>The Revenant, the new Leonardo DiCaprio western, bids to be also the last western. That once-quintessential Hollywood genre has lost its popularity to sci-fi and comic-book flicks that trendily dramatize social tensions — along with offering escape into perpetual adolescence. The Revenant reworks the older westerns’ exploration of American history, and of the issues arising from the clash between civilization and perceived wilderness, into a spectacle replete with contemporary social distress. That makes it an Obama western.
>DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass, a guide and hunter for a fur-trading expedition in the 1820s, humbly embodies the country’s humane, multicultural hopes, yet he’s stuck amid venal, weak-principled countrymen. Burdened with the racist legacy of European settlers, Glass is haunted by the killing of his Pawnee wife and guards his biracial son. Glass’s ambivalence and fortitude are tested by his trouble with John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a low-life among the government-sanctioned trappers. The unhinged, Bible-quoting carnivore Fitzgerald is a lying, killing incarnation of America’s evils.
>The epic, overlong murderous opposition between Glass and Fitzgerald reveals perfidious man in nature, and nature as alienating as it is “red in tooth and claw.” Their conflict symbolizes the war between civility and savagery, though it is not the classic sheriff-vs.-outlaw antagonism. In this End of the West western, the greed, selfishness, and brutal cynicism come straight out of our contemporary paranoid atmosphere. The Revenant portrays the U.S. as a ghost of its once idealized, rough-hewn self, a nation troubled by its treacherous past while slogging through an onerous, deadly present — thus, an Obama allegory.
>Oscar-winning Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu doesn’t apologize for American history; he even avoids the Mexican–American War and the policies of European colonization that might specifically explain Manifest Destiny. Yet, by playing a Clooney–Damon–Pitt game, Iñárritu uses the western genre for a simplified critique of American temperament: Glass always physically conflicts with threatening forces, including bedrock, redneck conservatism.
>His virtue is lamely represented by romantic memories and race-conscious fatherhood. (“They don’t hear your voice, they only see your skin,” he warns his teenage son.) His struggle is epitomized in a showpiece battle with a grizzly bear. It’s like a superhero origin myth via computer-generated F/X. Glass is left nearly dead, prey to Fitzgerald’s ruthlessness. Fisheye close-ups of DiCaprio in agony recall A Clockwork Orange’s cynicism, and his snowy travails repeat that Quaalude crawl in The Wolf of Wall Street. After relentless melodramatic setbacks, phenomenal resilience wins him revenge.
>Remember how Vietnam-era westerns (Little Big Man, Soldier Blue, Bite the Bullet, High Plains Drifter) expressed liberal American guilt? Well, the trendy ISIS-era politics of Iñárritu’s western fantasy prohibit cathartic heroism. This frustration and reticence add to The Revenant’s Obama aspect. DiCaprio and the prodigious Tom Hardy sink into their characters’ obstinacy to show white American moral descent (while the knowing Native Americans bide their time stereotypically — a millennial flip of their passivity in Dances with Wolves). After ear-chewing combat with Fitzgerald, similar to Laurence Olivier and Gregory Peck’s mauling each other in The Boys from Brazil, Glass stares at the audience with a look of “This is not who we are” hopelessness.
>The Revenant is an accusatory western. Iñárritu forces the audience to judge imperialism, starting with Emmanuel Lubezki’s preening, relentless camera (just as in last year’s dreadful Birdman) weaving among the corrupt characters. Lubezki’s photography is pellucid, as always, but whereas he achieved a newly discovered, paradisiacal look for Terrence Malick’s The New World, the American wild here seems inhospitable, dangerous. Before the mano a mano brawl, a Bierstadt-worthy sun ray moves through a mountain pass. The fleeting, stunning sight suggests a dying of light, a nation’s coming eclipse.
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