Mea Culpa: Re-evaluations of The Revenant, The Tree of Life, and Carol

When it comes to movies, there’s nothing like a second viewing to make you realize what you missed the first time around. In honor of TFW’s two-year anniversary, I’ve decided to go back and reevaluate three movies I originally wrote about in the blog’s Dark Ages (a.k.a. anything written before 2017). The big takeaway from all the re-watching? Time has a scary way of revealing just how foolish you once were.

(Jump to The Tree of Life)
(Jump to Carol)

  1. The Revenant (2015)

    Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

Original Rating: *** ½
New Rating: * ½

I originally saw Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant at a sold-out theater in Italy, where everyone seemed hyped about the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio looked poised to win an Oscar. Based on what I wrote in my original review, it seems I was equally hyped. “The best part of this movie,” I claimed, “is…Emmanuel Lubezki’s jaw-dropping cinematography and the sobering overall atmosphere Iñárritu creates with it. No man’s land this universe of desolation truly is.” My enthusiasm was so great, in fact, that I forgot all about trying to make sense, as evidenced by my incomprehensible claim that “Iñárritu throws some hard twists on our favorite theme of righteous revenge; the strutting and fretting vanishes [sic] into dust once the stage light turns away.” I was, all in all, dazzled by Iñárritu’s willingness to suggest that “not even a man like Hugh Glass is exempt from nature’s cold, unconcerned wrath.”

On second viewing, however, The Revenant loses its luster on just about every front. Take Lubezki’s Oscar-winning cinematography. As “jaw-dropping” as it is, it’s also needlessly showy. In the opening, for example, he uses painstakingly graceful tracking shots and 360-degree pans to film a violent, lurid battle scene – and he does something similar for every other chase and fight in the movie. This isn’t the kind of icy elegance that embodies nature’s simultaneous beauty and cruelty; rather, it’s the kind of sleekness that revels in its cleverness, even at the expense of capturing the mood of the story. Lubezki could’ve benefited from a look at Roger Deakins’ work in Sicario (another Western-esque movie released in 2015), which showcased nature’s desolate grandeur in a way that was both less self-absorbed and more organic to the plot.

The camerawork aside, part of what initially made The Revenant so startling was Iñárritu’s insistence on depicting every last detail of Hugh Glass’ struggle to survive. Yet once you get used to the movie’s focus on sensorial immersion, you realize that sensorial immersion is all it’s got going for it. The story’s treatment of revenge, after all, focuses incessantly on the supposed “godlessness” of Glass’ world. All the characters – DiCaprio’s obsessive survivor, Tom Hardy’s racist jerk, Will Poulter’s naïve good guy – are one-dimensional to a fault. And the subplot concerning the tense relations between the French and Native Americans doesn’t tell you much beyond a vague “White people were mean.” Eventually, even the sensorial immersion becomes a drag: the camera lens fogs up from DiCaprio’s breath so often that the movie occasionally feels like an exercise in masochism.

The only thing that improves about The Revenant on a second viewing is DiCaprio’s performance. I had good reason to make fun of him (“How far are people willing to go to get an Oscar?”) a year ago: his character isn’t particularly interesting, and it’s certainly possible that any actor forced to work in sub-zero conditions would turn out a performance like his. Yet throughout the movie, DiCaprio wears a hungry, searching look that you can’t easily chalk up to the effects of cold weather. Even if he spends most of the movie writhing in agony, there are moments when he manages to imbue his role with a remarkable blend of resilience and earnestness. Regardless of what he does, you can’t help but watch him – and when you consider just how monotonous and affected the rest of the movie is, he’s the only thing you really do watch.

  1. The Tree of Life (2011)

    Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Original Rating: **
New Rating: ***

My initial reaction to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life – the Palme d’Or-winning film that infamously spent 17 minutes depicting the creation of the universe – was a mixture of disdain and confusion. Malick, I wrote, “places too much faith on the viewer’s ability to sift through the meanderings of his mind…he doesn’t appear to have thought about how other people would (and fail) to interpret his inner musings.” I was generous enough to note that “The Tree of Life isn’t the complete piece of junk many frustrated viewers have trashed [on IMDb].” But I also claimed that Malick forgot all about plot in his haste to create “the next Critique of Pure Reason,” and I pointedly suggested that “he’s gone a little too far off the deep end.”

When you watch The Tree of Life a second time, however, it becomes clear that Malick is anything but the borderline-senile director it’s tempting to see him as. Like his earlier work The New World, The Tree of Life is a movie that’s steeped in the Bible. But if the former was an Edenic allegory that depicted the way in which society gradually came to shame the corporal, the latter is instead a meditation on the shortcomings of the Judeo-Christian belief system.[1] It all comes down to the Book of Job quote that Malick places at the start of the film:

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth…when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4,7)

It turns out this quote presages what happens in the movie in two ways:

  1. It comes from the God of the Old Testament, a deity who, among other things, is known for being both authoritarian and unforgiving. In a similar vein, The Tree of Life’s main storyline is an examination of the effects of authoritarian, Old Testament-esque parenting. On numerous occasions – the moment when Jack surreptitiously looks at his mother with frustrated sexual longing, or the moment when Jack shoots his brother with a BB gun – Malick suggests that the father’s authoritarian ways (and, by extension, those of an Old Testament God) do more to encourage perversion than destroy it.
  2. In terms of its place in the overall Book of Job, said quote comes soon after Job delivers a monologue questioning why someone as faithful as he deserves to face all the misfortune he does. At the start of Tree, the mother and father undergo similar reflections after learning one of their sons has been killed in battle, while a young Jack also finds himself asking such questions after fights with his dad. In a sense, the entire movie is an attempt to grapple with the notion that God creates (or at least allows) suffering. (This is also the context in which the infamous creation-of-the-universe sequence ought to be understood. Among other things, said sequence is Malick’s way of emphasizing the insignificance of humanity vis-à-vis the rest of space – as though the mother, father, and Jack were all contemplating this in their struggle to reconcile their grief with their devotion to God.)

Altogether, The Tree of Life turns out to be that rare film that grows more illuminating the more you watch it. It’s not flawless: Malick is better at posing vexing dilemmas than resolving them, and the movie is fairly similar to films like Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives in theme and style (albeit not in tone). Yet despite its faults, Emanuel Lubezki’s cinematography remains exceptional – the way his camerawork becomes less fragmentary and free-formed as the children grow up provides a powerful visual testament to their growing awareness of reality. (In other words, it ain’t just a bunch of “pretty pictures for your wall.”) And even if Malick’s reach exceeds his grasp, the portrait of boyhood he’s created is still more daring and immersive than Richard Linklater’s more popular movie of the same name.

  1. Carol (2015)

    Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.

Original Rating: **
New Rating: ****

A year ago, I thought I had a brilliant reason for disliking Todd Haynes’ Carol. “Strong acting,” I claimed, “can’t save a story whose only point of interest is being LGBT.” I praised Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett’s “humanizing performances,” but I somehow believed that the movie itself never “really bothers to go beyond a cliché display of homo/trans-phobia and sexuality questioning.” I also claimed that the movie “tries to disguise its banality in swirls of mind-numbing subtleties [in the dialogue]” – that it “puts the job of driving the plot…[solely] on a never-ending series of gestures…[which] renders an already-bland movie even more dull.”

This is all such nonsense that I don’t even know where to start. Carol’s script is certainly not “mind-numbing.” If anything, its mixture of halting innuendos and sinister insinuations paints a convincing portrait of a society too afraid to acknowledge the realities of desire. Moreover, far from relying solely on Mara and Blanchett’s “gestures,” the movie gains a lot from Ed Lachman’s cinematography, which depicts 1950s New York as an elegant yet ever-so-slightly repressed men’s club.

But my most ludicrous claim by far was that Carol is simply a “cliché display of homo/trans-phobia and sexuality questioning.” In reality, Carol and Therese are anything but stereotypical “Oh no, do I like girls?” LGBT characters. On the one hand, Carol had a fling with her best friend years before meeting Therese; we never see Carol express any consternation over that, and she grows quite indignant when her husband tries to use it against her. Meanwhile, Haynes makes clear right from the get-go that Therese doesn’t feel happy in her relationship with her boyfriend, and the way in which she ogles Carol suggests that she’s always been unconsciously waiting for the right woman. Instead of making sexual orientation a central topic, the story takes its characters’ gayness as a given and goes from there: the only characters who ever get worked up about sexuality, in fact, are the men whom Therese and Carol abandon.

Carol is not just not cliché, however – if anything, it actually proves quite subversive in several ways. One way, of course, comes in the happy ending, which provides a welcome change from the way most LGBT-themed movies end. But an even better one comes during the opening scene, where one of Therese’s colleagues carelessly breaks apart an intimate conversation she’s having with Carol at a restaurant. Back in the 40s, the British director David Lean used a similar scene to open the classic romance Brief Encounter. In that movie, the opening depicted the last meeting between the two protagonists: it served as an archetypal declaration of the incompatibility of love and bourgeois mores. In Carol, however, Carol and Therese’s meeting turns out to be only the beginning of a more sustained relationship. Haynes’ reference to Encounter, in that sense, is his way of giving the finger to history and our expectation that true love always ends tragically.

Perhaps the best way to appreciate the revolutionary nature of Carol comes through its title. If this movie were like most LGBT-themed movies, it’d have taken the name of Mara’s character, the hopeful lover who learns about bigotry the hard way. That Haynes chose to name the movie after Blanchett’s character instead is telling. Carol, after all, is a woman who’s been continually frustrated in her romantic pursuits; the viciousness of her divorce proceedings almost convinces her to give up all hope of ever finding love. But in Therese (in a moment beautifully captured by Lachman’s camerawork), she finds a reason to look at the world anew with unjaded desire. And although she knows the repercussions she’ll face, Carol eventually decides to act on her newfound longing. Her choice – a decision to risk everything for another, even with the knowledge of what obstacles await – is what Haynes celebrates in his title. And the end result is a movie that does more than any other to bring LGBT love into the mainstream.


[1] Side note: when it comes to the contrast between The New World and The Tree of Life, you could also say that The New World is Whitmanian in its celebration of the body and the pure joy of making contact with another – think “I Sing the Body Electric.” But in using the struggles of one Texas family to meditate on greater philosophical questions, Malick embraces the Emersonian idea that the universal manifests itself in every particular. Like those two writers, the two movies can be said to complement each other quite nicely.