Film Review: The Revenant

A tale of survival and human resilience, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s stunning, brutal western tackles elemental themes through an uncompromised and non-didactic vision, with a superb performance by Leonardo DiCaprio.
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Thanks to its much-publicized shoot, we heard about The Revenant’s overflowing budget, weather-related production delays and reportedly “nightmarish” set conditions well in advance. Some of us raised a few eyebrows, perhaps, wondering whether Alejandro González Iñárritu–the ambitious, Oscar-winning director of the (sort of) single-plan marvel Birdman–was getting a little ahead of himself with his insistence to shoot on location, with natural light and in chronological order. And here we are, with the technically and viscerally magnificent The Revenant staring us in the eyes finally, through the miraculous camera of Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki (two-time Oscar winner and Iñárritu’s repeat collaborator) in such intimate proximity. Turns out, there had been a method to Iñárritu’s artistic madness all along.

The Revenant’s unforgiving elemental backdrop is agonizingly real, immersive and vindictive all at once—and not only for the actors who actually survived it. Iñárritu’s uncompromised vision knowingly and thoroughly strips the audience of their warm, comforting thoughts and effectively places them on the 19th-century American Frontier, in the midst of much brutal bargaining between man and nature. Who will die vs. survive is the question that dominates the film. And it doesn’t only have the people of the local tribes or the materialistic white men in mind as potential sufferers. The Revenant understands, and shows, that nature would easily prevail in any battle fought against it, had all conditions been equal. But men have their weapons, greed, and in most cases both, not only victimizing one another but also betraying the habitat that had generously provided for them till then. Much blood gets spilled on all ends, with little dignity to go around.

The creation of that world, with its gut-wrenching truths, is an astounding accomplishment. The Revenant is a decisively non-didactic western. Think of everything Dances with Wolves—set a few decades later, during the tail end of the Frontier—is, from its underlined morals to its romanticized themes. You’ll then get a sense of what The Revenant isn’t and deliberately avoids, with themes that are lived in and immediately, painfully felt but never prescribed. Loosely adapted by Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith from Michael Punke’s 2002 novel–with some fictionalization–the story follows Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio, in his most physically demanding and transformative performance, likely to finally win him that Oscar), who clutches onto the status of a folkloric legend. An explorer and a fur trapper appointed by the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, Glass skillfully leads his group along the Missouri River so they can collect their animal pelts and make a profitable living. But the attack of a protective mother grizzly bear–a CGI scene that makes one truly imagine, if not feel, her teeth and claws–changes the dynamics. Savagely mauled and at the brink of death, Glass gets left behind with his son (from his marriage to a now-murdered Native American woman) and two men who accept extra money from team leader Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) in return: Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, convincingly cold and devilish).

Fitzgerald takes advantage of the more naïve Bridger, murders Glass’ son and convinces Bridger to leave Glass alone in his doomed fate. With a rotting body, broken limbs, limited tools and no food, Glass has to survive the unimaginable at the mercy of the harsh conditions of Mother Nature and hunt down the men who betrayed him. His story of survival isn’t dissimilar in concept to other celebrated tales of lone resilience, from Robinson Crusoe to Gravity, yet its execution is mercilessly primitive in comparison.

The Revenant surely owes much of its you-are-there immediacy to Lubezki’s skillfulness, in addition to DiCaprio’s towering work and unflinching commitment, with increasing signs of agony on his face. (Perhaps there is something to that whole chronological shoot after all.) Working with long takes once again after Birdman (but this time, in an unpredictable and uncontrolled environment), Lubezki commands the set-pieces with complex choreography and traffic. One sequence at the beginning in which warriors from local tribes attack the fur traders is especially thrilling and memorable. The longtime Terrence Malick cinematographer also elevates the use of natural light beyond a technical accolade. Natural illumination and its dreaded disappearance add a sense of brisk chill to The Revenant, narrowing the gap between cinema and reality, bringing the audience closer to the experience. Glass’ close-up exhalations that fog up the lens (an unnecessary excess that happens more than once) serve as the only distraction that reminds the audience of the existence of a camera. The cinematography naturally recalls the expansive, dreamy Malick look with beams of light tickling the earth, but a Tarkovskian spirituality is what really reigns over the film (a filmmaker Iñárritu himself quotes as an inspiration), despite its uncomplicated, bare-bones storyline. The eerily haunting score, composed by Bryce Dessner, Carsten Nicolai and Ryuichi Sakamoto, is faultlessly integrated into the film, making sounds of nature and Glass’ torment indistinguishable from the music at times.

As a storyteller, Iñarritu has always been fascinated by pain (emotional and otherwise) and stamina. Even Birdman could be seen as a survival story of sorts, tackling one man’s battle to come back from the dead. And while that was a piercing satire, The Revenant is a grueling lament over irreversible losses. It’s the kind of film that pulls you in so deeply that when the lights come on, the real world seems alienating for a time.

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