On Saturday, my lovely wife Justine and I went to see The Revenant, the new film by Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu. And usual for any Tom Hardy movie, my wife hated it. She thinks I have a thing for slow, plodding, uber-violent manly-man movies (most of which star Tom Hardy), and she’s right; I do. I walked out mesmerized. The Reverant is not an “enjoyable” movie. Though beautifully shot, with wide, aching shots of the hostile, frozen landscapes (which appeals, for obvious reasons), it is difficult to watch at times. The film, like the best art, challenges, and its themes go full 11th grade high school English teacher on your ass (man vs. nature, man vs. man, man versus self).
Iñárritu makes you think, dig deep, and the movie doesn’t take easy outs. It is such a widely different film than Birdman, both stylistically and thematically. As an artist myself, I found that scope enthralling, to see a filmmaker willing to take the risks, shoot so high, achieve something grand and remarkable. Writing reviews is hard to do without spoilers. I’ll do my best, but if you haven’t seen the film, or The Hateful Eight, you might want to stop here.
A couple weeks ago, the wife and I saw Tarantino’s latest, The Hateful Eight. And at the time, I thought it was … meh. Keep in mind, I love Tarantino. Though he only wrote (i.e., didn’t direct) True Romance, the film remains one of my all-time favs (and it is the movie my wife and I fell in love to). And Pulp Fiction is, hands down, one of the best films ever made. The only Tarantino I didn’t like was Jackie Brown, and even the ones I didn’t love (Inglourious Basterds) possess sublime moments. I thought Django was magnificent (we will discuss that shortly; in particular Tarantino’s infatuation with a certain derogatory term). H8 employs all the director’s strengths–character, dialogue, homage, a true genius for cinematography. But the whole doesn’t equal the sum of its parts. I left the theater feeling like I got my money’s worth. Like blowjobs and pizza, even bad Tarantino is pretty good.
Then again, I live in California, where they regularly put things like asparagus and nettles on pizza, and as for the other? Well, I’m married. But after seeing The Revenant, I’ve changed my mind about The Hateful Eight. It is a bad movie. The film commits the most egregious of sins; it opts for style over substance, and refuses to make any sort of meaningful statement. H8 is like that joke band, of which I knew so many in San Francisco back in the ’90s. Y’know, the kind, where every song is about erectile dysfunction and no one takes a damn thing seriously, like that 4-Non Blondes video–not, not song. I’m talking about the video for “What’s Up?” I love the song. Very emotive, honest, heartfelt, but the video is performed all winks and nods. Strap on a goofy hat, mug for the camera, try to have it both ways. I hate that shit. Frank Turner sings about the phenomena in “Four Simple Words”:
It’s really easy to make fun of everything when you don’t stand for anything.
That’s what Hateful Eight felt like. A big wink and a nod, a whole lot bluster and beauty signifying nothing. The acting is great. Sam Jackson is always wonderful. Kurt Russell terrific too. And Jennifer Jason Leigh is one of America’s best actresses. But the film is almost three hours long, and in the end it says … stuff. Plus, can Quentin Tarantino please stop with the n-word shit? It’s 2016. Can we evolve? In Django, a film about slavery, where the oppressed overcomes (to a degree), its usage makes some sense. Here it only highlights one of Tarantino’s real shortcomings.
The Reverant covers roughly the same time frame. I mean, it’s the fucking 1800s. If there are no cars and people have to poop in the woods, it’s the same time frame. But what radically different visions! And, yes, not every movie has to be heavy or severe. Even There’s Something About Mary, This Is Spinal Tap, and The Hangover has something to say. There can be sincerity in comedy, even the slapstick variety. An artist only has to take the leap and put their heart out there, take the risk of being judged (so glad the singular they is now accepted). And that is scary shit, for any artist. Or human being.
Leonardo DiCaprio, who may be the best actor of our generation (something both Justine and I agree on [although I’d probably take Daniel Day Lewis] [either way he’s really, really good]), stars as Hugh Glass, a frontier explorer on a fur-trapping expedition, along with his half-Pawnee son, Hawk. I don’t want to recap the plot too much, but what you see in the trailers is what you get: Glass is attacked by a bear and left for dead, Hardy’s Fitzgerald is a total dick, and Mother Nature is one cruel bitch, the movie taking place across a particularly grueling winter in the Montana and South Dakota badlands (not the literal badlands, the Springsteen-esque metaphorical badlands, where the broken heart stands as the price you gotta pay).
The screenplay, co-written by Iñárritu, is based on a true story (aren’t they all?), and this time it seems like they stick a little closer to the facts (while still taking plenty of liberties). But the movie succeeds (much in the way H8 fails) by going big-game hunting. Iñárritu asks the big questions. Who are we? Why are we here? If you were really, really cold could you sleep inside an animal carcass? Seriously, that grizzly bear attack was one of the hardest scenes I’ve ever had to watch, and yet Iñárritu never makes it sensational or gratuitous like the climax of H8.
Maybe it’s not fair to compare the two. Like comparing Springsteen to a pop singer. Then again, I love Taylor Swift because she means what she sings. And I’ll close with this, a point on which both my wife and I agree: The Reverant is not an enjoyable movie. She hated it. I loved it. But, either, it’s not “enjoyable.” (Although I suppose that depends on your definition of the word “enjoyable.”) The Hateful Eight is enjoyable. It’s fine, easily digestible fare. Much like movie popcorn. Fun at the time, makes you a little sick later, and then becomes forgettable with no lasting nutritional value. The Reverant is something better than enjoyable. It does what all great art should do. It moves you.