REVIEW : “The Revenant”

REVENANT POSTER

The last two years have been pretty kind to Alejandro González Iñárritu. 2014 saw the release of “Birdman”, his showy, indulgent black comedy/drama that caught fire during awards season eventually earning him Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. Now we get 2015’s “The Revenant”, a dark frontier western that once again finds Iñárritu at the heart of the Oscar conversation.

Iñárritu’s films require a unique taste. They often wallow in pessimism, anguish, and despair. He often gives us miserable characters with little to no emotional complexities. And to varying degrees, each of his films carry their own pretentious self-awareness. But at the same time Iñárritu deserves to be called a visionary. While it could be said Iñárritu has no sense of modulation and he sometimes milks a technique dry, he does put a ton into his narrative structures and visual presentations.

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“The Revenant” is undeniably Iñárritu. Modulation is as hard to find as mercy and hope across his cold, bloody, and unforgiving landscape. The story overextends itself while the characters and audience are incessantly battered by the director’s almost sadistic infatuation with suffering. Doesn’t sound too good, right? Here’s the catch, it’s actually quite good. None of those things keep “The Revenant” from being an exhilarating experience. In fact, in a bizarre and twisted way many of Iñárritu’s indulgences fit perfectly with this dark and violent story.

The story was inspired by the true experiences of fur trapper Hugh Glass and loosely based on Michael Punke’s “The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge” from 2002. The concept saw several casting and directing changes before Iñárritu landed it in 2011. He worked with Mark L. Smith on the script and Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy were brought on board as the stars. Filming began in 2014 and spanned various locations in the United States, Canada, and Argentina.

At its core the story is fairly simple. The setting is 1823 in the unsettled Northwest. A military sponsored trapping expedition under the command of Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) is attacked by a native tribe. Only ten men manage to escape including trapper and guide Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) and his Pawnee son played by Forrest Goodluck. The situation worsens after Hugh is violently attacked by a grizzly bear. Maimed and helpless, Hugh is buried alive in a shallow grave but not before witnessing the murder of his son by a vile, scurvy fellow trapper played by Tom Hardy.

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The trailers frame the rest of the story as a revenge tale and that’s partially accurate. Eventually Hugh escapes his shallow grave (the word revenant actually refers to the rising of the dead) and sets out to avenge his boy. But the film doesn’t put a heavy stress on that until later. Instead it becomes what I would call a survival procedural as Hugh methodically navigates one harrowing obstacle after another – his broken body, starvation, the freezing cold, hostile natives. The film certainly puts a heavy emphasis on the survival element of his story.

In doing that Iñárritu runs DiCaprio through a torturous gamut of challenging scenes. Leo has said several of the scenes were some of the hardest he has ever done. That’s easy to believe. Iñárritu emphasized authenticity and felt greenscreens  would hurt his vision for the film. That meant Leo trudging through actual deep snow, being swept away in an ice cold river, gnawing on raw fish and buffalo liver. DiCaprio goes all-in and gives an intensely committed performance that relies more on physicality and expression than dialogue. It’s something to behold.

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While on the subject of beholding you can’t speak of “The Revenant” without talking about its stunning presentation. As I mentioned Iñárritu is often obsessed with how his films look, almost to a fault. But here that obsession pays big dividends. The first smart move was bringing in the great Emmanuel Lubezki to shoot the film. Lubezki’s technique is so perfectly calibrated to this frontier world of beauty and violence. The action scenes are ferocious and filmed with a lyrical energy. They are veritable ballets of muskets, hatchets, bows, and blood.

But that is only one aspect of the film’s phenomenal visuals. There is also the way Iñárritu and Lubezki shoot the land. Scene after scene focuses on the astonishing beauty of the territory while also distinguishing it as threatening and untamed. It may be a slow panning shot of sun breaking through a forest’s canopy, a still shot of an ominous but beautiful snow covered mountain, or maybe a tracking shot of an icy, slow moving river. The imagery is stunning. It reminded me of Terrence Malik only colder, harsher, and bleaker. And I’m not sure any camera has ever captured the feeling of cold, wet misery better than here.

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If anyone feels that effect it’s the cast. Moreover if suffering on screen can win you an Oscar Leonardo DiCaprio has it in the bag, and Tom Hardy should at least be in the awards conversation. DiCaprio’s thirst for revenge is painfully earned and Hardy’s cauterized emotions feeds his repugnancy. Both are sturdy anchors for this patient, sweeping frontier epic. Both meld perfectly into Iñárritu’s dark, gloomy, overcast world.

It’s always pretty obvious where “The Revenant” is heading, but it’s that journey from the main story point to the finale that is so captivating. It isn’t an easy film to watch. The images are often shockingly gruesome and Iñárritu’s fascination with sorrow, misery, and loss pummels with one emotional gut-punch after another. But yet there is a seductive allure the kept me glued to every struggle, every conflict, and every encounter. I was overwhelmed by the scenery more times than I can count. But most importantly everything felt rich with meaning and emotion whether it was the ugliness of humanity or the beauty of nature. That’s not an easy thing to convey and Iñárritu deserves a ton of credit for doing it.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

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46 thoughts on “REVIEW : “The Revenant”

  1. Hardy should definitely be at the forefront of Oscar conversation; I thought he was tremendous! Those two gave some of the best performances of the year. I cannot believe what Leo went through for this role…that chilling river scene, the raw meat upon raw mean upon raw meat! Great review.

  2. Your opening paragraphs reflect my take on the film as well. There is a lot of obvious technique but it does not get in the way of the movie being excellent. There is a lot of suffering and it is stretched over big chunks of time. I needed the characters to have a little more to them than the thinly sketched archetypes they become. You know my views on the film, I see that we share some perspective but you did a very nice job here highlighting the cinema skills of the actors and the cameraman as well as the director.

    • Thanks so much Richard! I gotta admit, I loved this a lot more than I expected to. I do agree the characters could have been given more. The do become more or less symbols. But I guess I did get enough to satisfy me. Ultimately I was thoroughly invested.

      Now I have a question for you (SPOILERS FOR ANYONE WHO HASN’T SEEN IT). Do you think Hugh would have lived if he hadn’t witnessed his son’s murder? I guess what I’m asking is do you think his thirst for revenge is what ultimately fueled his will to live? That’s my take on it which is an interesting thing to chew on.

      • I know that I would have given up the ghost if I did not have a burning desire to see justice done. All the pain and anguish and cold, and more cold, I would have stayed under the dirt and gone permanently to sleep without a bigger motivator. That was the whole point of all the flashbacks to the son when he was young and to the life lessons that Glass was trying to provide Hawk. How else could you get out of the fort after all you had endured? I’m with you 100% on that. I don’t think that element was present in Man in the Wilderness. It was a more direct feeling of revenge for the indignity inflicted on him alone that drove Richard Harris. I want to go back and do a comparison. It has been decades since I saw that version of the movie.

  3. Ah yes sir. A truly great film isn’t it? On the subject of what Leo had to do in order to make this role what it was: what was the freaking insurance like on this film? If that was really him being swept downriver, I wonder how Iñárritu managed to justify that because how could anyone be sure he was going to come out of that OK? Or perhaps that was just one of the very few scenes that were manipulated with CGI? I have done quite a bit of reading on this but I guess just not enough. Hahaha

    • Tell me about it! I really respect Iñárritu’s devotion to making it the most natural realistic experience possible but DANG! I’ve read of crew leaving under the harsh conditions. Some being fired. I loved how all but one instance featured natural lighting. Just so much went into it, but as you said, how on earth did they pull off some of the stuff? All I can say is that Leo is the man.

  4. Wonderful analysis, Keith. I did expect to be “hooked” more by the story, but I think that is second to the overall presentation of the film. It’s a basic story that works, but probably not as “deep” as it thinks.

    Not sure if I care about watching again (a la 12 Years a Slave), but an undeniably moving film.

    • I completely see what you’re saying. For me, there was something I loved about the simplicity of the story. It would be interesting to see this same film but with a deeper story. Interested to see what that would look like.

      And how about Leo? Sure-thing on Oscar night? I think so.

      • Definitely on Leo. Admittedly, I haven’t seen everything that is likely to have a best actor nom (like The Danish Girl), but I think this year’s field is weaker than years past, especially last year.

        I think he is absolutely a sure thing; can’t see Redmayne, supposedly his strongest comp, winning back to back, or Fassbender, who I loved, winning with a film that failed to find any traction at the box office.

      • Exactly. The competition is a big factor. There’s no big Daniel Day-Lewis performance or anything similar. I would almost bet my home on Leo. It’s overdue.

  5. Excellent review Keith! I watched this over the last weekend and I thoroughly enjoy it. DiCaprio was perfect, as always, and this film was visually stunning, you are absolutely right there, but never once do you forget how harsh the environment is. I was captivated and enjoyed every second of it.

    • Thanks so much Zoe. I felt the same way. Actually seeing this again on Saturday. I was totally immersed in the experience. Enjoyed it more than expected. And what did you think of Tom Hardy? Perfectly vile, right?

      • I hope you enjoy it just as much the second time around! Ugh, it was the one role of his where I found him to be a truly reprehensible being – his performance was amazing!

      • Everything about the performance worked – his accent, his line delivery, his look, his abrasive personality. He felt right at home in that dark gloomy world.

  6. After looking at the nominations of the Oscars, I can’t see how Leo won’t win! That’s fine with me. I loved the setting, the contrasts of the wide angle landscape shots with the up-close and perosnal aspects of nature like the light flickering through leaves, the mossy trunks, the groaning of the trunks — it was a sensory treat. Even at the end of the film with the blood on the snow flanked by the black rock of the canyon walls. Beautiful.

    • You’re so right Cindy. Scene after scene of absolute cinematic beauty even among the harshness and violence. As I wrote, It was like Terrance Malick only gloomier and bleaker. And Leo has it in the bag. It would be a travesty if he didn’t get nominated.

  7. Seeing it in two weeks but I have a feeling Hardy will be my MVP. I always valued emotional acting over physical and in contrast to what I read in many reviews Fitzgerald’s motivations in the script seem to make him into quite an ambiguous character considering his previous ordeal and his desire to leave Glass not so much out of heartlessness but pure panic and paranoia which is well established

    • Hardy nails it. I think I may see his character as a tad more vile than some. I do think his background adds a special layer though. As we talked about, at least the Academy understood he deserved recognition. Something the Globes obviously couldn’t grasp.

  8. Yup, this was pretty fantastic. I loved how minimalistic the story was and how much it more it was concentrated on just being a stunning piece of cinema more than anything else, the attention to detail is impeccable. And yeah, Hardy was really great in this. I loved DiCaprio but Hardy imo, nearly stole the show from him.

      • I do. I think some of his other films, particularly Biutiful and Babel tend to get weighted down by self-indulgence on Inarritu’s part, but this and Birdman are two of the greatest films I’ve seen in a very long time which is why I’ve become a very big fan of him recently

  9. Great review! We definitely agree with the beauty of the landscape in this. It was stunning and they did an excellent job capturing that. I’m glad I saw this even though it’s not my sort of thing. 🙂

  10. Pingback: “The Hateful Eight” vs. “The Revenant” | Keith & the Movies

  11. Fabulous review bro! I can’t argue with a word of it. Completely see eye-to-eye on this one. It really was stunning experience. At first, I didn’t like the generic revenge story but once I thought about, I realised it ran much deeper than that. Can’t wait to see it again.

    • I listened to a podcast discussion recently where a guy basically blasted to film for its simplicity. He even went as far as to say nothing about the visual presentation struck him as beautiful. Now I completely believe that movies are subjective, but I have a really hard time seeing where he is coming from. The sheer artistry from the camera is one thing, but there is so much going on. The visual contrast between the beauty of the untamed land versus the ugliness of ‘tamed’ humanity really struck a chord. And then there were the small moments of visual mercy strategically placed within some of the film’s most brutal scenes. Oh man, just so much to chew on.

      • That wouldn’t be the Filmspotting podcast would it? I listened to that a couple of hours ago. He also said that there was no ambiguity??? I beg to differ on that point. Even the final shot of the movie is ambiguous (that stare). There’s plenty to chew on, man. I’m with you there.

      • Yes sir, that’s the show. It was an entertaining discussion but it seemed every angle Adam came from was from a negative perspective.

      • I agree. It sounded like it was getting a little heated. That said, as much as I liked The Hateful Eight, I couldn’t help but take on Josh’s criticisms of it. I didn’t always agree but he made some interesting arguments. Adam, on the other hand, was just being unfair. There’s no way this film was as empty as he made out.

    • I ended up seeing it a second time and was even more immersed in it. I really think people don’t give the film enough credit. I think it has a lot more going on under the surface.

  12. This should have been Hardy’s movie. DiCaprio’s performance is dull and obvious. Being miserable does not mean you’re acting well. Hardy’s character was a much better vehicle for what I think Innaritu wanted to talk about – revenge and the cycle of violence. Unsurprisingly, Innaritt became far too fascinated with his own “genius” to bother earning any of those themes on screen. I came in with low expectations and was still disappointed.

    • Oh I disagree. I loved DiCaprio’s performance. Hardy was exceptional too but in a very different role. I think he serves the story perfectly. I do think this is a movie about revenge but I think there are several other themes he is exploring. I loved what AGI did in The Revenant which isn’t always the case for me.

    • I think you are very wrong. This is like saying Hardy looking mean and selfish does not make a good performance. DiCaprio is by far the greater actor of the two. Hardys performance is lifted simply because he has more exposition , not because of any great acting chops.

      • I’m a big Hardy fan, but I think Leo is definitely the star. Both have a great feel for their characters and both really bring the intensity. Loved them.

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