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The Revenant: First Encounter

(Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu, USA, 21015): In this meticulous, sprawling and visually ravishing telling of the tale of the mid-19th century mountaineer Hugh Glass, who was last left for dead after being ripped up by a bear in the 1971 Richard Harris movie Man in the Wilderness, the ordeal of crawling two hundred miles for payback against those left him gunless and gutted attains a level of meditative natural-world awe that might verge on spiritual if it weren’t for the fact that every brute instance of physical depridation, of which there are more than trees in the Wyoming hills, is offered as a form of slow-drip survivalist porn, which leaves you wondering if the real object of all this reverent reconstruction of physical pain and recovery is a hymn God’s unmerciful wrath or Hugh’s transcendent, superhuman rage. That his ultimate retribution takes such a radically divergent path from either the traditional Glass legend or the ’71 movie is perhaps our best indicator of why we’ve spent nearly three hours in the snow, mud and blood with the man. In this account, Glass doesn’t disavow his revenge as a gesture to the spiritual awakening his ordeal has delivered. There is blood for blood, and justice is finally a matter as hard, unyielding and worthy of absolute solemn respect as the mountains themselves.

The Revenant is a movie of such fierce beauty and visual authority you may wonder if it itself wasn’t directed by God’s own hand, which only makes the ultimate moral and philosophical conundrums at its core — of the ‘Really? Is that all there is?’ variety — that much more vexing when you crawl back into the light of day. Can it possibly be that some of the most arresting cinematic sequences imaginable — like an early attack by Arikara warriors on Glass’s trapping party, and the bear assault itself, both shot (by the astounding Emmanuel Lubezki) primarily and hair-raisingly as real-time events — have been deployed in the interest of reifying the most basic, visceral and irresistibly seductive action-movie impulse of them all, which is to smote your enemy?

Not that there’s anything wrong with this, at least on a pulp level, for it would take a pretty profound leap of faith, logic and pure reason to deny the fact that one of the most potent allures of the fictional frontier is that it’s a place where you can get yours and get sanctified in the process. Revenge is not only allowed but expected in the west, and one of the primary pillars in its fictional architecture is the possibility of attaining unequivocal personal justice. But where this has customarily been articulated in the genre as either as a rote ritual of plot exposition or defining character motivation, or used as an opportunity to turn tables on the conventional ideas of heroism, individualism and white imperial entitlement — as in the deep, Vietnamized, post-countercultural revisionism of Man in the Wilderness — Innaritu’s movie would seem to be providing such a powerful experience by virtue of its almost intoxicatingly overpowering reification of the hallowed-ground-zero payback principle. Indeed, if its final moment of such hard fought for and long crawled after retribution counts among one of the movie’s least satisfying and convincing moments, it’s precisely because so much time, effort and monstrous beauty has been spent in the getting there nothing could satisfy the demand for revenge the movie itself has so monumentally constructed.

But I loved watching it. Make no mistake. It also struck me that, in its embedding of rage as a transcendent form of superhuman motivation, something that moves a man beyond pain, through mountains and into a realm of holy reckoning that evokes the misty mountaintop aura of early Herzog and Mallick soaking a tale otherwise told by Anthony Mann or Sam Peckinpah, the movie may not be as drastically different from the 2015 Christmas season’s other conspicuously epic prestige Western — Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight — that opened at almost exactly the same very late moment in the genre’s history. As distinct as they are in specific stylistic and dramatic terms — Tarantino’s frontier retrenchment is as verbal, interior, argumentative and profanely cynical as Innaritu’s is gestural, elemental, imperviously righteous and dispatched with divine rectitude — what they really share is a conviction that nothing motivates a pop cultural return to the old west more necessary, justified and logical than finding a way to talk about hate. If the simultaneous centre-stage appearance of these two films about rage and revenge seem to point more convincingly than any of there intermittent generic predecessors of the past few decades to actual ‘revival’ of the western as a commercial and even artistic enterprise, it would seem to be because it’s the only form which can contain and express just how angry, fearful and uncertain life in this century feels right now. If the Western is actually due for a comeback, at least in its most literal iconographic form, it may be because we actually need it again. To be continued, it would seem. (20th Century-Fox)