The Revenant Review

Posted: January 11, 2016 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

the revenantWritten by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

Alejandro González Iñárritu made a case for himself as one of the most promising filmmakers of the 2000s with the films Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel, a collection known as his “Death Trilogy”. Given the name, you can guess the films were not exactly fun affairs. All three films were realist dramas focusing on damaged people and each presented a very bleak world view. Personally, I found all of the aforementioned films to be highly powerful and provocative works, but I do get why they may not be for everyone. After his 2010 effort Biutiful was met with general indifference, Iñárritu struck out with Birdman, a film vastly different from what Iñárritu had built his name on. While the film certainly had some dark streaks, Birdman was much more comedic and high energy and it seems that change of pace was exactly what Iñárritu needed. Birdman was a critical and financial success which went on to win the Best Picture Oscar and Iñárritu also won for Best Director. I loved the film and given how different it was from the rest of Iñárritu’s filmography, I was really curious to what he would make next. As it turns out, his next film is yet another turn. That film is The Revenant, and while it is very different from Iñárritu’s early work, it certainly does embrace the dark tone of the “Death Trilogy”.

The Revenant is set in the 1820s in frontier America and follows a group of hunters in the process of collecting pelts. As the film begins, the group is attacked by a tribe of Native Americans who wipe out most of the hunting party, with the exception of a handful of survivors who escape by boat. With dwindling numbers and still at risk, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) advises the group abandon the boat and their pelts and instead chart a new path on foot to avoid further attacks. This decision places great animosity between Glass and fellow hunter John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Shortly after, Glass is mauled in a brutal bear attack leaving him unable to walk or speak and very near death. Given the group cannot risk carrying Glass back, Captain Andrew Harry (Domhnall Gleeson) leaves Glass in the care of his son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), young hunter Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), and the aforementioned Fitzgerald until help can arrive. Fitzgerald however, has other plans. After attacking Glass, Fitzgerald murders Hawk and buries Glass alive. Glass lives on though, and begins to crawl his way through the wilderness with the singular goal of finding and killing Fitzgerald.

The plot structure here is that of a revenge tale where one person seeks to kill a villain who wronged him. However this isn’t really the focus of The Revenant and is instead more of a framework to hang a survival story on. The real thrill of the film comes from seeing Glass face so many harsh obstacles and try and fight his way through in spite of having several injuries and almost no resources. Some of these scenes can be quite simple, such as trying to cauterize his wounds, to more large scale scenes like trying to get past a group of French hunters. Much has been made of the film’s brutal on-location shoot, but the results are on screen. Seeing Glass in real forests, real water, and real snow does emphasize just how arduous his journey was and it makes the film a lot more compelling. Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance is also crucial as he does a great job showing Glass’ internal drive. DiCaprio does not have a lot of dialogue in the film, in fact after the bear attack he can barely make any sounds behind garbled gibberish, but the intensity and conviction DiCaprio portrays in just his facial expressions and physicality is very powerful. Beneath the intensity are more subdued emotions though, namely a father’s love and eventual sense of loss which are felt in some poignant scenes. The role on the whole is an ideal fit for DiCaprio; an actor always known for intensity and physicality.

DiCaprio’s conviction is key to the story’s revenge and survival elements, but equally important in this equation is Tom Hardy, who is also fantastic as John Fitzgerald. Hardy plays Fitzgerald with waves of hatred and anger, but there’s also a somewhat twisted rationality to his actions throughout the film. To some extent, Fitzgerald actually believes his actions to be right, or at least justifiable. He’s a great villain, one who is both threatening and very human, and Hardy plays the part perfectly. The film is largely dominated by DiCaprio and Hardy’s performances, but the other actors are also quite good. Domhnall Gleeson has had one hell of a 2015 and while I wasn’t crazy about his work in Star Wars: The Force Awakens or Ex Machina, I did find him to be very strong here. Similarly, Will Poulter, an actor probably most well-known for his role in We’re the Millers, gives a really emotional performance here and leaves a very strong impression as well.

Among other things, Birdman was notable for the ambitious cinematography and the one-take format. Here, Alejandro González Iñárritu has once again teamed with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki for a project which is just as ambitious, if not more so. The entire film was shot in natural sunlight, and while such a decision was partially responsible for the film’s long shoot and budget inflation, the results are absolutely stunning. This is a beautiful film with some of the most amazing visuals I’ve seen all year. There is a cold tone to the look of the film along with some really dramatic uses of lighting and the camera’s omniscient movements are quite haunting. The cinematography is not only appealing aesthetically, but is in fact crucial to the themes of the film. Essentially, The Revenant is about the contrast between nature and humanity. Visually, the landscapes in The Revenant are depicted as cold and harsh, but there is also a definite beauty to the way the film is shot. The humans meanwhile, are dirty in appearance and brutal in their treatment of each other. Though there are some poignant acts of kindness in the film, most of the characters are defined by the misery they endure and/or the misery they bring to others. Both nature and humanity are violent, but the violence humanity displays is cruel and malicious in a way the violence of nature is not.

These themes of violence are also reflected in many of the films set-pieces. The crucial bear attack scene is perhaps the best example of the violence of nature depicted in the film. The scene is unquestionably brutal and disturbing, but it is also impersonal. The bear is not trying to cause pain so much as it is simply acting in its nature. The violence perpetrated by humanity against itself is, by contrast, driven by cruelty, hatred, and anger. These messages may not seem the deepest or most complex, but it is important to understand they play almost entirely in visuals, and thus resonate purely. However it is perhaps a disservice to focus too much on the intellectual aspects of The Revenant as the film is perhaps most successful as a visceral experience. I’ve already discussed how thrilling it is watching Glass fight to survive and the cinematography is exceptionally powerful, but Iñárritu also crafts some absolutely brilliant scenes. The film is sort of like Children of Men in that it isn’t a straight-up action movie, but it does contain a handful of set-pieces way too awesome to ignore. The opening sequence wherein the natives use bow and arrow against the rifle armed hunters is incredibly gripping and violent, a quick but memorable chase scene, and an epic final showdown between Glass and Fitzgerald. However the highlight is certainly the bear attack. Presented in one take, the scene is extremely brutal, frightening, and tense. It’s one of the most unique and unforgettable sequences I’ve seen in a film all year. These scenes are underscored by some tremendously haunting and atmospheric music.

I’m sure it’s abundantly clear at this point that I loved The Revenant. This is a film which excelled in pretty much every way it could, creating one hell of a cinematic journey that I cannot wait to take again. I’m not sure it is a film for everyone however. The brutal violence will definitely be hard for some audiences, and the pacing and sparse dialogue also challenge typical Hollywood conventions. That said, I urge any even slightly open minded filmgoer to see The Revenant. We don’t often get something as ambitious and purely cinematic as The Revenant and to miss it would be a damn shame.

A+

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