Two very different looks at humanity emerge on the big screen this week, but it's the one without any actual humans that has the most to say.
If The Revenant is any indication, it would appear that winning multiple Oscars for writing and directing Birdman has done little to brighten Alejandro González Iñárritu's worldview. The filmmaker's punishing follow-up to that ascendant tale is distinctly earthbound. A nearly silent Leonardo DiCaprio stars as an 1820s fur trapper named Hugh Glass whom a devious colleague (Tom Hardy), more than one Native American tribe, encroaching Frenchmen, and nature or seemingly the universe itself really, really want to see dead.
A bear mauls Glass within an inch of his life. His wife, a Pawnee, is murdered before the movie even starts. And his teenage son, an outcast among the bottom line-focused company that he and his father work for, has a target on his back for not being of European descent. The Revenant opens with a roving battle sequence of utmost intensity and, having established its grim tone, never strays from it once over the course of 156 minutes.
It's as though The New World, Terrence Malick's poetic reimagining of America's creation myth involving John Smith and Pocahontas, has been filtered through a far harsher perspective. In both stories man finds himself outmatched by the harsh realities of nature in early America, but in only one of them is there anything redemptive to be found there — Malick looks for transcendence where Iñárritu is content to focus on unrelenting pain.
Masterfully made, The Revenant is marked by a number of arresting grace notes. An unremarked avalanche far off in the distance of a climactic search is a particularly stirring example of what Lubezki's camera can highlight in the periphery of the frame. But most of these moments are quickly followed up by blunt reminders of nature's cruel indifference (if not outright hostility).
If, by the 90-minute mark, you weren't already certain of the director's view of things, then a majestic buffalo stampede that quickly turns into a feeding frenzy for a few lucky wolves should leave no doubts. Iñárritu can never let moments stand on their own, often gorgeous terms; he always has to explicate their banal, bleak meaning. The Revenant isn't beautiful to look at because Iñárritu wants you take in the sights; it's beautiful because he wants you to know that there's nothing man can't ruin — or be ruined by.
Anomalisa co-directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson are interested in pain, too, but theirs is of the ultra-contemporary sort that isn't as outwardly visible. Michael Stone, a sad-sack public speaker in Cincinnati for a few nights on business, is their avatar for modern ennui. A bit of an asshole, he's clearly suffering from a longstanding bout of world-weariness.
He's also a puppet. If that seems strange for an end-of-year romantic drama, keep in mind that Kaufman wrote Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind before writing and directing Synecdoche, New York. Like Iñárritu, the strange ideas that mark his early work have only become more prevalent with time; unlike him, they've also grown more nuanced.
Then Michael meets someone. Lisa's her name, and she's quite literally an anomaly. David Thewlis voices Michael, but Tom Noonan provides the voice of every other character in the film: cabbies, hotel receptionists, barflies, men, women, children. The only exception is Lisa. Without appearing in corporeal form, Jennifer Jason Leigh is as much a tonic here as she is in The Hateful Eight. After meeting her some 30 minutes into Anomalisa, she stands out to us as much as she does to Michael — a diamond in the rough, an exception to the rule. He's instantly infatuated.
It helps that she's a fan of his. Michael has written a how-to book for customer service reps, and she's in Cincinnati to attend the conference where he'll be presenting. But even if their dynamic is off-putting — fawning fan and married businessman — you don't doubt where either is coming from. These are the most tired-looking puppets you've ever seen, their sagging bodies and droopy eyes betraying two lifetimes of disappointment and lowered expectations. Each sees a certain relief in their new lover, and maybe even some hope for the future.
Whether it lasts is not for this writer to divulge. Suffice it to say that Kaufman and Johnson evince a bittersweet (but not overbearingly pessimistic) perspective that will most likely be validated by Anomalisa losing the animation Oscar to Inside Out. Maybe they'll learn more from the loss than Iñárritu did from his victory.
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Area theaters, opens Friday
Directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson
Uptown Theatre, opens Friday