Whatever I thought about The Revenant, I certainly had a lot to say about it afterwards. And I’m still not quite sure exactly what I did think about it. Jenny took me to see this for my birthday eve (quite a different experience from last year watching Slacker together on Netflix) and we were talking about it for the rest of the night. I had heard both praise and derision so I expected it to be a divisive film, but I wasn’t expecting it to divide myself. I thought it was fantastic, amazing, breathtaking. I didn’t think it was very good.
It’s not one film but two. There’s the revenge western with superlative action and brilliant effects. The set-pieces are both astonishing and intelligent. For the most part the digital effects are integrated completely seamlessly, to the extent that I had no idea what was CG and what was practical, so I just stopped thinking about it. I accepted what was happening in front of me, bodies falling from trees, shot by arrows, throats slit, on fire, all in long unbroken takes. It’s quite amazing, and these scenes seem to me to represent the best of the cinema experience. This is what the big screen can still give us – intelligent but immersive spectacle. And for the most part it shows just how far digital effects have come. There is so much CG work going on that we would never even guess is CG. This does break down somewhat when it comes to the animals though. I’m sure there is a lot of CGI animal work that I didn’t even notice but a few key shots break the spell. While it’s all very impressive, they don’t seem to be able to blend CG animals seamlessly into the mix just yet. As with Life of Pi, most of it works but now and again it just feels off. I can’t necessarily put my finger on what it is that’s telling me this isn’t a real animal, which is how close it is to being successful. But there’s still something not quite right, and being just slightly off can be much more distracting than being a long way off. The whole uncanny valley thing. The much-publicised bear attack is one of these moments. It’s all very impressive but… I just didn’t feel it. I didn’t feel the weight of the bear. I saw an effect. I saw a skilful arrangement of pixels. Try and imagine Jaws being made now; they’d show too much of the shark. To be fair to The Revenant, showing everything is sort of its mantra, so this approach does make sense, it’s just a shame that in this one area the technology still doesn’t quite support it. There were a couple of other moments like this – the horse going over the cliff, the herd of buffalo. But these are my only quibbles with the effects. Otherwise they really were astonishing. As was the cinematography.
Even if the rest of the film had been awful, I would have been perfectly happy just ooing and ahhing over the pretty pictures. And they’re not just pretty, they carry weight, integrity. The natural light aesthetic is pulled off remarkably well and utilises recent advances in digital camera technology perfectly. There’s a beautiful couple of shots lit just via camp fire. Leo’s face is illuminated but you can also see the bokeh from actual stars in the night sky behind him. I’ve never seen that in a film before. It’s not really possible on celluloid, not in-camera anyway. And because of the naturalism of their lighting approach, you just know that was in-camera. For me, The Revenant marks the true beginning of digital cinema. It marks a point where, aesthetically, film is no longer automatically superior to film. Different no doubt, but this film (if I can still call it that), shot with the Alexa 65, is proof of how far digital has come. And it’s come into its own here. They don’t try to make The Revenant look like it was shot on film, it’s something new. And it’s utterly beautiful.
It’s a shame that they didn’t take this approach of restraint and integrity when it came to the story or soundtrack. Which brings me to the uglier half of this film’s split personality: the quasi-spiritual art-film. The visions, the churchyard, the bell. The look into the camera at the end (yuck). As the video above makes clear, with these aspects the filmmakers are aping/paying tribute to Tarkovsky. But they aint Tarkovsky. It brings to mind the worse side of recent Terrence Malick films, the last few of which were shot by The Revenant’s Chivo, who brings to it the same floating, freestyle camera. In principal I like this approach but how its executed here comes across as affected, fake, shallow. Annoying. The same was the case for Malick’s unbearably pretentious To The Wonder, yet his previous The Tree of Life is one of the most astonishing films of the decade (despite some similar missteps). In The Revenant the effect is empty ‘spiritualism’ for the sake of being mysterious.
That said, I have a feeling that all of these grating moments could have worked perfectly well without the overbearing soundtrack. Those wailing, portentous strings that scream out ISN’T IT ALL SO SAD AND BEAUTIFUL? Well not anymore. As if to demonstrate this, one of my favourite parts of The Revenant is a scene towards the end, the actors chasing each other in the snow, a violent confrontation. The soundtrack ditches the strings and reverts to something akin to the soundtrack for Birdman. The percussive score is perfect for the fight, the only problem being I couldn’t help but think of that preceding film. It’s a shame Innaritu had already exhausted the percussive approach, because for The Revenant it could have worked brilliantly. Beauty is already so inherent in the images that when it’s filling the soundtrack as well it just becomes sickening. As a result I can only really judge this as two separate films. As a thoughtful, contemplative yet brutal action film, The Reverent is brilliant. But it’s punctuated by too much pretension. Inarritu has always made a habit of this, unfortunately. Without the overly-emotive soundtrack and/or cutting a few of the attempts at ‘spirituality’ out, I think this would have been a truly great film. As it is, it’s still good enough for me to overlook a few things, but I can’t help but get frustrated.
The best scene – A rare moment of friendship and decency, Leo and a native catching snowflakes on their tongues, reminding me of Ishmael and Queequeg’s jolly bedfellows.
Another snowy western where snowflakes are caught on tongues, many early reports on The Hateful Eight were not too positive. For me, it’s not perfect but then Tarantino’s films never are. So what are they? Enjoyable, memorable, subversive and sort of brilliant. The Hateful Eight is no exception. It does seems a little over-violent at times, but again, that’s par for Tarantino. It’s never really bothered me before, I must just be getting old, but I do admit at times I simply felt gored-out. Then again, certain acts of seemingly unnecessary violence later reveal themselves as important pieces of exposition (such as when Sam L Jackson quite unrealistically blows someone’s head off – but there is a reason after all).
The main criticisms I’ve read claim that it’s too long, slow and uneventful, that it needs tighter plotting with more twists and turns. I didn’t feel this way about it at all. It is long and I suppose it is slow by mainstream standards, so you can see why a mainstream audience might react in this way, but then I’ve heard that criticism from non-mainstream viewers too. For me the plot is not the point of Tarantino’s films. I wasn’t expecting big twists and turns because that’s not really what he does. His plots are usually quite basic, the films being more about character, dialogue and form. And that’s exactly what this is. There are some nice stylistic touches as usual, and some annoying ones, as usual. His favoured chapter structure is utilised better than ever to allow stylistic shifts, such as the sudden introduction of a narrator to explain what had been going on while we had been watching a different scene. It’s good to see Tarantino can still be inventive in this way.
The acting is usually one of the main attractions in Tarantino films and that’s still true here. Samuel L Jackson does what he always does, but somehow his performance is richer than ever. More nuanced, more intelligent, more charismatic. He is the glue that holds the film together. Tim Roth is a lot of fun, doing his best ‘English Christoph Waltz’. Michael Madsen doesn’t get a lot to do and frankly his jet-black hair is now so implausible at his age that it’s distracting, but he’s fine. Kurt Russell is good, if a little overshadowed by some of his co-stars. The real scene-stealer is Jennifer Jason Leigh, clearly having a lot of fun with the character but taking a lot of punishment too. This has garnered complaints from people who I assume are concerned about what kind of message this treatment of women puts across, but I think Tarantino is entirely aware of the issue and has been very smart about it here. There’s something knowingly, subversively gleeful about the female star spending half the film covered in blood.
The Hateful Eight may have some superficial similarities to The Revenant but the aesthetic approach couldn’t be more different. The Revenant reaches into the future, setting new standards for digital imagery. The Hateful Eight reaches into the past and attempts to revive an obsolete grandiose format. Both films look stunning in their own ways. Tarantino’s film feels classical throughout, with soft, minimal, naturalistic lighting for the exteriors and stylised, backlit warmth inside Minnie’s Haberdashery. It’s an approach that evokes both classical and spaghetti westerns, and executed just as beautifully as the very best of those. The indoors stylisation effectively reinforces the tone of this being some sort of stage play, which is exactly how it was written – Tarantino has said he’d like to direct this on stage. As such, people have questioned the use of such a large, wide format to film what is essentially a chamber piece, but again Tarantino has form here going back to use of the anamorphic frame for the largely warehouse-confined Reservoir Dogs. With The Hateful Eight, Tarantino and DP Robert Richardson show that 70mm is not only good for landscapes, but can make landscapes of faces.
I did mention that it isn’t perfect, and here’s my main criticism – there are too many moments or lines that are clearly designed to be cool or ‘cinematic’ but ultimately fall flat without blending in to the narrative. These are essentially trailer moments – most of them were picked out and cut together for the enticing trailer but don’t work nearly so well when seen in context. This has always been Tarantino’s flaw, so it’s clear that not much has changed. He’s still pushing conventions and flirting with controversy. I think it might take me a couple more watches to appreciate The Hateful Rightfully. I’ve a feeling it’ll grow on me even more. His films usually do.