The Revenant ★★

For 156 frustrating minutes, I wished that the violence-prone brutes in the foreground — so intent as they were upon reducing the whole affair to a typical tale of playground-bully insults, fighting, more fighting, and eventually murder and apparently inevitable revenge — would just go away and just let me wander through the glorious environments captured by Lubezki's wide-eyed cameras.

Motion pictures: You can take away the narrative and still have a movie. Some of my favorite films from Man with a Movie Camera to Zerkalo to The Tree of Life are more interested in visual poetry than sequences of events. And this had all the makings of a great work of imagery and poetic association.

Or, it could have been a great narrative. Epic stories of distinction, nuanced character development, suspense, and insight have unfolded in just such a historical context as this one.

It is neither. The Revenant insists on putting a thin "this happens, then this happens" narrative front and center, which requires me to try and take its storytelling seriously. And for all of the glory of the context, for all of the extravagant efforts of the actors, that narrative strikes me as juvenile, unimaginative, eager to seem profound, but constantly failing to cultivate any interesting ideas. When the climactic showdown is triggered by somebody challenging the masculinity of another character's son, any aspiration to poetry is reduced to an NFL brawl where everyone's guilty of either trash-talking, unnecessary roughness, or both.

For this viewer, every event in the story — from battles with wild animals, to battles with native defenders of the homeland, to elaborate feats of wilderness survival — seemed staged more to give Innaritu a chance to show off technical virtuosity rather than to enrich the story or develop any kind of suggestive qualities. It's a film with the scope and ambition of Apocalypse Now, but none of the poetry. I never lost awareness of the director and cinematographer; in their constantly showy maneuvers, they kept spoiling my desire to suspend my disbelief and get caught up in the film itself. As Michael Caine once said, "If you're sitting there thinking to yourself 'Michael Caine is giving a great performance' then I have failed."

I love cinema when the artist seems caught up in the vision, however plot-driven, however abstract. But I burned out on plodding, clockwork, wish-fulfillment revenge stories a long time ago. And I can't quite surrender to a vision when I feel the artist watching me, eager to see if he's blowing my mind sequence by sequence.

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Tweets upon leaving the theater:

"THE REVENANT: so much talent & natural beauty squandered on a juvenile story. End was astoundingly unimaginative. All bluster, no insight. ..."

"... Wants [a hero's] conscience-awakening without being willing to sacrifice [climactic] bloody satisfaction. ..."

"... Feels like the movie for the worst kind of evangelical Braveheart masculinity retreat, complete with token Jesus cameo. ..."

"... And so Leo will finally get the Oscar that has eluded Tom Cruise: the one for relentless intensity. MOST, not Best, Actor. ..."

"... [It's] like Innaritu thought 'THE NEW WORLD would've been better if Colin had spent 3 hrs fighting for Pocahontas's honor."

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These were just first impressions flung into the ether... but I feel heartened that they got a nod from one of my favorite big-screen storytellers. Thanks! Almost makes that long, long evening in the theater worthwhile.

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P.S. You'll note I've given it two stars here: One is for the glory of the natural world, and one is for Lubezki who films it so beautifully. No stars for narrative imagination or character development.

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P.P.S. Can't decide if this is a good thing or a bad thing: But Innaritu seems to be finally realizing that, now that he has a global audience, he can do away with the nuisance of developing a complex narrative and just do what he loves: Showy camerawork and telling actors "Again, but with more intensity!"

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One more thing: This is just one moviegoer's testimony of his experience, not a negation of your very different experience. Just don't write this off as "Oscar backlash," please. I wanted to love this movie.

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