Bear good

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I pity any film up against The Revenant at this year’s big awards. Not because I personally think it is an unassailable piece of filmmaking – although, incidentally, I do think that – but because it has that prevailing wind behind it already, the one that saw films as diversely deserving and undeserving as Shakespeare In Love, Gravity, Terms Of Endearment, The Artist, Amadeus, Kramer Vs Kramer, Gandhi, On The Waterfront, From Here To Eternity, West Side Story and Ben-Hur win big, and across the board, leaving all comers in their jet-propelled wake. As I always state for the record at awards season time: I prefer to be surprised on Oscar night (and Bafta night, and Golden Globes night), but a consensus can sometimes build, whether it’s within the Hollywood Foreign Press Association or the British or American Academies. If The Revenant does what I expect it to (and what it has already done at the Globes, with the big three in the Drama category all nabbed: Picture, Director, Actor), then its nearest rivals may find themselves heading for the exit, pursued by a bear.

I don’t often do this, but I have seen The Revenant twice. I saw it twice in the space of four days. I was so enraptured by its broad canvas, its artistic vision, its sodden tactility, its elemental power, and its on-the-hoof, let’s-eat-the-snow-right-here acting, I had to return to see how it felt when I knew what was coming. I have to tell you, foreknowledge is no witherer of its strange, ugly-beautiful magic. The only hope for the other big nominees is in the female categories, as the women in The Revenant do not get very much to do, it has to be said.

Put away the Bechdel test. It meets the first criterion: it must have at least two women in it. But not the second two: the women must talk to each other, about something besides a man. The film’s principal cast list contains two women: Grace Dove, who plays Leonardo Di Caprio’s deceased Pawnee wife, and Melaw Nakehnk’o, who plays Powaqa, the kidnapped daughter of an Arikara (“Ree”) tribal chief. The first is seen only in wordless flashback, where she is shot dead by a British soldier; the second is glimpsed being dragged off to be raped by a French trapper, then rescued by Leo, but empowered to exact her own poetic revenge on her abuser. You might applaud that outcome, but it takes Powaqa being enslaved and sexually assaulted for it to happen.

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I make no claims for the feminism of either the fictional or fictionalised 19th century menfolk in this western. Will Poulter and to an extent Domnhall Gleason play male characters with a moral compass, but by and large the American and English protagonists are a bunch of cavemen in furs with muskets and Bowie knives. Tom Hardy essays another venal baddie to add to Alfie in Peaky Blinders and both Krays in Legend; he is Leo’s nemesis, and very much a loner, out for himself, with no crumpled photograph of a sweetheart in his man bag. This is a rough, tough world of hunting, shooting, fishing, whoring and breaking things (in which sense: how very like our own Conservative cabinet). There is a fine tradition of independent and able women in westerns, but they tend to be subjugated in what is a deeply patriarchal world.

The Revenant makes no retrofitted liberal concessions to modern thinking, and in a way, why should it? These are violent men, raping the land and natural resources of indigenous people for profit. From this testosterone-stinking malaise, Leo’s Hugh Glass is as close as a Guardian reader as you could hope for: a principled man who married a Pawnee and had a “half-breed” son with her, risking disenfranchisement and worse for sleeping with the enemy. But his Pawnee empathy gives him a spirituality – and a drive to survive – that his peers perhaps do not possess. Their mistreatment of him forces him to live for revenge. The world of The Revenant brutalises even the most open-hearted. It’s like a war movie that’s really an anti-war movie; it can only be such by showing that war is hell.

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Aware of all of this, I was surprised at the vehemently negative response of trustworthy Observer writer Carole Cadwalladr. In a piece at the weekend, she unleashed these sentiments (having seen The Revenant before Christmas). Kicking off with objectively fair images of what’s in the film (“Ritualised brutality. Vengeful blood lust. Vicious savagery justified by medieval notions of retribution”), she then moves to undermine what is a serious film by calling it “the hottest blockbuster of the season … and yours for around £10-£15 this weekend at your local multiplex”. I assume she knows that not all films at your local multiplex are romantic comedies or Pixar animations. She quotes male critics (alright, too many national newspaper critics are male), who have praised the film’s “revenge, retribution and primal violence” and “unthinking, aggressive masculinity.” However, I don’t see this as a binary issue of male versus female, violent versus non-violent, blockbuster versus arthouse.

She does: “I’ll summarise the plot for you: man seeks revenge, man gets revenge. That’s it, basically, for two and a half hours, though there is a brief reprieve when you get to see Leonardo DiCaprio being mauled by a grizzly bear.” She counts the women onscreen, as I have done, but she misses out the silent squaw in a ruined encampment whom Will Poulter’s character feeds and leave alone, daring not to alert his aggressive “partner” Hardy to her presence. (She does not speak either, but the Native Americans we see seem to be men of few words and many thoughts.)

“The woman is not actually raped, of course,” Cadwalladr faux-complains. “She’s faux raped. Because this is what we call acting. And because The Revenant is what we call entertainment.” Who is calling The Revenant “entertainment”? It’s a fair question. It’s not the first noun I’d reach for. It’s an experience, maybe even an endurance, but was I “entertained”? By the spectacle, the scope and the thrill of the escape, certainly. But it’s tough going, this film. It’s not like a fairground ride, with sanitised ups and downs, it’s a slog. A wet, dirty, infected, sore, painful, blood-stained and spit-flecked assault course for the senses. It’s not boring, but it’s not a showbiz spectacular and there are few jokes or dance routines. To call it “entertainment” – as I rather suspect people in marketing aren’t even calling it – is to make a spurious point.

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I like Carole Cadwalladr’s writing, but she freeforms after this, saying that we “choose to pay to watch women being pretend raped rather than watching women being actually raped for free.” I’m not sure that’s a conscious choice for me. “Even the ending is ambiguous, and leaves many questions unanswered and issues unresolved. Nobody rides off into the sunset,” she correctly observes (in the Observer), thus undercutting her own sneer that The Revenant is “entertainment.” Oh dear. She speaks, disapprovingly, of a “well-oiled publicity machine of the type that fuels an Academy Awards clean sweep”, as if The Revenant isn’t entitled to pitch for recognition by its industry peers. Some Academy members may be disengaged enough to be “bought” by studio enticements, but most of these old, white men will only vote for a film because they liked it, now matter how old, white and male they statistically are. Many of them will still have freewill.

She mocks how “gruelling” the shoot is known to have been, and how “authentically” the actors “suffered”, belittling even that aspect with the aside, “They got a bit cold, apparently.” (Hey, either they suffered or they didn’t. If they didn’t, then the acting is even better.) The cinematography is “gorgeous,” she concedes, but, in conclusion, “the whole thing is meaningless. A vacuous revenge tale that is simply pain as spectacle. The Revenant is pain porn.”

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Putting a word before “porn” is a cheap trick. I should know, I’ve done it on numerous occasions. Certainly there is power in seeing pain acted if it’s done well, and it is done well. But is it pornographic? Leo’s mauled by a grizzly and bears the weeping scars, but this is clever makeup, aided by clever acting. (“Porn,” in the true sense, is sort of not acting, isn’t it? Otherwise customers would demand their money back.)  By the time she compares the artificial, acted violence with real violence, as seen in Isis videos, I was as lost as Glass. That Isis “lift” the techniques of Hollywood to make their nihilistic, barbaric point is not the fault of Hollywood. More people get killed in Gone With The Wind than in The Revenant. When she concludes that Isis “has seen what we want, what we thrill to, and given it to us,” she seems to want to make viewers of fiction feel in some way culpable for Islamic State. “The Revenant isn’t responsible for this,” she then points out, going back into the ring one more time to call a film she didn’t like “tedious” and “emotionally vacant.”

I found it to be otherwise. I would not argue that it’s a violent, masculine, macho film with little space for the input of women. But it is possible to watch it, with its sexual assault and brutal feuding, and not “enjoy” it in the way Carole Cadwalladr implies that we all do. (Unless she just means all men. It’s still inaccurate, if so.)

“Don’t pay £10-£15,” is her entreaty. Do, if you want to see an amazing piece of high-impact, naturally-lit, visually poetic cinema, is mine. And then you will have your own opinion.

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This much is true

After Never Let Me Go, I needed to see something that was going to live up to expectations. True Grit fulfilled that brief. I speak as a fan of classic westerns, a fan of the Coen brothers, a fan of the Henry Hathaway original, a fan of Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon, and a cynic of Hollywood remakes, which, for all the dressing up, this is. The Coens use the Brighton Rock Defence and claim that their True Grit is a remake of the original 1968 Charles Portis novel and not the 1969 Hathaway film, which won John Wayne his only Oscar. Certainly, the novel seems to have revolved around its 14-year old protagonist Mattie Ross more than in the subsequent first film, which became a vehicle for Wayne as fat, drunken, one-eyed marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn. Here, although Bridges eats up the screen with his own drawling take on the character, Mattie (played near-miraculously by then-13-year-old Hailee Steinfeld) reclaims centre stage. It’s her film – which is to say, it’s Steinfeld’s film – and in that sense, the Coens have repositioned what most people know as a John Wayne film incredibly successfully.

I love the original, but that’s really because I have an enormous soft spot for Wayne and for the mythic iconography of the western. This is not a “revisionist” take on the genre; it is an overwhelmingly affectionate tribute to the great westerns of the past. The Coens love westerns. Some of their previous work hints at this: Blood Simple, with the cowboy boots and pistols of its Texan setting, might structurally and thematically be described as a modern-day western as much as a neo-noir, O Brother Where Art Thou? has a western-style relationship with the wide open spaces of the American landscape, while No Country For Old Men might as well have been a dry run for their first, full-on cowboy film set in the Old West. They were born to do True Grit. And what a triumph it is. I don’t often see films that bring to mind the word “faultless”, but this did.

The fact that it’s a remake, and that the story is so familiar to me, becomes irrelevant almost instantly. The Coens make it their own. The script is so beautifully crafted and sculpted, and witty without being jokey, it is a pure delight to listen to. In the mouths of Steinfeld, Bridges and Damon, this highly decorative but homogenous language takes on its own character, and whether it’s an exchange between Mattie and the horse trader, or Damon’s LeBoeuf and Cogburn, or Mattie and outlaw Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper – what a fortuitous bit of casting!), their individual relationships emerge. There’s some fine, nuanced acting going on here, and if Steinfeld and Bridges don’t scoop up something at tonight’s Baftas or next week’s Oscars, there is no justice.

The Coens are prone to irony, which is what makes their comedies such fun, but when they step back from this fruitful form of postmodernism and play it a little more sincere, it pays dividends. (For instance, I enjoyed Burn After Reading, but feel no need to see it again. I have watched Fargo many times, and Blood Simple, come to that. Oh, and I hated The Ladykillers just as much as you did.) Although True Grit is a genre picture, it does not seek to overturn or modernise – or “revise” – that genre; it is reverent to its source, and as formal as they promised at the outset: the iconography is present and correct – there’s a truly stunning shot with the three riders, Mattie, Cogburn and LaBoeuf, captured within a glorious landscape (New Mexico stands in for the Choctaw Nation or what became, in 1907, Oklahoma) and it’s simply perfect – and the soundtrack, by longtime collaborator Carter Burwell, breaks new old ground by working in hymns of the time, thus making it ineligible for the Best Original Soundtrack Oscar, the same cruel fate that befell Clint Mansell’s impressive score for Black Swan.

If you don’t like westerns and what made the classic westerns great, you might understandably not like True Grit. (There were three teenage boys in the row in front of us at the Curzon who were fidgeting and rustling crisp bags most of the way through it – I’m not 100% sure what they were doing in there in the first place.) But the Coens’ attention to texture and composition as well as to performance and language make it one of their very finest works. And who would have guessed that from the news that they were doing a remake? It stands with the very best westerns; for me, it’s the equal of Unforgiven.