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.
“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.
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.
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.
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 feels 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