In some ways Kerry Prior’s The Revenant is too much of a good thing. Overstuffed at two hours long, The Revenant is a horror movie, a buddy comedy, a vigilante film, a war allegory (sort of) – it’s everything but a floor wax.
In fact, The Revenant feels
like Prior adapted a trilogy of novels into one film. The film covers
so much ground, has so many ideas and makes so many left turns in the
narrative that it sprawls like a huge epic, even though it was shot on
a budget. Some may argue that each of the ideas that Prior throws at
the film could be expanded upon in their own movie, but it reminds me
of Paul McCartney’s music – the guy had so many songs in his head that
he would sometimes just jam three of them together on one track,
changing up styles mid-song.
Bart comes home from Iraq in a box, leaving his girlfriend bereft and
his stoner best friend, Joey, uncertain of what to do (beyond sleep
with Bart’s girlfriend). But Bart isn’t done, despite being embalmed,
and after clawing his way from his grave and pulling the thread from
his lips, he heads to Joey’s place to figure out what the hell is going
on. The short answer: he’s a revenant, a vampire-like being who goes
back to being dead all day and at night must feed on blood to stop his
own decay. But beside the new diet and sleep habits, Bart is completely
unchanged. When Bart and Joey accidentally kill a mugger things start
getting really out of control as they become vigilantes in black
dusters and sunglasses, and that’s just the start.
Prior has really thought out what it means to be undead, and right from
the start of Bart’s new life – as he is figuring out that he’s full of
embalming fluid and that his guts are no longer in the right place –
there’s the thrill of a completeness of vision. Prior didn’t have to
reinvent the vampire wheel so much as take it seriously and run with
each of the implications. And he brings that style to the story as well
– instead of the character serving a grand plot, The Revenant feels
like its narrative is completely dictated by the decision-making of the
characters. That can be frustrating, as Joey is a complete idiot and
Bart is out of his depth as an undead, but it’s also part of what makes
the film so unpredictable.
It seems like every ten or fifteen minutes Prior throws a curveball at
you, so that every time you think you’ve finally got a handle on this
movie and where it’s going you’re surprised. These aren’t twists, but
rather character-motivated changes in direction. Each of them is
wonderfully surprising and completely realistic, so that while the
movie ends up going to some pretty wild places, the journey feels
organic. And each change in direction widens out the world of the film
a little bit, and by the end you realize that Prior has essentially
sketched out an entire universe.
Prior’s background is in FX, and you can see the joy of the work in every gore-soaked frame. The Revenant is
one of those heavily practical movies that really pleases an older
generation of film fans (old farts like me), and it proves that you can
be inventive as hell without going right for the CGI. How many films
have you seen where a disembodied head speaks by having a vibrator held
to its throat? You can just about hear Stuart Gordon saying ‘Damn, we
should have done that in Re-Animator!’ It’s that inventiveness that informs the film’s loose, shaggy screenplay.
While I wouldn’t actually change the structure of the film (the film is
stuffed and a little long, but there’s nothing that screams to be taken
out), I might change the dialogue. Prior has the characters down but
the lines never quite pop. TV actor David Anders is great as Bart, and
he has real chemistry with Chris Wylde, doing very much a Danny McBride
thing as Joey, but none of their lines hit as hard as they could. The
jokes never actually kill. If the banter between Bart and Joey were
stronger, I think The Revenant would be a bona fide classic.
Prior ends the film on a weird note, trying to deliver a message I
don’t think the film has earned (and doing something that makes no
actual logical sense, but it’s a cool final image, so you forgive it).
But he also leaves it open for a sequel, and I’d really be interested
in seeing where he brings this weird, ambitious, gory and funny story
next. Prior’s a major talent, and he makes his low budget film look big
and lush, so I’m excited to see what he does with a real budget.