By: Daniel Reynolds
Tomorrow marks the wide release of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu‘s latest film, The Revenant. It’s based on the true story of American frontiersman Hugh Glass, who goes on a mission of revenge after his son is killed and he’s left for dead from a bear mauling. If you’ve seen the film’s trailer, or read any of the extreme pieces about its making, you already know this — you may even want to see the thing. The trailer in particular, with its unrelenting rush of images and action, promises a satisfying tale of survival. And if that doesn’t do it for you, there’s also Leonardo DiCaprio, huge movie star.
Full disclosure: I have not seen The Revenant. I’ve only read and heard things about the film. If I had to guess, I suspect it’ll have Inarritu’s usual polish and grandiosity, his usual search for a “higher” meaning, and not a little bit of suffering. My actual critical take will have to wait. Instead, I’d like to reflect on a comment from the critic Jordan Hoffman tweeted after his viewing of the film:
THE REVENANT is the type of movie multiplex audiences see because there’s a big star, then go to the manager to get their money back.
Now there’s a statement to consider. What exactly puts a film into this category? To my mind, these are the movies that are sold as promising one thing — the experience of a specific celebrity’s popular persona — while delivering, quite acutely, something different. It’s not quite a twist (i.e. killing off the star early on), more of just a shift, a trick of marketing, a hook to get you in the door.
With that in mind, here are four of my favourite recent[i] examples of films that deliver something unexpected (and perhaps, unwanted) from their stars.
Under the Skin
What You Think: Scarlett Johansson, one of the more attractive humans on the planet, plays an alien wearing a Johansson suit and spends the film’s run time seducing, destroying and ultimately understanding, for better and worse, men.
What It Is: On its prurient surface, Under the Skin is the easiest of all movies to sell: hey you, wanna see Scarlett Johansson naked? Utter those words and you will indubitably make some money. But director Jonathan Glazer, working loosely from the book by Michel Farber, is interested in a great deal more than that. In his hands, Johansson’s appeal is turned into a weapon, a microscope and a message. His chilly control of the film, which enjoys long (long) passages without dialogue, numerous scenes with non-actors (including some who didn’t realize they were being filmed with ScarJo), and some deeply uncomfortable “sex” scenes, can easily be filed in the “long way to go for titillation” folder.
Killing Them Softly
What You Think: Just look at that poster for Killing Them Softly, the third film from Andrew Dominik. Marvel at it. It’s a beautifully brutal piece of minimalist work. The title; the gun; Brad Pitt. Why wouldn’t you want to go see it? Yes, please, give me a crime movie with one of the biggest movie stars in the world!
What It Is: Well, here’s the thing. Killing Them Softly actually spends an inordinate amount of time with two lowlifes, brought to the screen by Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, named Frankie and Russell. These two jabronis yammer back and forth before robbing a card game run by another lowlife named Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta, who can yammer with the best of them). This gets more dudes involved (including James Gandolfini and Richard Jenkins), who reside on a sliding scale somewhere between dirtbag and pencil-neck, and all sing the same kind of song thanks to the words provided by the novel “Cogan’s Trade” by George V. Higgins. Anyway, it’s a great film.
But what about Pitt? Well, he’s there to clean up the mess. So, he gets to stand across from Gandolfini as the big man goes off on a couple of drunken tirades. And he negotiates with Jenkins like nobody’s business. He even shoots a few people (guess who). But if you were expecting a BRAD PITT movie, one in which he’s the hero, or even more than a blank slate, you will be sadly, sadly disappointed with this cruel, ugly, punch to the gut.
What You Think: Through one lens, this film could easily be added to the list of Adam Sandler movies from the 90s that follow a tried and true formula: man-boy seeks woman, learns about self (well, OK, semi-learns), gets woman. Punch-Drunk Love, on paper, is like that.
What It Is: In reality though, Punch-Drunk Love is predicated on Anderson rightly identifying the underlying power of Sandler’s man-boy persona, exhibited through aimless rage, the trouble relating to people (especially women), and impotent violence. When Anderson remarked he’d like to work with Sandler, it was treated like a joke. Sandler, as Barry Egan, is essentially just another version of the same character he always plays. Except in this case, that character’s antics are teased out along a different line, in a more familiar world, against more realistic foes, and across from a more interesting woman (Emma Watson). In Sandler’s other films of the time, getting the girl to love him just meant access to hot make-outs and sex, but Punch-Drunk Love goes far deeper than that. It’s bound to still make those man-boys uncomfortable.
What You Think: Drive is a film sold on the premise of fast cars, dangerous criminals, and a skilled wheelman at the centre of bunch of chaos. He’s trying to save the girl and you want to root him on so that they’ll drive off into the sunset together. In theory.
What It Is: Leave it to Nicolas Winding Refn, the film’s director, to get everybody riled up. Drive promises car chases, but really there is only one (plus one other car related stunt sequence). It looks action-packed, but mostly its just moody. And as for romance, Drive is a film that smoulders with intent and significant looks, making plain its desire to know what love feels like, but it is also rational about the coldness of its reality. It’s characters reveal little of themselves, but we can easily pick up the gist. At the centre of all this stands Ryan Gosling — usually motormouth, a charmer, or a dweeb — playing a terminally mute psycho who’s good at driving cars (but also disturbingly good at killing people). He is into a woman (Carey Mulligan) but throughout the course of the film realizes all he can do is try to save her, not be with her.
Really, Drive is the kind of movie doomed to fail (and it has since driven Gosling and Refn’s careers into weird places together) and yet, if you look past the surface flash, you get something extraordinary.
Of course, you could say that about all of these films. And now, tomorrow, we begin to decide how history will remember The Revenant and its star, Leonardo DiCaprio.
[i] I say recent because, to be honest, I feel like there are eras when off-brand roles was the only thing a big star tried to do. Case in point: the 1970s.