I seem to remember somebody once saying something to the effect of, "The only sin an American can commit is to be unlucky". It sounds sort of Fitzgeraldian, but I'm almost certain it's not from Fitzgerald. Hell, maybe I made it up. Anyway, I pity poor Kerry Prior, who indeed committed no greater sin in making The Revenant than to be unlucky: he could not have imagined, when he started making his sardonic zombie buddy comedy, that in between the time he began filming and the time the film was ready for its general release, the bar for zombie comedies was going to be raised so stratospherically high. Though it has its fair share of problems and then some, the biggest single flaw about The Revenant is quite simply that it's not remotely as good as Zombieland, and while there's an obvious disparity between a movie with stars and a good budget, and a movie with really neither of those things (nor do the two films have anything remotely like the same narrative scenario), there are still quite a few things that The Revenant does wrong that are thrown into all the sharper relief in comparison with its smarter, funnier colleague. A month ago I might have been able to tune into this film's simple, crude wavelength, but there's no hope of that now.

So, this fellow called Bart (David Anders) dies in Iraq, and is sent home to Los Angeles be buried, and mourned by those who loved him: chiefly his long-time girlfriend Janet (Louise Griffiths) and best buddy Joey (Chris Wylde). Except that Bart doesn't end up staying dead for very long: the night of his funeral (his burial left incomplete, since the crane meant to lower a granite slab onto his grave ran out of gas), he wakes up, wanders over to see Joey, and a series of quick discoveries follow:

-Bart is definitely dead;
-Bart is neither exactly a zombie nor exactly vampire;
-But Bart still needs to ingest human blood to keep from rotting away.

Thus begins a multi-night spree of killing gang-bangers, muggers, rapists, and other unsavory sorts that earns the two friends a hefty amount of media attention, not all of it disapproving, and the LAPD has started to devote a significant amount of energy to stopping these mysterious blood-draining vigilantes. Neither of that matters as much to Bart as the sticky problem of what to do about Janet, or for that matter what to do about Joey, who is proving to be significantly more bloodthirsty than his undead friend.

One thing that nobody can take away from the film is that it has absolutely top-notch effects, as good as anything in a film with ten times the budget and a small army of computer animators. I don't doubt that this has something to do with Prior's history as an effects artist on a number of horror films, several of them directed by Don Coscarelli (though Prior does not have an effects credit on this film; it's not clear to me who of the several make-up artists, or other credited special effects people, rightly out to get credit). The Revenant features shots that my mind almost can't get around: severed heads that still move, and can only plausible be explained by CGI or detailed, motorised props, and yet look too perfect to really believe that it's anything other than an actor's head framed in the most exquisitely precise manner. Or make-up jobs that recall the Two-Face effect in The Dark Knight, only executed better.

Outside of the sublime gore work, though, it's hard to say that The Revenant has much of anything going for it. The most obvious flaw is probably that the comedy falls flat on its face: as a writer, Prior has seemingly concluded that the most funny thing possible is when unpleasant white trash characters say "fuck" all the time. Look, I loved The Big Lebowski too, so I certainly get the comic possibilities of a scorched-earth F-bomb barrage. But Prior is neither Joel nor Ethan Coen; he's not even Kevin Smith. All that his gags in The Revenant prove is that, while crude language can be used wittily, having a crude mouth is not itself wit. It's frankly a relief when the film goes for the comparatively elegant humor implicit in undead men who ooze rank fluids and have bits of their bodies hanging off in gross ways. Oh, and there are racist jokes, a lot of them, though I expect the film's defenders would point out that there are shitty white people too, as though making fun of one's own race earns a free pass to say horribly problematic things about Latinos.

The more dire problem, condemning The Revenant not just as a failed comedy but as a failed movie, is that the whole thing is patched together in an ungainly, erratically-paced manner. It's not necessarily a flaw that the story doesn't really go anywhere for more than an hour; except that in the absence of interesting characters or good jokes, the wandering pace starts to become more and more frustrating as the movie drags on. It doesn't help this problem that the film doesn't have any stakes until about three-quarters of the way through; its conflict can be summed up as "things are difficult when you are a blood-dependent corpse", and since this conflict rather quickly gets resolved by the logic "so go kill a bunch of hoods!", we're left to wonder when, if ever, the movie is going to pick up the hints of emotional drama that it left untouched after the opening scene.

Prior is a better director than he is a writer, but he still commits some rather pedestrian mistakes, and only rarely achieves any kind of style that makes the film much fun to watch in any sort of formalist way (his best idea is to repeat certain shots over and over again, to build their comic effect over the course of the movie; and I do not use "comic" ironically, for in this small respect, at least, The Revenant is a success). One thing he does that is especially irritating is to end many, many scenes with a fade to black, the surest way possible to step on the neck of whatever momentum the film has been building up, and an archaic enough editing technique that I half-wonder if what he showed at the Chicago International Film Festival was in fact nothing but a rough-cut (though my sense is that the final cut of the film is the version that played at Austin's Fantastic Fest in September 2009). Certainly, it's the kind of ill-chosen, ill-achieved editing motif that you wouldn't expect a filmmaking veteran from any discipline to use it as though it were actually a good idea.

Prior, who attended the screening I saw, seems like a very nice man, and it's obvious that he and the actors had a really fun time making this movie. So it makes me feel like a prick, kind of, to say these mean things about The Revenant. But as much as I wanted to like it (God knows I don't have a hard time enjoying zombie movies), the whole thing was far more annoying and dull than it was entertaining, and it was virtually never funny or scary (you'd hope a horror comedy could at least be one or the other). If there's a good film to be dragged out of Kerry Prior the director, it's necessarily going to be made without the help of Kerry Prior the writer; and he might seriously think about finding some help for Kerry Prior the editor. There are moments here and there that are fairly-well done, but mostly the film, she is a mess.