Every time I see a movie that absolutely floors me, I write down my initial thoughts in my journal. I like keeping a record of my raw interpretations (and misinterpretations) before binging on criticism and director's interviews. I usually only share these with a few close film nerd friends, but in honor of the Oscars tonight, I thought I'd publish my first reactions to the two Oscar contenders I liked most.
The Revenant 1/24/2016
I’ve seen and read a lot of stories about the beauty and horror of nature, but The Revenant’s take on the theme felt profoundly original. The theme is mostly conveyed through the different characters' ideologies that run parallel to the forces they encounter.
God is referred to several times in the film by the main characters, and here it's interchangeable with nature. Fitzgerald speaks of God as a force to conquer. He has a monologue about a man (a relative I think) who said he found God in a squirrel. “I shot that squirrel,” Fitzgerald boasts. Man as nature's conquerer.
Glass is refreshingly not a hippie type counter - how can you be in the brutal nature shown here? He attacks nature when needed, and when his survivalist instincts kick in, his view of it changes. There is a great scene where he pretends to shoot a group of swimming deer with a stick.
But he's not a naive conquerer. Like nature, he has the capacity for awe and destruction. He gazes over sweeping vistas with reverence, and shows similar emotion at the sight of a herd of buffalo.
The deep respect he feels for his natural adversary probably explains the connection he has with the Native Americans. While the other white men, both American and French, view them as savages, Glass is at one with them. He loved one of their women, his son is one of their own. They are the only other people in the film that seem to love the edge of the world, in spite of its bad temper.
The Native Americans operate with a code of honor and respect. They trade with the French despite viewing them as enemies because it is fair. Perhaps they view nature as fair too, which is an interesting read considering it seems so unpredictable. Their honor comes back in play toward the end of the film, as they leave Glass after ending Fitzgerald's life.
The main factions that become adversaries are mostly driven by a primal instinct - the desire to protect. Glass wants to protect his son. The Native American chief wants to retrieve his daughter. When they are put in the role of a protector, their animal sides take over.
One of the most striking scenes about this theme is Glass' battle with the bear. The camera first reveals the bear cubs, and then the threat, the parent. The bear is no different from Glass. He feels (assuming it's a male) his children are threatened, and reacts accordingly.
Corin Tucker sings in Sympathy:
Glass is later asked if he really killed an officer. No, he says he killed a man who tried to kill his son. In the face of terror, the badges, the labels, the titles are gone. They mean nothing to nature.
Glass' entire will to live comes from loss. His son's death gives him purpose - the will to live to avenge him. At first I thought the notes he etched into the world, “Fitzgerald killed my son,” were meant to let travelers know the truth should he die, but I realized they were for reminders Glass himself. The will to continue.
I tried imagining how Glass would have his revenge - I thought it would be fitting if nature took both him and Fitzgerald at once. I like the real ending though, the man who respects nature lets it have its victory over the man foolish enough to try to best it. The river brings Fitzgerald to the Native Americans, the closest people to nature, who kill him and leave Glass with honor. Occasional allies, just like nature and its people.
Iñárritu juxtaposes the harsh reality against semi-surreal flashbacks and narrations by Glass' deceased lover throughout the film, repeating this lovely sentiment:
It's a beautiful articulation of the will to live, and I love the idea that there is always structure in chaos for those who care to look. The theme is depicted wonderfully in the film - Glass survives by repurposing nature, finding shelter where others would see only death. Sometimes it's as simple as the bear skin he wears, other times more grotesque, as when he bores himself into the carcass of a dead animal to keep warm.
Like Birdman, Iñárritu leaves his audience with a question. The final scene shows Glass watching his wife walk off screen. The camera holds on his face, before cutting to black and the sound of his heavy breathing. My interpretation is that in Fitzgerald's death, Glass has lost his will to live and joins nature in accepting his own death. Perhaps he believes he will be reunited with those he lost.
The juxtaposition between the grand themes of nature and the small character drama gives the film tremendous power. Even in the face of a force that is greater than man and will long outlive him, man focuses on his small group people. They give him the strength, be it love or in hate, to continue.
The film is gorgeously shot, with some of the most breathtaking footage I have ever seen on screen. My date the other night mentioned that they waited for the perfect natural lighting for some shots, and called the actors to hop on a plane when it looked like it was going to happen. Amazing perfectionism, and the result speaks for itself.
Birdman was the last movie I saw to make me wonder how the filming was even possible, so it's fitting that The Revenant is the next one to do so. Like in Birdman, the camera sometimes feels like it's inhabiting an omnipresent character, freely floating through the environments in long continuous shots, giving you a sense of space that you don't usually get in more static cinematography. It doesn't feel like Cloverfield-style handicam, it's very controlled. It's more like the sensation of flying through a level in a video game engine.
The continuous shot toward the end, in Glass and Fitzgerald's final struggle, really got to me. The battle for a knife to gain control of a skirmish is a common film trope, but seeing the camera follow the shifting weight of the characters, floating between them and the object without a cut gave it so much more raw power. I was uncomfortable watching, a small echo of the character's emotions.
Sometimes it takes an outsider to rattle a system. In this story, the outsider was the new Boston Globe editor Marty Baron (a "Jew who hates baseball"), and the system was Boston itself, a muddy mixture of the Church's influence, the institutions that are supposed to challenge it, and the people caught up in each.
Boston was referred to constantly as like a "small town," and the film's visual language gave it that feel. The locations were coffee shops, news rooms, and offices, each shot with steady camera work that often pulled back to let multiple characters react simultaneously on screen. That trick was most often used during epiphanies. One very effective scene involved the Spotlight team talking to a psychiatrist on a phone in the center of a table. The camera pulled back to reveal characters we didn't even know were present, alongside dense set decoration (Iots of empty Dunkin Donuts cups).
The camera drifted toward shaky cam in fragile scenes, and the director made ample use of the walk and talk to both reveal an environment (the library archives for example) and inundate the audience with plot intricacies. For a movie this dense, it was incredibly economical with its screen time, spending mere seconds on character details like Mike's affection for running (his restless runner spirit guided his entire mode of operation).
The city always felt like it was under religion's watchful eye - it was a city built to worship. Churches were often present in the background, but other sanctuaries were on display too: baseball stadiums, liquor, and sports pennants. Even during an interview, one former victim still wore a cross.
The tension between the need for faith and the need for truth was paramount to the film. Those in the know covered up the truth because "people needed the Church." It's a cynical view similar to the justification for nostalgia trips and power fantasies - that people need escapes regardless of how problematic they are. One priest said during a sermon expressing concerns about the Internet obsoleting his profession:
This baseless faith had Boston in its vice grip.
Another remarkable line:
Garabedian is speaking of systemic complacency, exactly the type Baron was trying to attack. He wisely realized that attacking a system requires restraint, otherwise people see the accusation as a one off rather than as part of a continuum. It went against journalistic instinct to hold back stories, but it wasn't about the individual victims or accused priests, it was about destroying the entire machine that enabled them to continue to exist.
It reminded me a lot of the discussion surrounding gun violence, in that most of the cases are viewed in isolation. Here's the one about misogyny, the one about racism, the one about mental health, the one about ISIS. Rarely are they viewed as part of a common thread, and as a result attempts to solve the gun problem are often discredited. The recent, powerful New York Times op-ed attempted to rectify this problem.
I also liked the way the film portrayed restraint, confirming the idea that good work often takes time and patience. The Spotlight team searched for stories for a long time (lengthy preproduction in video game terms) and spent a year or more on each. They were after landmark journalism. Their mission wasn't based on pursuit of a personal agenda, but the pursuit of the highest achievement in their craft - a watershed piece.
Their watershed piece gave us a watershed movie, and one I look forward to chewing on for a long time to come.