On the occasion of tonight’s Academy Awards Ceremony and seeing that Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest: The Revenant is expected to take away a substantial amount of wins in major categories including the Best Picture award (this would be his second consecutive win), I’d like to just take a moment to further understand how a filmmaker like Iñarritu managed to position himself at the very top of Hollywood’s hierarchy.
There’s little dispute that the Mexican-born director is a skillful and competent filmmaker. I remember distinctly discovering his films at a young age before going to see Babel (’06) at the movies. I was in that delicate period of my life where I was beginning to familiarize myself with the art of filmmaking and like every cinephile at that age, devoured movie after movie. I was slowly forming a critical perspective on movies and was developing a personal taste. Although I was only 13 at the time, Babel was still a hard film to swallow. The third installment of his devastating ‘Death Trilogy’ narrates four tragically interconnected stories in four separate countries drawing a geo-emotional map of ill-fated characters and a series of bizarre turn of events. After seeing several of his films, I was excited to discover a trend of heavy maximalist themes in his work. I took Iñarritu as a fresh voice in my then narrow understanding of cinema and it took some years to make up my mind about his films. Now, nearly a decade later, The Revenant is the talk of the town and I’m still not quite convinced. Even at that time, when Iñarritu was perhaps not the powerhouse Hollywood director he is now, Babel’s cast already included some significant Hollywood personalities including Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Gael García Bernal (whom Iñarritu had previously worked with in Amores Perros). It was due to this ‘trilogy’ that Iñarritu was allowed to enter Hollywood with full force, capitalizing on his momentum and establish himself as a director within the American movie industry.
Much of the talk surrounding The Revenant has concerned the film’s unusually harsh production. After years of planning and months of rehearsals, Iñarritu’s team began shooting on location in the Canadian wilderness attempting to capture the natural harshness of their environment. Much of the film’s promotional campaign is tied into that effort of achieving a certain level of authenticity. On one hand, the film mixes raw elements like natural light, extreme locations and performances that at times can be both physically and emotionally draining and at others, hyperbolic garble (Tom Hardy’s constant unintelligible mumbling and grunting particularly comes to mind). On the other hand, scenes where the ghost of Hugh Glass’ (Leonardo DiCaprio’s character) wife appears floating on top of him might come across not just as fake but as stylistically out of place. Other CGI-heavy scenes include DiCaprio falling off a cliff with his computer-generated horse onto a digital tree which looks like it was pulled straight out a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. Overall, the mixture of technically masterful camerawork with these artificial elements might sometimes cancel out that immersive experience the filmmakers were striving for. And the brutal authenticity that the film is notorious for gets lost on screen.
The Revenant’s virtuoso, DP Emmanuel Lubezki (aka “El Chivo”), who was a collaborator on Iñarritu’s previous Birdman (’14), is facing his potential third Oscar win in a row after winning Best Cinematography last year for Birdman and the year before for Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (’13). His work in both The Revenant and Birdman is undoubtably impressive and often overwhelming. But like his work in Gravity, technical skill and visual effects are most of what his work is about. It’s the cinematography equivalent of acrobatics: incredible and impressive but often not very thought-provoking. Just like his previous film, this is perhaps The Revenant’s most prominent and consistent flaw. In a film that is so much about defying death and survival, instead of emotionally captivating, the effect can be desensitizing and plays more like show-off rather than an ambitious ‘Fitzcarraldo-esque’ fever dream.
As a director who is careful and calculated in constructing distress and is capable of portraying raw emotional violence, Iñarritu has made a long career out of it. For example, his 2010 exhausting melodrama Biutiful depicts the long, slow death of a single dad convincingly portrayed by Javier Bardem. Like most of his films, Biutiful offers compelling emotionally draining performances. At that particular time, Iñarritu was still emerging in today’s mainstream world where the international festival landscape unfairly accepts Latin American directors on the condition that the films must address misery, poverty or violence in their own countries. It seems like Iñarritu has found success in making films that manipulate us into feeling terrible. And even though most times he’s done so successfully, after a while it gets very boring.