Culture

The Obama Western

The Revenant, Macbeth, and Don Verdean show civilization’s decline.

The Revenant, the new Leonardo DiCaprio western, bids to be also the last western. That once-quintessential Hollywood genre has lost its popularity to sci-fi and comic-book flicks that trendily dramatize social tensions — along with offering escape into perpetual adolescence. The Revenant reworks the older westerns’ exploration of American history, and of the issues arising from the clash between civilization and perceived wilderness, into a spectacle replete with contemporary social distress. That makes it an Obama western.

DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass, a guide and hunter for a fur-trading expedition in the 1820s, humbly embodies the country’s humane, multicultural hopes, yet he’s stuck amid venal, weak-principled countrymen. Burdened with the racist legacy of European settlers, Glass is haunted by the killing of his Pawnee wife and guards his biracial son. Glass’s ambivalence and fortitude are tested by his trouble with John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a low-life among the government-sanctioned trappers. The unhinged, Bible-quoting carnivore Fitzgerald is a lying, killing incarnation of America’s evils.

The epic, overlong murderous opposition between Glass and Fitzgerald reveals perfidious man in nature, and nature as alienating as it is “red in tooth and claw.” Their conflict symbolizes the war between civility and savagery, though it is not the classic sheriff-vs.-outlaw antagonism. In this End of the West western, the greed, selfishness, and brutal cynicism come straight out of our contemporary paranoid atmosphere. The Revenant portrays the U.S. as a ghost of its once idealized, rough-hewn self, a nation troubled by its treacherous past while slogging through an onerous, deadly present — thus, an Obama allegory.

Oscar-winning Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu doesn’t apologize for American history; he even avoids the Mexican–American War and the policies of European colonization that might specifically explain Manifest Destiny. Yet, by playing a Clooney–Damon–Pitt game, Iñárritu uses the western genre for a simplified critique of American temperament: Glass always physically conflicts with threatening forces, including bedrock, redneck conservatism.

In this End of the West western, the greed, selfishness, and brutal cynicism come straight out of our contemporary paranoid atmosphere.

His virtue is lamely represented by romantic memories and race-conscious fatherhood. (“They don’t hear your voice, they only see your skin,” he warns his teenage son.) His struggle is epitomized in a showpiece battle with a grizzly bear. It’s like a superhero origin myth via computer-generated F/X. Glass is left nearly dead, prey to Fitzgerald’s ruthlessness. Fisheye close-ups of DiCaprio in agony recall A Clockwork Orange’s cynicism, and his snowy travails repeat that Quaalude crawl in The Wolf of Wall Street. After relentless melodramatic setbacks, phenomenal resilience wins him revenge.

Remember how Vietnam-era westerns (Little Big Man, Soldier Blue, Bite the Bullet, High Plains Drifter) expressed liberal American guilt? Well, the trendy ISIS-era politics of Iñárritu’s western fantasy prohibit cathartic heroism. This frustration and reticence add to The Revenant’s Obama aspect. DiCaprio and the prodigious Tom Hardy sink into their characters’ obstinacy to show white American moral descent (while the knowing Native Americans bide their time stereotypically — a millennial flip of their passivity in Dances with Wolves). After ear-chewing combat with Fitzgerald, similar to Laurence Olivier and Gregory Peck’s mauling each other in The Boys from Brazil, Glass stares at the audience with a look of “This is not who we are” hopelessness.

The Revenant is an accusatory western. Iñárritu forces the audience to judge imperialism, starting with Emmanuel Lubezki’s preening, relentless camera (just as in last year’s dreadful Birdman) weaving among the corrupt characters. Lubezki’s photography is pellucid, as always, but whereas he achieved a newly discovered, paradisiacal look for Terrence Malick’s The New World, the American wild here seems inhospitable, dangerous. Before the mano a mano brawl, a Bierstadt-worthy sun ray moves through a mountain pass. The fleeting, stunning sight suggests a dying of light, a nation’s coming eclipse.

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Michael Fassbender in “Macbeth”

The cinematic surprise of 2015 is Macbeth, directed by Justin Kurzel. Shakespeare’s intimate political intrigue is filmed as a global visionary tragedy. Kurzel depicts Scotland’s eleventh-century history while alluding to our millennial disillusionment (“I feel now the future in the instant”).

Kurzel’s harsh, violent images link to 300: Rise of an Empire, transforming pop myth through breathtaking poetry. Both Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard look archetypal: His ruddy skin, facial scruff, scared eyes, and a smile not to be trusted complement her deep-set stare with blue eyeshadow beneath a pearl corona. Their scheming and anguish derive from deep suffering, sufficient to explain their moral fall. By literalizing “Screw your courage to the sticking post, and we’ll not fail,” Kurzel makes the play as sexual as 300, and the tragedy becomes, all the more, a human and affecting tale of ambition vs. conscience. (The mob hailing Macbeth ironically resembles the people wall-mugging in the background of today’s politicians.)

#related#At this moment of political division and partisan suspicion, Macbeth is a perfect vehicle to wake the biased, dehumanizing conscience, to show the worst of others in ourselves. That’s what makes Fassbender and Cotillard’s unorthodox performances so beautiful. His talent for decadent menace and her gift for wounding sorrow deliver a poetic effect even when they use contemporary cadence on the blank verse. Jed Kurzel’s shrieking, moaning strings and booming percussion — this is the year’s best music score — add tactile effect to already expressive images: The forest killings of Macduff’s family and Banquo are worthy of The Conformist, and Paddy Considine as Banquo’s ghost is unforgettable.

Justin Kurzel’s intense understanding of the play’s essence is apparent in the welts on the witches’ faces, Macbeth’s catching embers in his hand, the revelatory edit during Lady Macbeth’s monologue, and the close-up that makes Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” despair immersive. This is the most imaginative Shakespeare film in years, as we await Julie Taymor’s wonderful unreleased A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Sam Rockwell and Jemain Clement in “Don Verdean”

Don Verdean is the darkest film yet by Jared Hess, director of Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre, and Gentlemen Broncos. It’s not “dark” in the trendy sense that endorses nihilism but in a bright, comical sense that looks through nihilism to the other side. The title character (played by Sam Rockwell) is a religious huckster (author of Relics of God and star of the God’s Errand DVD), whose livelihood exploits seekers. He sells archaeological artifacts (Lot’s wife’s pillar of salt and the skull of Goliath) found in Holy Land expeditions. He proves the truth of Biblical miracles while plundering the modern natural world.

This film about godlessness is a perfect companion piece to the profundity of Macbeth and an antidote to the pessimism of The Revenant. By showing the Christian ability to laugh at oneself (Danny McBride’s born-again evangelist strikes the perfect note; Will Forte’s former Satanist does not), Hess keeps the faith despite skepticism. Don Verdean’s character isn’t fully conceived. His Israeli partner-in-crime Boaz (Jemaine Clement) is a livelier conceit (“Your Lord and me have a lot in common”), while his research assistant (Amy Ryan) remains a sweet idea unfulfilled. But how many movies, even failed ones, can still be called idiosyncratic and delightful?

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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