cinema and its latest passenger, The Maze Runner, is certainly one of the better book to screen jobs. This latest jaunt owes a great debt to Suzanne Collins’ novels in particular, and manages to hold up stringently despite not sharing The Hunger Games’ politically infused backbone. It’s a solid film that will likely play better when pitted alongside the planned sequels, but for now Wes Ball’s directorial debut should be considered, at the very least, a steadfast success.

Devoid of his ability to remember, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) awakens inside a noisy metal cage that is rapidly ascending skywards. It suddenly halts, opening to reveal bright sunlight and a group of grubby males. Thomas soon learns that about the Maze, an ever mobile entrapment monitored at night by dangerous spider-like Grievers. To make matters worse, the boys are stuck in the Glade — the grassy centre of the Maze — and there doesn’t appear to be any way out.

The rules: trust, run, return. Led by the longest serving inmate, Alby, the group of young males have systematically formed and subsequently cater to a subsistence society; some build bamboo prisons, some farm vegetables, some run the Maze. These Runners, we’re warned, must return from their exploration exploits before dark or else they’ll be trapped for the night and “no one has ever survived a night in the Maze”. The opening act is very pre-occupied with Basil Exposition. Launching us into this new, mysterious world without any briefing, the filmmakers do their damnedest to catch us up on happenings without giving too much away.

What we have, then, is a Lord of the Flies meets The Hunger Games narrative composite, and one that works rather well. Whilst thematic exploration is a tad frothy, the film definitely has the latter’s industry. It shows too. Visually, The Maze Runner dips into that familiar gloomy, metallic sheen before unravelling with energy and turbulence as characters enter the Maze. Perhaps too caught up in the action, the camera itself becomes overly-eager on occasion but cinematographer Enrique Chediak ultimately reflects the disparate tone of proceedings. It is worth pointing out John Paesano’s brooding score also, one that spikes in moments of danger and gets the heart racing.

And it’s not just in these areas of technicality that the film resembles its older cousin, but also in plot make-up. The Maze, it turns out, is split into eight sections much like games’ twelve in Catching Fire. The cage that elevates Thomas into the Glades at the start is essentially the glass pod that drops Katniss off at the Cornucopia. Although the piece doesn’t resonate thematically — at least not with the same rigour — there are interesting momentary flares. At its heart, The Maze Runner is an analysis of defeatism, of struggle and acceptance. Thomas’ arrival signals a resurgence in moral determination for some Gladers (“I don’t know if [Thomas] is brave or stupid but I think we should make him a Runner”) whereas others, such as the group’s perennial enforcer Gally, seem somewhat content with their chained destiny. We can almost empathise with him too, given the Glades isn’t really all that horrifying a place.

The aforementioned element of mystery — amplified when Kaya Scodelario’s sole female Teresa shows up — helps us relate to the characters as a collective; essentially, we know as much as they do and vice versa. By the same token, Wes Ball is faced with the task of balancing the integral build of tension with restraint when it comes to use of the Maze. He almost achieves this unity too and that simmering atmosphere is nearly there — the brutalist appearance of the snaring stone structure combined with hardly any knowledge, a sense of dissolution and a lack of someone to villainise all coalesce together into a medium-sized wave of carpeting tension.

We do get the sense that Ball and company have been sold down the river when it comes to matching the tone with on screen events. Put simply, the film needs to be a little more violent. Instead the audience can just about smell the stench of studio-implemented pandering at the expense of storytelling. Sequences in the Maze are effective yet never totally capture the risk that would normally be glaring from the screen, and it’s because of this sterilised approach. The Griever monsters, all hybrids of the Xenomorph, the Predator and Shelob, look like they could do some hefty damage but we never really feel the brunt of their potential capacity.

As is often the case in this genre these days, the cast do well. Dylan O’Brien leads the way as the “curious” Thomas and manages to garner a feeling of hard-to-pinpoint inner turmoil whilst also coming across as capable, as someone fuelled by purpose. The arrival of Teresa does prescribe in tandem worries over a clichéd romance between the pair, but love takes a back seat as it should under the circumstances. Kaya Scodelario is also effective in her role, but she’s the one who draws the shortest straw in terms of character development. More to come, I suspect.

Two other stand-outs are Will Poulter, who seems to be carving out a niche for himself as a promising big screen talent, and Thomas Brodie-Sangster. Game of Thrones fans will recognise Brodie-Sangster, here playing second in command Newt who is arguably the most accessible of the bunch. Despite his role as the most remonstrative resident, Poulter ensures that Gally retains an understandable righteousness. Friction-causing notwithstanding, Gally’s thoughts are always practical and occasionally hold greater verve than the riskier doings of others.

The inconclusive ending does hurt the film. Revelations arrive a tad too easily before concluding abruptly, and it is clear that those in charge have at least one eye on the sequel by the time the final act rolls around. It is also true that during the two hour runtime, there ought to have been a warrant for deeper examination into societal codes between the boys. Having said that, opting to engage with The Hunger Games over Lord of the Flies is probably a wise decision in 2014.

The Maze Runner is a very good three star film that could, given time and triumphant sequels, become a laudable four star franchise opener.

The Maze Runner - Dylan O'Brien and Will Poulter

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox