I finally saw The Revenant this week. I also saw The Hateful Eight the same day and it’s really interesting to have seen them back to back. Both are by directors who are arguably auteurs, both are classified as Westerns, and both are covered in their fingerprints.
Filmmakers have their trademarks. Something by Joss Whedon will be rife with witty dialogue. J.J. Abrams’ stories will have mystery and wonder. A Michael Bay movie will have explosions and questionable depictions of women. You’ve got these people who’ve developed both a reputation and a style such that you know what you’re in for when you see one of their movies.
Quentin Tarantino and Alejandro Iñárritu are both directors who have their own very distinct style. Tarantino takes pulpy subject matter, throws in wall-to-wall banter, and a plethora of references to other films. Iñárritu does Art with a very important capital ‘A.’ Their newest movies, The Hateful Eight and The Revenant (respectively) are both them given an incredibly long leash and them making movies that are very much them.
For Tarantino, it means a movie that rests almost entirely on the dialogue. Hateful is sparse on locations and heavy on dialogue, telling a story that’s essentially what if Tarantino got to have a go at Clue. Though clocking in at three hours (including an intermission!), it doesn’t feel overlong courtesy of the twisting plot and engagingly sociopathic characters. Tarantino plays to his strengths. So yes, the movie is Tarantino-esque to the point of indulgence, but it doesn’t get in the way of telling a good story. Laden within the layers of dialogue and duplicity is motivation and hints as to what’s to come.
The Revenant is an entirely different beast. Iñárritu, as shown in Birdman, has a very clear idea as to what constitutes art and his latest movie takes it to a whole new level. There are long epic shots a plenty with a mind boggling level of complexity to them. Then knowing that the whole thing was done using only natural light and there’s no denying the considerable talent behind the movie. The Revenant lets Iñárritu really go wild with it, putting his visuals front and center so everyone can know what he really considers Art.
Thing is, for all its gorgeous imagery, The Revenant feels something like an exercise in futility. The craft is incredible, the plot is meandering. And that’s an issue: all the pretty pictures in the world don’t mean jack if your story sucks. The second act of The Revenant is essentially Leonardo DiCaprio’s character crawling through the American wilderness. Stunningly executed? Yes. Incredibly boring? That too. Stories need statue changes to keep things interesting — Luke goes from Tatooine to the Death Star to a Trash Compactor and so on. The Revenant has Leo crawling in snow here, then snow there, this river, and then that river. Everything about the film exists to showcase the cinematography. Iñárritu’s indulgence means a relentlessly grim movie that exists almost to say “see how much a better moviemaker I am than you.” As a friend of mine said, the only thing missing from it were the words “For your consideration” right after the closing shot.
There’s that saying about necessity being the mother of invention. I’m pretty sure there’s a corollary to that adage about how limitations force you to do better. Look at the Star Wars prequels for an example of an unrestrained writer/director compared to the original film. Indulging in what you love as a storyteller also means knowing when to cool your jets. Tarantino, in The Hateful Eight, knew to not just write banter for the sake of showing off, but to also keep the plot moving along at quick pace. Hateful Eight mayn’t be a perfect movie, but it’s still a darn enjoyable one. The Revenant, on the other hand is Iñárritu’s unbridled pretension mixed with DiCaprio’s Oscar desperation indulged to the point of maniacal self-absorption.