(Pt I. The Revenant and affective response.)
It can occasionally be amusing to witness the tempests storming through movie criticism. After all, when it comes down to it, the relationship between reviews and the effect they have on cinema audiences is a contentiously multidimensional thing: while plenty of audience members internalise professional critics’ opinions prior to watching a movie, others are just as happy to take what they’ve read at face value, and actively pursue their own independent ideas instead. And, of course, great swathes of cinema ticket buyers simply don’t read the press verdicts at all.
Still, culture operates in a predominantly digital orbit these days, and the internet is always clattering with proffered polemics, with everyone who has access to a keyboard vying for the elusive accolade of Definitive Opinion On This Movie. At the moment, anticipating the Academy Awards, it’s all about The Revenant. Hyped films court hyperbolic language; and Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s latest Oscar contender provokes exaggeration in spades. That’s not only true of the amateur bloggers – the professionals are just as guilty of overenthusiasm. It’s “a gruelling, exquisite, mystical odyssey of survival” (Nick de Semlyen, Empire) with “an anchoring performance of ferocious 200% commitment from Leonardo DiCaprio” (Justin Chang, Variety); it is “punishing, visceral, masculine, grisly and utterly captivating” (Sean O’Connell, Cinemablend). And, perhaps in the most admiring review of all, it is “primal; it is the lethal force of a wild animal, the savagery of man against man, the sustaining power of revenge…” Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal, I salute you. That’s some crystal prose.
Mind you, it isn’t all heaps of praise. Carole Cadwalladr, writing for The Guardian, rebuked that newspaper’s own chief film critic Peter Bradshaw for his ardent response and called The Revenant tantamount to “revenge porn”. (She is also of the opinion that the movie will probably influence ISIS — who, after all, are always very influenced by the Oscars — and who may soon abandon other forms of covert warfare, and instead begin to commit Terrorism By Bear.)
If, like me, you eat up movie reviews the way some people devour Heat magazine, then you too may have started to form your own opinions on The Revenant by situating them in relation to the thoughts found in the big publications. Personally, I agree mostly with Manohla Dargis, of the New York Times, but that said it’s usually hard not to be persuaded by Dargis: her style is alchemically seductive (“It’s that kind of movie, with that kind of visual splendour — it spurs you to match its industrious poeticism”; who else can write like that, matching their words perfectly to the tone of the movie itself?)
Still, I watched the movie before I read her article, with Kate, a friend whom I met on a film criticism course, and we formed our views independent of her influence. We both concluded that we were struck by how The Revenant‘s visceral, multi-sensory aesthetics focused on the extremes which could manipulate the human form, and how in doing so, it provoked actual bodily responses from the audience. Our walk home was filled with an excited unknotting of our own responses. We liked that the plot was simple, stripped down; we liked that it had an uncomplicated linear narrative borrowed from the controversial revenge genre which enjoyed as great a surge of interest in the 1970s as it did in the Jacobean period. So many movies these days are convoluted in their aspirations towards complexity. We thought that the simplicity of the plot — while vicious, while bloody, while gory — was a strength, not a weakness. Unlike Cadwalladr, we didn’t see the film as an endorsement of terrorism so much as an artisan interrogation of how the human can become unharnessed from the civil by terrain, and how man can subsequently be returned to, in fact reborn into, the animal. Plot feels practically inessential to what this movie tries and manages to achieve, we said.
But most excitingly: watch The Revenant in the cinema auditorium, we both remarked, and you enter an immersive semi-simulation. You may not feel the “exact” physical responses of the characters to the violent stimulus of their stark world — the laws of fiction make that impossible — but your own body coordinates its responses to the bodies on screen. Or, in other words: what hurts Leo, kind of also hurts the rest of us.
When Glass (Leonardo Di Caprio) lurches into supine formation under attack, bear’s claws raking down the flesh of his back, record the behaviour of your muscles. Feel your sinews tauten, your stomach flip; feel your body’s knee-jerk reaction as it grapples to find a way of mimicking the pain. Later, when Glass navigates the sublimely brutal landscape and surmounts the perimeters of human physical ability — not to mention tears his teeth hungrily into raw, steaming bison’s innards — his transformation into grisly isn’t just observable allegory: it’s a real, raw physical metamorphosis, and one which we (supported and led by soundtrack choices, deft camerawork, and a digital cinematographic commitment to stunning detail) partially experience by proxy.
From an affective perspective, the movie feels like it rides more closely to “audience participation” than most blockbusters have ever previously managed. And perhaps that’s the film’s greatest achievement, even if we can never be sure it’s Iñárritu’s singular obsession. Would the film rather be an ode to surreal religiosity, or a stunningly visual portrait of how men compete violently for territory? Who knows. Who cares? The implied “politics” of the film (so derided by Cadwalladr, who is of course perfectly entitled to write an opinion piece in whichever way she sees fit) and the narrative of the piece (not precisely commended by David Edelstein at Vulture, who ultimately called it “pain without gain”) seem secondary to its engagement with its own temporal, spatial presentness. It feels like an exploration how the human body engages, transforms and physicalises in order to become its own weapon against the elements. It feels like tactile cinema; it feels like cinema about cinematic experience.
Crunch, splodge, rip, boom, crack: these violent, painful, symptomatic sounds are the very poetry which Dargis observes, and that poetry is realised in a kind of breathtakingly fresh cinematic onomatopoeia (if you’ll forgive the GCSE English terminology). The blood, the guts, the gore — are they beautiful, in their own weird, twisted, faux naturalistic way? Absurdly — yes. It’s not “pretty” beauty, exactly. Just the beauty of a kind of sensual, obliterating immersion. The Revenant is a movie that seems to want to close the gap between the aestheticised world of the screen and the viewer on the other side of it. It does that by being sensuous, by being physical, by canvassing a new landscape. And general film criticism itself has yet to invent modes of assessment which are adequate to exploring that kind of thing, because the practice has always valued retrospective analysis over present reaction. The Revenant asks: forget what cinema makes us think, for once — what is cinema making us feel?