Be aware....Spoiler Alerts
There are lots of influences to unpick in The Revenant. The first and most obvious is Man in the Wilderness (1971) where Richard Harris played Zachary Bass, a character also based on the life of Hugh Glass. But there are many others. The fight sequences filmed with a wandering, participatory Steadicam contrast starkly with the majesty of the natural world and suggest Terrence Malick of The Thin Red Line. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass recalls the masochistic abuse and suffering of Marlon Brando in One Eyed Jacks or The Chase and when DiCaprio climbs inside the disembowelled body of a dead horse to survive freezing blizzard conditions, anyone who has seen Of Horses and Men recognises Inarritu’s homage to that memorable Icelandic drama from 2013. The references go on: the arduous insanity of the struggle against nature from Aguirre, Wrath of God; the snow covered return to the military fort in The Searchers; and the all-consuming revenge drives of Kill Bill or The Limey. Along with convincing visual effects of bear, bison, arrows and dead horses, Inarritu seamlessly stitches his epic together into a very long two and half hours. Deserving or not, it has Big Oscar Contender written into every frame and DiCaprio’s commanding, anguished and very physical performance has him short odds for Best Actor.
If Inarritu’s saga has numerous points of reference from other films, Spotlight would appear to have only one – Alan J Pakula's’s clear-eyed and emotionally detached All The President’s Men, an absorbing account of The Washington Post’s crusade over Watergate. In Spotlight, Liev Schreiber –who coincidentally plays a character abused as a boy by a Boston Catholic priest in the television series Ray Donovan - is The Boston Globe editor who guides an investigative team through a now well-documented public disclosure of the institutionalised abuse of children by almost 250 Boston priests. The lawyers negotiated confidential settlements (so no one would know) and the police looked the other way (so no-one would find out) and the Church just placed the abusing priests elsewhere, all three institutions perpetuating an odious cover-up. It was to become symptomatic of world-wide abuses of children by Catholic priests, institutionalised world-wide by the conscious targeting of “at risk” children. All The Presidents Men lost out to Rocky for Best Picture in 1977 and the fear is Spotlight will probably suffer a similar fate.
The central strengths are Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, actors who produce two of the most nuanced and memorable performances of a couple in love in recent memory. Perhaps only equalled by Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter. They are more than worth the price of admission as is Ed Lachman’s amazing Super 16mm cinematography, the film grain pronounced and perfectly suited to the film’s 1950s aesthetic. Blanchett, all furs, blonde-hair and snake-eyed intensity and Mara, outwardly vulnerable, but inwardly all strength are both worthy Oscar contenders. Carol is exquisite but hardly a flawless gem. The three male characters and one female (Therese’s supervisor) are all one-dimensional and off-putting to watch compared with the rich characterisations of the leads. Strange mistakes from Todd Haynes, a director whose previous work (Far From Heaven or I’m Not There, for instance) has rendered balanced performances throughout. Other quibbles might include some clunky tracking shots (Carol driving against NYC skylines), jarringly out of place with the rest of the film’s aesthetic. There is also the strange use of the private investigator Tommy Tucker who bugs Carol and Therese’s love-making in a motel. Would he really turn up at breakfast next morning pretending to be a travelling salesman and embarrassingly impose himself on the couple? And why? Perhaps it works better in Highsmith’s book.