Essay: Why Mad Max: Fury Road is a more profound story of redemption than The Revenant

Two of the year’s most critically acclaimed films, The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road, seem vastly different at face value.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant is a personal, intimate true tale of an explorer enduring the harsh realities of the untamed American frontier to make things right by the man who kills his son and (sort of) buries him alive. George Miller’s return to the world of Mad Max, by contrast, is loud, bombastic and unafraid to indulge the audience with as much over-the-top spectacle as they can handle.

Despite the cinematic differences, they are incredibly similar in the big picture: they both rely on visual spectacle, setting, and weighty action to fortify the stakes, and both works were created by two established directors who know how to grasp the spirit of a script and bring it to life with sincerity and passion.

But at both films’ cores are stories of survival. The main difference at hand? Mad Max: Fury Road is a story that captures that theme more elegantly and strongly than The Revenant, resulting in a payoff that is comparatively more emotional and viscerally aware of its message.

Sure, it’s easy to make that claim when the stakes in Miller’s story are much higher; Furiosa leading Immortan Joe’s wives to a place of hope, redemption and new life versus The Revenant’s Hugh Glass’ journey for the blood of one man.

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But it goes deeper than that, straight into the minutiae of Miller’s and Iñárritu’s respective worlds. For starters, there’s an acute – albeit subtle – attention to detail in Fury Road that alludes to what Furiosa is fighting for that is much more powerful when compared to what Glass strives to achieve – simply trying to live another day.

Iñárritu deliberately makes Glass’ motives ambiguous – indeed, there are only a few, crafy hints in Leonardo DiCaprio’s largely dialogue-less performance that alludes to Glass’ intention to go after his betrayer, John Fitzgerald. For the most part Iñárritu channels his inner Terrence Malick, scattering fleeting imagery reminiscent of Glass’ past that is a little too dreamlike for the audience to decide whether these visions are worth investing in or simply a representation of Glass’ inner struggle that parallels his external ones.

It’s a tough duty for the average moviegoer to take on. DiCaprio tries to compensate with a performance that strives to be emotional but for the most part seems like he’s in an overlong episode of Fear Factor. Despite Iñárritu’s direction, some more dialogue would have done DiCaprio some good.

Conversely, Fury Road isn’t shy nor secretive about the world it conveys on the screen. Both films excel at visually portraying the brutalities of their environments, but Miller elects to be straightforward, not ambiguous.

furiosa

It starts with Max Rockatansky’s opening monologue confessing his confusion over who is crazier, “Me or everyone else.” After 20 minutes viewers have an idea of the deeply-rooted anarchy that lays the foundation for the Wasteland, run by dictators who rule through the concept of reaching a Valhalla.

It’s a vibe that’s almost religious in a world without any semblance of order, and it’s one that never lets up through the film’s running time. It’s worldbuilding at its finest; a future that, despite looking bleak and tainted in its gasoline-drowned deserts, is one that we’re immediately invested in from the start.

And that’s because of Furiosa’s journey. She’s searching for “the green place” where she once came from, and though we aren’t offered specifics of what such a place is like, we have an idea simply based on the name that screams themes of hope and redemption where there is simply no green to be found, whether literally or metaphorically. That connotation, along with Immortan Joe’s ruthless implied tyranny and supremely patriarchal agenda, is more than enough for us to cheer on our heroine.

Again, these observations aren’t reached simply because Fury Road’s presentation might be more entertaining to the average movie-goer – what with pace, script, spectacle, etc. all more accessible – but it also makes a superior effort in conveying a journey that continuously has substance to offer.

FURY ROAD

With The Revenant, Glass’ journey essentially over once he gets back to the rest of his crew. The company’s leader, Andrew Henry, immediately understands Fitzgerald is at fault, and he and Glass set out for him. As satisfying as the final encounter between Glass and Fitzgerald may be, it is devoid of anything we don’t expect, whether in plot or emotion.

It’s evident that the duration of The Revenant was essentially getting from Point A to Point B for Glass, and even then the film’s credits roll literally as Glass is just starting to contemplate his journey and what it has done for him, if anything, internally.

the revenant

Miller takes a different approach, not just by fooling the audience when it is revealed that “the green place” has also drowned in the anarchy and sands of the Wasteland, but by setting his characters on another quest for redemption entirely: making their own refuge of hope and salvaged civilization by going back to the place where the only order resides in anarchy, despite unfathomable odds.

The result is newfound emotional investment in Furiosa, Max and also in ourselves, as Miller teaches us that redemption lies through the road we’d like to travel the least, one in which our adversaries have the upper hand.

Max, the lone wolf, himself struggles internally, skeptical about “the green place”, until he realizes the hope he didn’t know he was searching for has to be made, not found, in the Wasteland. In the process, the redeemed War Boy Nux also reaches his own self-made Valhalla as he sacrifices himself for this newfound kind of hope he never thought existed.

Both Iñárritu and Miller strive to tell stories of survival and the power of will. But simply by comparing each film’s final moments, Mad Max: Fury Road is the more complete movie, effectively portraying the conflicted ambitions of its characters, and the powerful effect of them reaching their own Valhalla, versus Glass’ Boy Scout tale that strives to keep emotional and thematic momentum through teasing the audience with substance, but never truly delivering.

In the end, Miller – unlike Iñárritu – reaches a conclusion that is straightforward, not ambiguous; thoughtful, not predictable; and, most importantly, respectful towards its audience.

fury road

 

Related Readings:

Review of Mad Max: Fury Road

Review of The Revenant

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The Revenant Review: Iñárritu’s gritty Western is as emotionally as desolate as the frontier it so beautifully portrays

Much has been said about what the cast and crew of The Revenant had to endure while shooting the film: working in freezing temperature outside the cozy confines of a typical studio. Only having about an hour and a half each day to shoot scenes in natural light. Literally going around the world just to find some snow. Leonardo DiCaprio doing already legendary things in a search of his first Oscar statue as desperate as the journey his character takes.

Unfortunately, once you strip down The Revenant, director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s follow-up to his Academy Award-winning Birdman, to its individual parts, those behind-the-scenes stories are more fascinating than the final product itself.

The Revenant tells the true story of Hugh Glass, a fur trapper and explorer, who is left for dead by his supposed partners following a brutal bear attack. In a desperate attempt to survive and get his revenge, he traverses miles and miles of untamed 1800s American frontier, enduring countless obstacles just to be able to live another day.

It’s a dramatic premise, to be sure, albeit one that is so straightforward and predictable that Iñárritu has to compensate somehow, and he elects to do it with visuals. Once again collaborating with the talents of Emmanuel Lubezki – who at this stage of his career is incapable of disappointing – Iñárritu makes The Revenant as gorgeous and harrowing as he sets out to make it, from the sweeping, desolate vistas to the ingenious camera work and multitude of tracking shots that make for a couple of the most brutally beautiful and engrossing sequences you’ll ever see in a movie theater.

But once you get past the visual artistry – which could even be called a gimmick – The Revenant is as hollow as the dead horse that Glass at one point takes shelter in.

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In a story like The Revenant, with so many aware of what Iñárritu’s ability to immerse the audience with the camera, he is forced to take a gamble by relying heavily on emotion to get the audience through a two and a half hour running time to achieve the only real satisfaction in the film’s closing minutes and moments.

Perhaps that is what Iñárritu intended: for the audience to be forced through something we’re not sure we want to experience, putting ourselves in Glass’ shoes beaverskin boots.

It doesn’t really work though. There comes a point when the audience comes to expect the gorgeous visuals, and you should take the time to admire what is truly a masterful job of directing given Iñárritu’s commitment to using only natural light, but that’s where his triumph in The Revenant doesn’t just stop short, but almost stumbles off a snow-lined cliff.

The Revenant's action sequences are breathtaking, but they are very few and very far in between.

The Revenant’s action sequences are breathtaking, but they are very few and very far in between.

If this is the movie that gets our precious DiCaprio (Inception, The Wolf of Wall Street) his first Oscar statue, it’s a shame. Grunting, heavily breathing, and crawling his way through a performance in which he does essentially what he has to – and nothing quite more – it isn’t until literally the film’s final moments that the audience feels a bit moved by his journey.

While many will point to the fact that his role is largely sans dialogue, he simply doesn’t do enough to justify it. He masters the art of the thousand-yard-stare, sure, but most times it feels like he’s searching for something more he could be doing to make the audience more emotionally invested. Because of that, it is just as difficult to anoint The Revenant DiCaprio’s best performance when he was so much more accessible, and simply entertaining, in films like Catch Me If You Can, The Aviator, and The Wolf of Wall Street. He captured the spirit of those individual films through his acting, something he fails to do in The Revenant.

Conversely, there is so much more reason to invest in the more internal struggle of John Fitzgerald, played by Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises) in a supremely uncompromising role as the explorer who betrays Glass’ final moments in more ways than one. Even when his accent is too gruff to understand, he gives us a much more inviting and captivating performance of a frontiersman in his time and place through wide eyes and an expression of someone who legitimately believes in the justification of his actions. Hardy’s performance is the real one to marvel at here.

Iñárritu is owed credit for not relying solely on the technicalities of The Revenant, but to make them count for something more. He attempts to make Glass’ struggle Terrence Malick-esque, through fleeting imagery that some may find confusing and ridiculous, and others still taking the effort to observe them as clues into Glass’ journey and persona. It’s a technique that doesn’t work for everyone, through, and at face value is an attempt that misses that mark at infusing the picture with much-needed levity.

Hardy's performance is as engaging and interesting as DiCaprio's tries to be.

Hardy’s performance is as engaging and interesting as DiCaprio’s tries to be.

Nature is a force to be reckoned with, though, that much is certain. Iñárritu excels as portraying the dangers of the unexplored frontier, mostly through exquisite cinematography. The allegoric, repeated use of trees are something to pay attention to for cinephiles who take pleasure in looking into those certain cinematic subtleties. The music also does its job, haunting and daunting as Glass’ journey is meant to be portrayed.

Beyond that though, an unremarkable script, overhyped performances and a story that fails to truly grab hold the way the visuals do results in a forgettable picture, one that respects its setting but not its foundation.

In a Nutshell

If The Revenant’s story and character exploration were as solid as its visuals, Iñárritu could have a true masterpiece in his hands for the second consecutive year. Instead, he settles for a technical marvel that vastly overshadows a story that is as shallow as the frontier it portrays is threatening.

7 / 10

 

The Revenant is rated R for strong frontier combat and violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language and brief nudity

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter, Domhnall Gleeson

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu

2015

The Hateful Eight Review: Tarantino slows it down, continues to bend the rules, and crafts another gem

Long after Quentin Tarantino’s career is said and done – no matter how polarized the debate over his impact on cinema – film nerds and students alike might very well turn to his latest picture, The Hateful Eight, as the one that is the most Tarantino-esque of his catalogue. That is to say, a gritty, consistently suspenseful, dialogue-drowned opus that blends multiple genres together in ways no else can, and in a manner that is immensely satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes in bullets or sheer filmmaking brawn.

Tarantino’s eighth feature begins with bounty hunter John Ruth, otherwise known as “The Hangman”, transporting the captured Daisy Domergue to Red Rock to collect his reward, but not before running into old acquaintances and being forced to stop at shelter along the way at Minnie’s Haberdashery due to a storm as threatening as the characters the film boasts.

In typical Tarantino fashion, it takes a good 40 or so minutes to get to Minnie’s, where the real fun begins. But although the film isn’t shy about being vastly different from recent Tarantino flicks like Inglourious Bastereds and Django Unchained, that doesn’t mean it’s any less entertaining, which is a testament to Tarantino’s growth as a filmmaker all while staying true to what he does best: bending the rules to his will.

The film is almost perfectly cast, another staple of Tarantino’s catalogue. Each character truly is nefarious in their own way, giving the audience feelings of moral ambiguity and conflict the more they immerse themselves in the world. Each character certainly has a story to tell, and they all more or less get appropriate time to tell it.

Sam Jackson, like the rest of the titular eight, has his own shady backstory in his biggest Tarantino role in over two decades.

Sam Jackson, like the rest of the titular eight, has his own shady backstory in his biggest Tarantino role in over two decades.

Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Machinist, Road to Perdition) should get an Oscar nomination as the devilish Domergue, Walton Goggins (Django Unchained, The Bourne Identity) is consistently hilarious as Sheriff Chris Mannix, and Samuel L. Jackson (The Avengers, Django Unchained) delights, as always, in the biggest role he’s lent by Tarantino since Pulp Fiction.

Part of Tarantino’s mastery is his seemingly natural ability to blend genres so well and in a way that, no matter how over-the-top his movies get, it’s all still totally believable. He does that here to an extent never before displayed by him in his most dialogue-heavy film since Reservoir Dogs, and even then probably even more.

At times hard to endure, at times impossible to look away, the film’s tension is always ramping up, up, up to the limits that only Tarantino dares to explore, making the audience simultaneously uncomfortable and entranced in the process.

Tarantino continues to craft compelling characters, this time ensuring that no one is easy to root for.

Tarantino continues to craft compelling characters, this time ensuring that no one is easy to root for.

While those introduced to Tarantino via Django or Basterds or even the Kill Bill saga might find the film a bit of a chore to watch, those who have been with him since the beginning know that in many ways this is him flexing his strongest muscles. The spectacle is substantially ramped down, but the writing is as sharp as ever, the suspense building ever so ostensibly with every monologue until the eventual bursting-of-the-top execution that Tarantino has made a staple in his works. All the while, the movie is also absolutely hilarious in ways that will make you feel guilty, like you’re one of the titular eight themselves. 

Similarly, it’s a struggle to find a hero like, say, Django, because there simply isn’t one. No grand journey is undertaken, and the characters are as self-relying as they are layered in morality, playing into Tarantino’s desire to destroy cinematic cliches and create his own. The result is decidedly bleaker than many of his more popular films, but just as powerful, like the blizzard that leads to the mayhem that The Hateful Eight results in.

Aiding the masterful script that will lock down Tarantino’s fourth Best Original Screenplay Academy Award nomination – and perhaps his third win – is the first Western score by master composer Ennio Morricone in 40 years, one that is so readily accessible and impactful in the film’s buildup that you wonder at times how this is Tarantino’s first time working with him.

Although it may at first seem a callback to Reservoir Dogs, The Hateful Eight’s boldness in the unorthodox by confining its cast, and the audience, to one setting for most of its almost two-and-a-half-hour runtime pays off in dividends only Tarantino can conjure up. Minnie’s Haberdashery is a battlefield, a chessboard even, in itself, with multiple parts and seemingly endless details that fit as much into the characters’ schemes as they themselves do.

As Tarantino did with Django, The Hateful Eight also explores very relevant themes of racial hierarchy and justice through its subtleties, making early 2016 an appropriate time as ever to discuss the issues as the post-Civil War period it’s set in. There are powerful messages that, when thought over after the credits roll, have the audience imagining similar scenarios and tensions playing out in modern society.

It does all lead to truly immense and satisfying payoffs, ones that include as many surprises as the buildup, in the form of flying bullets and brains and mixed motivations, lending the audience a sense of respect for letting Tarantino play around with the cinematic rules in ways that modern cinema rarely succeeds at, let alone attempts.

In a Nutshell

Buoyed by a strong cast, script and score, Tarantino crafts yet another masterpiece, one that still distinguishes itself from his recent films while still being able to call itself a true, perhaps the truest, of Tarantino films.

9.4 / 10

 

 

The Hateful Eight is rated R for strong bloody violence, a scene of violent sexual content, language and some graphic nudity

Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins

Directed by Quentin Tarantino

2015