Movie Review: ‘The Revenant’ Delivers While ‘Joy’ Stumbles On Take Off

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It seems that with certain directors we expect perfection every time. Even directors who have never truly delivered it. If you get close enough to perfection consistently than we put your movie down as a lock for a Best Picture nomination before we even see it. This is exactly what has happened all year with David O. Russell’s new film ‘Joy’ and Alejandro G. Inarritu ‘s new film ‘The Revenant’. One turned out to be as close to perfection as they come and completely justified its early hype. The other is a pretty big disappointment.

The unmitigated success is ‘The Revenant’. In this exhilarating film, Leonardo Dicaprio plays a man who is mauled by a bear and forced to watch helplessly as his son is murdered before his very eyes. After being left for dead in a ditch, he treks across what seems like 50 miles worth of blood thirsty Indians, unpredictable wild animals, and an intense cold that the body should only have to imagine. He does this all to kill his sons murderer (a brutal Tom Hardy) in an entirely justified act of revenge.

However, what we end up learning about the nature of revenge and the circle of human existence is the bigger picture here. There is an almost existential message in between the lines that becomes truly poignant by the final frame. In fact, I think the movie will leave more thoughtful viewers thinking about if revenge is ever necessary or could possibly satisfy the actual need to bring back the one we love. I have had a mixed track record on how I believe this should be viewed and how it actually hits me most of the time. Yet, this movie was a wake up call for an ignorance that I possess when it comes to having a loved one stolen from me.

This film is also one of the most beautifully photographed movies I’ve ever seen in my life. Every shot of this film is like being given one of the most stunning still shots of the wild you could imagine and then watching it come to life. Still, that’s not the most impressive part of the photography. It’s the way Lubezki uses the cameras movement to provide atmosphere in some of the most realistic battle sequences ever put on screen. You will not soon forget the way this movie looks and Lubezki deserves his third Oscar for this work.

DiCaprio also deserves an Oscar for his work as Hugh Glass. So much of this movie he spends silently putting across his pain, anguish, fear, love, hate, and so much more. Even when he does speak its in a Native American dialect mostly and not English. Dicaprio puts himself through more in this movie than most actors will ever do in a hundred movies. He makes his way through freezing weather that I can’t imagine, reenacts the vicious mauling by a bear with what had to be a CG stand in, and has to express what it would be like to watch your son die without being able to do anything about it. It’s slow, painful, and completely palpable.

Honestly, if I had to describe ‘The Revenant’ to anyone in a few words, I would call this a step into the heart of darkness. This movie is the closing thing I’ve gotten to ‘Apocalypse Now’ in my lifetime. It is like watching that brilliant film (my favorite of all time) set in the frontier days and that is one of the highest compliments I could ever give a movie. It will be in theaters nationwide on January 8 and you should not miss it.

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‘Joy’, on the other hand, is the polar opposite for about the first 30 minutes. Where ‘The Revenant’ gets everything stunningly right in its first act, ‘Joy’ feels like a train wreck that might never end. There is some dialogue and a few decent scenes in the opening, but mostly it is an embarrassment for director David O. Russell. Everything from the terrible narration, to the cheesy “you’re going change the world” speechifying, and the terrible child acting work together to make the beginning make you want to throw it in a gutter.

Then Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) gets an idea about a mop and the movie is a steady ride uphill from there. In fact, there are several sequences that come in the middle of the film that are downright brilliant. I particularly loved a seen where we are introduced to the intricacies of the home shopping network. It’s oddly unforgettable shit.

One reason for this is Russell’s writing and directing finally hit its stride, but the biggest reason is Jennifer Lawrence delivers Joy with an intoxicating sense of wonder, strength, fear, and anger. She is Oscar worthy here and if the movie had been better we might be talking about her to win Best Actress. She is that good.

Sadly, the movie is just not as good as she is and Lawrence will have to settle for a nomination this year. It’s possible some academy voters might overlook the first act of this movie, but that is a lot of movie to screw up. How do you make a movie that is so bad one minute and so great the next. It’s almost unheard of and it’s maddening when I look back on it. Which is why ‘Joy’ is my biggest disappointment of the year and yet I still have to give it a slight recommendation. If you should up 30 minutes late you are actually rewarding yourself here.

So, if you had to choose between these two then it’s easy to say see ‘The Revenant’, but if you were planning on seeing both then that’s where I provide warning. If you are an intelligent adult you may lose your mind watching ‘Joy’, but you may also find yourself fascinated by some of the brilliant individual scenes. I can’t stop you and make you just see ‘The Revenant’, but consider yourself fairly warned.

Nathan Ligon

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