Fifteen years ago, I compiled a list of feature films in which at least one line of intelligible dialogue is delivered by a severed head. The list was titled “Loquacious Noggins,” and it was sort of my audition piece for getting this column picked up by Fast Forward Weekly. That was a long time ago, and that essay is now extremely out of date, particularly since it lacks an entry on The Revenant (2009), which contains the greatest talking head scene of all time.
Yes, it even tops similar scenes from Re-Animator (1985) and The Brain that Wouldn’t Die (1962). You can trust me on that. I’m something of an authority on such matters.
The Revenant is a difficult film to describe, especially since there are ample surprises that I don’t want to spoil. (Indeed, I might have gone too far already.) It’s a slow-burn, downbeat tale of an American soldier who dies in Iraq, yet finds himself returning to a semblance of life after his funeral. The soldier, Bart (David Anders) seems perfectly human again, and is understandably agitated to find that he now has a gigantic Y-shaped autopsy scar on his chest, and his lips have been sewn shut. He staggers to the home of his best friend Joey (Chris Wylde), and the two friends have the sort of reunion you’d expect from a freshly undead guy and one of his pallbearers. Eventually, they stop freaking out over the situation and try to adjust to Bart’s inexplicable condition.
Is he a zombie? A vampire? Bart and Joey consider both possibilities, conceding how ridiculous either option is, but newly aware that walking corpses are apparently a thing. They settle on calling Bart a “revenant,” and spend most of the rest of the movie figuring out what the hell that means. There are no wise old vampire hunters or fortune tellers to instruct them on the rules of undeath (well, there is one friend who offers a few hypotheses and conclusions, but her knowledge doesn’t seem to be rooted in much more than simple guesswork), so the boys learn more about Bart’s condition the same way the audience does; through experience and observation. They soon find out that Bart returns to a death-like state when the sun rises, only to revive again at nightfall. Regular food and drink makes him vomit an inky black sludge. They begin to suspect that human blood might be his only source of sustenance now. Soon, they learn the consequences of allowing Bart to feed on blood, and also stumble across the knowledge that being unkillable has certain advantages. Eventually, the boys get the idea to prey exclusively on violent criminals, and The Revenant briefly toys with becoming a zombie vigilante film.
Now that’s a marketable idea for a movie, but it’s far too simplistic and formulaic for writer-director Kerry Prior, who has deeper ambitions. Every time you think you’ve got The Revenant nailed down to a particular formula or genre, it matures a little more and becomes something more complex and fascinating. It’s tragic and funny, ghastly and intriguing. The closest comparisons one could make would be to Jean Rollin’s The Living Dead Girl (1982) or David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986); melancholy non-genre tales of original monsters who are aware of their monstrousness, and who must adapt to their unfairly altered lives.
Completed in 2009, The Revenant has been making the film festival circuit, picking up new fans wherever it goes. Yet it still hasn’t had a wide North American release in theatres or on home video. Why? Is it too unmarketable, too obscene, too downbeat? That might be the fear, but this is a film that takes tremendous risks and succeeds. Keep an eye out for this remarkable flick, and hope for a proper release soon.
Oh, and that talking head scene? I’m not going to describe it, even though I really, really want to. Someday, when you finally get to see The Revenant, I hope that you’ll appreciate my restraint.