Directed by: Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu
Written by: Mark L. Smith & Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu (based in part on the novel by Michael Punke)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson
I had a lot of mixed feelings about The Revenant in its immediate aftermath, and I still have them nearly 48 hours removed. Like Birdman and Babel before it, it’s a painfully pretentious affair, director Alejandro G. Iñárritu desperately and transparently clambering to craft an artsy-fartsy masterpiece. At the same time, like Birdman and Babel before it, something here just clicks and works mystifyingly well, creating a uniquely intoxicating cinematic experience. It’s one of the most exhilarating films I’ve seen in a long time.
Based (I assume loosely) on true events, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a frontiersman leading a band of fur trappers in the bleak but beautiful wilderness of 1823 Montana and South Dakota. After being mauled by a bear, Glass is left for dead by his colleagues (particularly by the hand of John Fitzgerald [Tom Hardy]), and he must fight to survive the harsh winter conditions to exact his revenge. While this seems like the setup for a fast-paced, frenetic revenge thriller, it plays out more like a grueling and deliberate survival adventure following several groups of people with intertwining stories and motives. The film’s 156-minute runtime is used shrewdly through excellent pacing, allowing the audience to feel the intensity, harshness, and longevity of Glass’ journey without ever becoming bored. It’s as immersive a film I’ve ever seen.
A lot of this can be heavily attributed to impeccable sound mixing and the work of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Lubezki, perhaps more than anyone else, is known for his distinct style of photography, and it’s always interesting to see how different directors utilise his work. Here, Iñárritu and Lubezki (perhaps mostly Lubezki) use the trademark long and deliberate, handheld-yet-smooth, almost dreamlike shots to craft a sense of grand space, the camera’s unhindered movements and extended takes making the sets spring to dreary life and drawing us in. You see what’s before you and can hear everything all around you, and the resulting effect is being convinced that you’re right in the thick of it alongside the characters. Paired with unflinching depictions of the measures required in order to achieve survival, and the whole thing becomes an extremely nervy ordeal, in the best sense possible. I could have sworn I was freezing to death just sitting there in the theatre, and it was thrilling.
The problem is it’s just so obvious how much Iñárritu wants to impress you with every passing second – and to be fair, it really is impressive. I was floored by The Revenant. But as I was taken from every intimate moment to stunning vistas to longform battles and slow revelations of herds of wild bison, it’s like Iñárritu was sitting next to me poking my shoulder every five minutes and whispering, “Isn’t that so cool? Are you enjoying my movie? Is it not blowing your mind?” Yes, Alejandro, it’s great, I’m really enjoying myself, but frankly the flair isn’t always that organic and helpful to the narrative, and you’re distracting me from the movie.
The film is at its worst at the beginning, which made me admittedly worried. Digital seams between shots meant to feign a long take are incredibly obvious and makes it seem like the editing process was a bit rushed (principal photography did only just end in August 2015, after all). However, the editing seems to find its footing by the hour mark, at which point you’re used to the aesthetic and sufficiently invested in the proceedings, and it culminates in an ending sequence that is the true perfection the whole film seeks to attain. At no point did I ever really find myself emotionally attached to the characters, however, and whether this should be attributed to a lack of development or the wall created by artistry I cannot say.
Talking of characters, there’s some phenomenal acting here. Domhnall Gleeson caps of a phenomenal and prolific 2015 year as Captain Andrew Henry, providing enough gravitas to make a convincing young leader struggling to keep some of his more seasoned (and negligent) employees in line. Gleeson has shown a lot of growth as of late, and I’m growing more and more impressed with him. Leonardo DiCaprio gives another stellar turn as Hugh Glass, pushing his body to incredible limits through snow and ice while conveying hate, sorrow, and determination without so much as a word for around 50+ minutes of screen time. Tom Hardy also puts in an admirable performance as John Fitzgerald, the yin to Glass’ yang, once again getting lost in his cowardly and conniving character. I think it’s one of the most persuasive and criminally overlooked supporting performances of the year; Hardy is completely lost in the role. I’m tempted to compare him to a young Daniel Day-Lewis.
Ultimately, I really enjoyed The Revenant. In spite of itself, it enveloped me and took me away to its world like no other film from 2015, and I was left with an adrenaline rush so strong that I could barely sleep the following night. It’s an adventure that you must experience and must experience in the cinema no less. The only thing keeping it from being a true stroke of genius is its overbearing ambition to be just that.