The Revenant | Review
“…to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” – Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
What drives a man to live? What pushes him to survive when others want him to die? What madness must he wield so that revenge can finally be his?
The story of the American frontiersman Hugh Glass, as told in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant, is one of great suffering, of survival, and of the lengths that a man will go to in order to exact revenge upon someone who’s taken everything from him. This isn’t a story that’s easy to process, nor should it be. As I sit here writing this, I’m still kind of…in awe of the way it was told by Iñárritu and his talented crew, although it certainly didn’t come easily. The Revenant was a difficult film to make; extreme budget issues drove the original cost of $60 million up to over $95 million, and the choice to use only natural lighting made the production even more arduous as the crew had to wait for just the right conditions to be present in order to film certain scenes. Add to that the absolutely brutal environmental conditions that the crew had to film under, and the fact that some members actually quit the production before it ended, and you’ve got a lot of people wondering just what this film is all about. I’ll give you a hint:
If you look up the definition of the word ‘revenant’, you’ll find that it means: “a visible ghost or animated corpse that was believed to return from the grave to terrorize the living.” It’s an apt title for the tale of a man who’s single-minded need for revenge drives him to suffer through the harshest environments, and the most grueling tests of endurance, just to kill the man who left him for dead. And indeed, Leonardo DiCaprio’s brilliant, seminal performance as Glass leaves him as scarred and broken as the landscapes he traverses. This is a role that DiCaprio was born to play and one that he throws himself into completely. His performance isn’t necessarily based upon dialogue, and what little he has is often said in Arikara, the language spoken by some of the indigenous tribes of the 19th century. But the reason DiCaprio is so stunning in this role is because of what he doesn’t say; a frozen breath escaping his clenched throat with a sharp wheeze, a look of frenzied fury on his face when he strikes a blow against an enemy, fingers mangled and broken as he pulls himself through miles of dirt and snow. The physicality of his performance is awesome and essential and means that, once again, he’ll be an Oscar contender this year.
But DiCaprio isn’t alone. Tom Hardy pulls more than his fair share of the weight as Glass’s would-be-murderer, John Fitzgerald. Hardy actually does most of the talking during the film, and his gruff, wild-eyed portrayal of Fitzgerald makes him all the more menacing and disturbing to watch. Along with Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck and the rest of the cast, the film brilliantly creates a sense of grim realism and believably, all in an effort to push us as audience members further and further into the harsh reality that we see on the screen.
There’s a starkness and a breathtakingly cold, naturalistic beauty to the world within The Revenant, and that’s due in no small part to the brilliant work of Academy Award-winning cinematographer, Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki. No other film in recent memory has looked this unique to my eyes, or felt more harsh and rugged and real. At times, Lubezki uses the camera to frame the landscapes and the characters like a painting, as natural and as truthful as possible. Yet at other moments, there’s almost a heightened reality at play; trees sway and creak like giants standing against harsh winds, hazy close-ups fog the lens as the actors’ breath washes over them, and quick shots during dream sequences allow glimpses at a world beyond our own. It reminded me of Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, particularly the sequence called ‘The Blizzard‘.
With the help of Production Designer Jack Fisk, Costume Designer Jacqueline West, and every single person in the ridiculously talented Makeup Department,The Revenant actually looks like a film that was made during the time period in which it’s set. The editing, which was done by the phenomenal Stephen Mirrione, allows for lingering shots of craggy mountains and snow-crusted rivers, but also creates just the right amount of tension to propel the pacing forward when it needs to. Combined with the soul-stirring, ethereal score from Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto, and Bryce Dessner of The National, The Revenant has some serious heft to it’s already considerable artistic endeavors.
Iñárritu has been on a role recently with his films. Four of them have been nominated for various Academy Awards, and his previous film Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), won four all on its own: Best Director, Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. He’s Hollywood’s new favorite auteur director, and rightfully so. A lot of people thought thatBirdman was pretentious or overwrought, and maybe that’s why it won so many awards. Honestly though, I was more worried about The Revenant being like that than any of his other films.
But it’s not. At all. The only way that I can think of to adequately describe what Iñárritu has made with his latest film is that he’s created a story that is as truthful to the experience Hugh Glass went through as possible. Does that mean that every single part of the story you see on the screen is 100% real? Of course not. But Iñárritu doesn’t cut any corners when it comes to the visceral, violent experiences that Glass had to endure, and the film is much better for it.
So is it a perfect film? There were moments, specific shots that could’ve been trimmed. Some of the audio didn’t sync up perfectly with the actor’s mouths when they were speaking, especially when the Powaqa are talking. I heard a few complaints about the length and the pacing while I sat in my seat watching the credits roll, although I thought both were fine. So maybe it’s not perfect in the technical sense, which can be said of almost any film ever made. But the emotions I felt while watching it, the drama that I was caught up in, and the visuals that spread across that giant silver screen and made me believe I was somewhere else? That was perfect. The experience of watching a film that was made with passion and fervency by extremely talented individuals is always going to be interesting, whether the film ends up being deemed good or bad by the majority of people who see it.
To me, The Revenant is a great film, and a great telling of one man’s journey through the harsh reality of both a wholly unforgiving, natural world and the seemingly unconquerable valley of grief, all in an effort to exact revenge on another man.
Go and see it.