We might as well call it “Dances With Wolves”: Compared to the nightmarish vision multimedia id-tickler Matthew Barney created his epic, five-film “Cremaster Cycle” (which suggested Hieronymus Bosch by way of Busby Berkeley) and his shocking six-hour followup, “River of Fundament” (which some dubbed pornographic, while inspiring others to go ranting on Reddit), the art-world adulte terrible’s wilderness-set new feature feels downright conventional.
“Redoubt” runs a relatively bladder-friendly two hours and 15 minutes. It contains none of the upsetting bodily fluids or functions that have repulsed his past audiences. The film features Barney himself as a grizzled mountain-man artist identified only as the “Engraver,” and it follows a linear plot loosely inspired by the myth of Diana, goddess of the hunt (professional sharpshooter and self-described “30 Cal Gal” Anette Wachter), and Actaeon, the mortal trespasser whom she turned into a stag (that would be Barney’s character).
“Redoubt” seems unlikely to shock or offend anyone other than animal rights activists, who will see wolves picked off distant cliffs by Diana’s sure aim — and even they should be mollified by the end-credits claim that “Hunting scenes … were staged using special effects. Trained animals were provided by professional handlers who monitored their health and safety and the conditions on set.” The film spans six allegorical hunts (since, as you just read, the shooter was real by the kills were staged) in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, where Barney grew up, and features just half a dozen human characters, not counting the anonymous drunks down at the local tavern, where mounted deer and elk heads hang above the bar.
In the principal cast, three are seemingly dedicated to the act of creation, whether artistic or in more cosmic terms, while the other three appear to be consumed with a kind of destruction, female hunters who stalk their prey while practicing a kind of ritualistic choreography. This tension — between metaphorical forms of birth and death — runs throughout the film, which doesn’t condemn killing necessarily. If anything, it fetishizes the act, framing wildlife through the crosshairs of Diana’s scope and celebrating the lengths to which she goes to achieve the perfect shot, like the modern equivalent of those cave paintings in which stick figures lob spears at a woolly mammoth.
Shot on ultra-crisp, high-definition digital cameras — an art-film riff on “The Revenant,” patiently paced, but hardly tedious — the film makes expert use of drone photography, which feels like such a passing fad in other directors’ hands (high-dollar selfie sticks for filthy-rich tourists). Here, the effect is suitably otherworldly, suggesting a point of view that alternates between the hunter and the hunted from the film’s opening shots, alternating between a bloody animal carcass as seen from above, and a skyward-pointing view of the bird of prey circling overhead.
Barney and editor Katharine McQuerrey (who has assisted the Coen brothers on many of their films) give nature the bulk of their attention, treating its human characters as trespassers into this snowy “virgin” territory. In the classical myth, Diana and her two disciples are also virgins, cut off from man (Barney is the film’s only male actor), though the artist extends the concept to the landscape, too. As with Barney’s past cinematic projects, “Redoubt” serves as the centerpiece of a larger body of work, which included a pair of massive metallic tree trunks, propped up at strange angles.
Dressed in rugged mountainwear, he plays a kind of benevolent earth warden who practices electroplating, an alchemical process with which Barney recently became obsessed, wherein etchings made on sheets of copper are dipped in solutions that fix the designs in place. The Engraver shares a modest trailer home with a woman (K. J. Holmes plays the “Electroplater”) who gives his carvings their shining precious-metal finish, while also making an odd copper sculpture of her own. This pair upends the model of the primitive couple, in which the man goes out hunting, while the wife deals with the meat and hides he brings home. Not this man: The Engraver returns not with food, but with art, and she sees it through the final stages of the process. Intercut with these scenes are glimpses of a Native hoop dancer (Sandra Lamouche), who wraps herself in the giant red rings, fashioning them into virtual wings.
Each of the hunts brings Diana and the Engraver closer — a meeting that seems unlikely to go well, judging by Jonathan Bepler’s foreboding electronic score — until at last she turns her rifle on him, shooting the copper plate on which he’s working, and he vanishes. Did she turn him into a wild animal, as happened in the ancient legend? Barney’s narrative yearns to be interpreted, but it’s not quite so literal as that. Much of the movie’s weirdness (which his followers have no doubt been anticipating all along) is packed into the final stretch, where Diana drools what looks like sap or honey into the barrel of her gun, while the Electroplater conjures an eclipse through dance. If it all made sense, would it still be art? Ironically, the trouble with “Redoubt” is that it’s not obtuse enough. It’s the first Barney film audiences won’t have trouble sleeping after — or through.