When “Man in the Wilderness” opened at the Seattle Seventh Avenue on November 24, 1971, it wasn’t on the list of movies I wanted to see. Instead, I went to Nicolas Roeg’s “Walkabout,” Frank Zappa’s “200 Motels,” and Milos Forman’s “Taking Off.” There were plenty of other options in Seattle that weekend, including David Lean’s latest, “Ryan’s Daughter,” as well as revivals of his “Doctor Zhivago” and “Lawrence of Arabia.” A few suburban second run houses had triple features of the first three “Planet of the Apes” movies, and The Crest, right outside the city limits, offered the blockbuster double feature of “West Side Story” and “Around the World in 80 Days” for just 50 cents.
There was nothing about “Man in the Wilderness” that appealed to me. And nobody in the industry or the press was treating it as anything special. Reviews were poor. Howard Thompson, in the New York Times, judged it “a flat, pretentious bore,” while John Hartl of the Seattle Times called it “an entertainment for masochists.” It ran for three weeks downtown, then “Diamonds are Forever” replaced it. Unlike most popular features, it didn’t go straight to the second run theaters, but disappeared for six weeks before popping up at the drive-ins.
It seemed like an odd movie to be given an $120 million dollar remake forty-five years later, but 2008 had seen a $45 million remake of a piece of drive-in schlock called “Death Race 2000,” which had been made in 1975 for “$300,000, so it was pretty obvious who was running the asylum in this new century. Directing this remake of an insignificant adventure yarn from 1971 was Alejandro González Iñárritu, who had won an Oscar for directing 2014’s best picture, “Birdman.” So this was not going to be any run of the mill remake flop-a-rama. “The Revenant” was a designer package.
And for the first ten minutes, it looks like it might be a successful one. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography promises something grand and epic on the scale of his work on Terrence Malick’s “The New World.” But after the massacre of the fur traders by the Indians, that scale shrinks. The cinematography loses its grandeur as the fabulous landscapes are compromised by the cameraman’s intermittent exotropia, and we are running through the claustrophobic backstage of “Birdman” once more. Had the director coordinated his mise en scene with the lazy-eyed drift of the camera, he might have achieved something along the lines of a wilderness version of Hitchcock’s “Rope,” but this is nothing but myopic eye candy. From this point on, there is nothing worth watching here.
“Man in the Wilderness “opened with a sudden, shocking, and bloody attack by a bear. About 20 minutes into “The Revenant,” we get a very bad imitation of that scene. It is much longer, much bloodier, and far less frightening. In fact, its protracted length and exaggerated gore pushes it into a semi-comedic zone. I mean, you can only watch this stuff for so long before you start laughing at it. And when it is all over, and the victim left for dead, the sense of absurdity remains, hovering over the rest of the film as a reminder of how idiotic this oh-so serious rigmarole really is.
This is a movie that bullies the audience into liking it. You might be slobbering all over your popcorn as you snore away, but when you drag open your eyelids, its hard to argue with those formidable landscapes, especially as you have read that everything was shot with natural light. But what does that mean anyway? I’ll bet they plastered those mountains and riverbeds with millions of dollars worth of high-tech reflectors. And what about the digital manipulation of the images in post-production? A lot of expensive work went into the manufacture of images this stylized. They don’t just appear after a session of point and shoot. Personally, I preferred the soft focus naturalism of Gerry Fisher’s excellent work on “Man in the Wilderness” to this unnaturally sharp and over-defined stuff. That old 1971 programmer is looking better every minute.
Yeah, but what about the superhuman endurance that Leonardo DiCaprio displays as he crawls out of the grave, drags himself across the ice, and down a deadly waterfall? Well, it just proves if you are a big, lumbering man with abnormal features covered in mud, filth, and blood, who takes up more screen space than he deserves that he can pass himself off as the new Orson Welles. While I don’t think much of DiCaprio as an actor, his screen presence has never bothered me. I liked him in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and thought he was fine in “Titanic.” But until he became Martin Scorsese’s #1 leading man, many held him as an object of much scorn . Then, they must have thought if Scorsese liked him so much, he must be a great actor, not taking into account the possibility that the acclaimed director was now in his dotage. But even without Scorsese’s endorsement, DiCaprio’s presence in the dreadfully popular “Inception,” would have clinched it. Now he is almost universally accepted as a great actor, and it will surprise many if he does not receive an Oscar for limping his way through “The Revenant.” It would have been considered ridiculous had Richard Harris been nominated for an Oscar for the same role in 1971, when the competition included Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton, Dustin Hoffman, and John Voigt. There were even some eyebrows raised when John Wayne walked off with the award. This year, with Bryan Cranston, Michael Fassbender, Matt Damon, and Eddie Redmayne as his competition, there is no reason whatsoever not to give the prize to DiCaprio. Face it, it’s been a long time since an Oscar was awarded for an Oscar-calibre performance.
So what is this movie supposed to be about? Well, revenant is French for a person who returns, usually from the dead. Herein lies the film’s ambiguity, and the one aspect of the film that engaged my mind, though not enough to keep me from from falling asleep several times during its duration. If he is dead then at what point did he die? After the bear attack? or was he dead from the start? Or did he only die toward the end, shortly before the remark that he was not afraid of death, as he had already been there. Of course, the line can also be interpreted metaphorically, and he was alive right up until the end. The French definition gives us this out when it says the return is usually from the dad. It reminded me of an M. Night Shyamalan con, coasting on ambiguity until reaching a revelation that is supposed to make you think the movie is a lot better than you thought it was.
And maybe it is better than it looks to me. I’m so far out of time that I even remember a world before rock and roll existed. When I look at a movie like this, I’m like some guy from the silent era looking at sound films in the thirties and whining about the art of film being lost. Or some WWII vet who thinks movies look more realistic in black and white than in color. I’m sure that people raised in the video age are thrilled at the clarity of the Blu-ray, and a 35 mm screening of “Man in the Wilderness” would look like an old dated piece of crap that wasn’t even worth looking at. Probably would feel the same about “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.” So maybe, from the timely perspective of the audience for “The Revenant,” I am uselessly imposing a dated aesthetic upon today’s cutting edge masterpiece.
One thing remains that bothers me. If Iñárritu is such a genius, what impels him to remake a mediocre wilderness picture from 1971? And what is it about his version that makes him believe it was worth $120 million of other people’s money to produce it? Certainly there were flaws in the original, from a soundtrack that liberally steals from Jerry Fielding’s score for “The Wild Bunch” to Richard Harris’ hair that is impervious to dirt. But there were also some exquisite scenes, such as Harris placing a splint alongside a rabbit’s broken foot, or Harris’ arm falling limply into the flowing river after he falls exhausted down a slope. And even though neither film has much dialogue, the screenplay of “Man in the Wilderness” is constructed of definite scenes that lead us through place and time. Even though it was filmed in Spain, we feel the movement from the Pacific Northwest across the mountains and plains to the Missouri River. With “The Revenant,” we have no sense of place. It just drags us shapelessly from no place to nowhere.
Even considering the geographical changes in the script from both the historical narrative upon which it is based and the settings for the Richard Harris film, director Iñárritu fails to place the action of “The Revenant” into correspondant locations. The opening scene depicts an attack on the trappers from the Arikara, who were Indians of the Great Plains, living mainly in Nebraska and South Dakota. But the scenes are filmed far North in Canada, and look it. Furthermore, DiCaprio’s character was married to and had a child by a Pawnee Indian, who would have lived along the Missouri River in either Kansas or Nebraska. I have been to those places and they look nothing like the film’s locations. Apologists for “The Revenant” may argue that the film takes place in some allegorial, metaphorical, or symbolic realm and that the topography represents a cosmology of the spirit. To that, and to all those who use poetic licence as a subterfuge for nonsense, I echo Antonin Artaud’s cry of “Shit to the Spirit!” This movie is nothing but a wallow in the physical prison of death-in-life, and it teeters in the balance between gangrene and amputation.