The Revenant is a film that accomplishes so much. Beautiful, with awe inspiring cinematography, yet also brutal in that it’s beautifully shot images are horrific to look at. Visceral, with a revenge centered plot of man vs man, yet also slowly paced as we watch man take on nature. Exciting, with some of the most anxiety inducing action scenes ever put to film, yet also pretentious with some of its over the top imagery. Equal parts Thrilling Western and Meditative Art Piece, The Revenant succeeds as we experience one man’s will to live during some of humanity’s harshest times.
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (fresh off winning Oscars for best screenplay, director, and picture for 2014’s Birdman), The Revenant stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, as well as others, all turning in great performances. The story follows mountain men Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) and John Fitzgerald (Hardy) as they and their company explore the west as part of the historical trapping and gathering profession of the day. After many of their partners are killed in attacks from the local Native Americans and Glass is left for dead after a grueling bear attack, Glass finds himself battling both his fellow man and mother nature as he essentially comes back from the dead.
There are two words that come to mind when thinking about The Revenant: beautiful and brutal. First, the beauty of the film is breathtaking. Though there has been tons of hype regarding how hard the production of the film was (both positive and negative hype), the film must speak for itself, we can’t bring the behind-the-scenes experience into the theater with us. That being said, the conditions in which the film was made were obviously worth it, because The Revenant features some of the most breathtaking cinematography I have ever seen.
I walked out of the theater saying a phrase, not even thinking the phrase had already been claimed, but every frame of The Revenant could literally be a painting. Whether they simply capture the beautiful Canadian landscape, or have a thrilling action scene where the hunters take on the indigenous people, every single shot is a success. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki accomplished true beauty with The Revenant and you can’t take your eyes of the screen.
Whether it be his work on Children of Men, The Tree of Life, Gravity, or Iñárritu’s own Birdman, Lubezki proves that he is one of the best working today and he is the master of long take. Though not as long as Birdman (which has the appearance of one long take for two hours), The Revenant features beautiful long tracking shots that are technical masterpieces in it of themselves. On one hand, there is a mystery, “just how exactly did they make these shots happen” is constantly going through your mind. On the other hand, the tracking shots serve as a means to pull you deeper into the film. The Revenant knows that is is historical fiction, loosely based on the legend of Hugh Glass, but the cinematography and production design are determined to present some of the events as documentary.
Though the photography is beautiful, the images that are captured may not be. I said that every frame could be a painting, and that is definitely true, there are just some paintings you would not want to hang on your wall. In addition to being beautiful, the film is brutal in its depiction of 1800’s struggle between Europeans expanding west and Native Americans defending their homeland. This film is brutal with a capital B.
There is the cinematic stuff, an Indian attack on our hunter’s camp, a visceral bear attack, a brawl between our protagonist and his enemy, this is where The Revenant is a visceral experience and “enjoyable” to watch (“enjoyable” in the sense that the pacing is enthralling, not “enjoyable” in the sense that watching people suffer is fun). Then there is the slower sections of the movie. Though just as brutal, in that we are watching a man on the edge of his life attempt to regain his strength. It is in these moments that the brutality of the film is still felt. We know how devastated Glass’s body is, the very act of pulling himself up on a horse creates a sense of anxiety in the viewer as we know that it must hurt.
Though Iñárritu is able to make the audience feel how brutal this experience was, it is DiCaprio that brings it to life. Most of the film he speaks another language or is unable to speak altogether, and yet DiCaprio 100% takes the audience on the journey that Glass is experiencing. It is hard to watch at time, it is a feat in that DiCaprio is able to communicate so much of a character’s emotion while not saying anything at all.
The film is not without its faults. Though the cinematography, production design, direction, and acting are all top notch, there is a level where the grander themes of the story outweigh its simplistic narrative. The Revenant is a very simple revenge tale, but it is over two and a half hours long. The runtime pushes the audience’s limits by showcasing some pretentious shots meant to inspire some artistic dialogue. Lubezki works with Terrance Mallick, and Mallick lives in this slow, ethereal type of filmmaking, and Lubezki brings the same beautiful shots to The Revenant, I’m just not sure they were needed here. Though I may represent the more simplistic filmgoer that certain film communities scoff at, but perhaps a more straightforward narrative would have served The Revenant better.
Even with the contemplation in mind (some of successful, some of it not), The Revenant is not held back from being a success. This is a film that brings the best of blockbuster filmmaking and independent drama together. All the performances are on point, Iñárritu builds a world in which the audience’s experiences the pain of the characters, and Lubezki continues to prove that he is one of the best directors of photography working today. The Revenant successfully displays the brutality of life during the timeframe, while also inspiring with its depiction of man overcoming the odds for the good of his fellow man.