The Revenant (2015)

01/09/2016  By  Joseph Wade     No comments

Revenge is a dish best served by God. That’s the lesson our hero learns in the closing moments of The Revenant. He actually learns it halfway through the film from a man in a similar predicament, but in true Hollywood fashion, it only becomes relevant late in the third act as the moral of the story finally becomes clear. One cannot deny the visual power of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest film, but while the scope of his vision is a mile wide, the story he’s telling is ultimately an inch deep.

Based on Michael Punke’s 2003 novel, The Revenant tells the true story of fur trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) on a hunting expedition gone horribly wrong. After Glass is mauled by a bear, the expedition’s captain (Domhnall Gleeson) orders someone to stay behind and bury Glass when he inevitably dies. Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), a young man who owes Glass his life, agrees to stay behind with Glass’s half-Pawnee son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a trapper every bit Glass’s equal, also stays behind to see the job done right. When Fitzgerald tries to kill Glass before his time, Hawk intervenes, causing Fitzgerald to murder Hawk instead. Fitzgerald buries the now furious-but-immobile Glass in a shallow grave and convinces Bridger to flee back to camp. Glass soon drags himself out of his grave and slowly gives chase, swearing vengeance against the man who murdered his son.

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The whole movie takes place at magic hour because broad daylight is for chumps.

While Leonardo DiCaprio’s much-publicized tortures are the film’s primary selling point, the real star of the show is cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. His camera glides across the American wilderness, capturing dense, rain-soaked forests, frozen hillsides and vast rivers that seem to flow on indefinitely. There’s a touch of Terrence Malick in his work here, though Iñárritu keeps him on a tighter leash, refusing to let his camera get lost in the grandeur of nature. The opening battle scene is a technical marvel, as Glass’s crew retreat from a band of Native Americans. Lubezki and Iñárritu shoot this sequence (among others) in a series of long takes, with the camera whipping around to catch glimpses of the horrors playing out all around us. The sound design in this scene is incredible as well; the gunfire and guttural screams envelope you in the nightmare unfolding onscreen. It’s breathtaking and horrible, much like the bear attack that sets the story in motion.

Glass having a son is a bit of fiction, though it adds some much-needed drama to a film that is otherwise remarkably light on story. As Glass drags himself across the wilderness, his love for his family and rage at Fitzgerald drives him forward. Glass repeatedly evades a tribe of Natives, themselves on the warpath after a team of French trappers who have captured their chief’s daughter. This cycle of vengeance, coupled with the uncaring brutality of Mother Nature, puts Glass at the center of a maelstrom of death. One violent act begets another, and the whole thing starts over again.

So why does this film add up to little more than a vague platitude? Perhaps it’s because the film itself is somewhat vague. For starters, we’re never given a concrete setting. (It’s 1823 in “the unsettled wilderness of the Louisiana Purchase”. Thanks Wikipedia!) This isn’t strictly important; the setting evokes a mood and an era more than a specific time or place. Iñárritu is painting a western in broad, naturally-lit strokes, and we’re not meant to get caught up in these details. Certain details appear vitally important, though, but serve little purpose. Glass dreams about Fitzgerald witnessing a meteor streaking across the sky, then about an encounter with his son in an abandoned church. These are glimpses into Hugh Glass’s internal drama, though Glass repeatedly scratching “FITZGERALD KILLED MY SON” into any surface he can find makes that point kind of moot.

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Nothing says FITZGERALD KILLED MY SON like a pyramid of cow skulls.

There’s an odd dichotomy between the performances of Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy. On the one hand, DiCaprio puts himself through a survivalist boot camp regimen, eating raw meat, swimming in frozen rivers and flinging himself against trees. Other than being the human body unlucky enough to be put through the frontier wringer, though, DiCaprio isn’t given much in the way of an actual character. Hardy, on the other hand, plays an incredible heel with little more than a thick Appalachian accent. Fitzgerald is wild-eyed and vicious, a man who knows exactly how ruthless one must be in the wilderness, and has the sack to back it up. While DiCaprio’s performance is almost entirely physical, Hardy’s is all about building a villain through sheer charisma.

The Revenant is a gorgeous motion picture. That much cannot be overstated. Iñárritu set out to shoot a film in the bleakest wilderness using only natural light, and the result is a work of staggering beauty. While it may not say much of anything, it’s a visual tour de force nonetheless. Seeing this film on the biggest screen possible is absolutely crucial. Watching it on anything less will inevitably drain the film of the only power it has. Watching The Revenant at home, surrounded by comforts like a sofa, refrigerator and a pause button will be the cinematic equivalent of camping in your backyard.

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Lubezki's Cinematography
Hardy's Wild-eyed Madness
DiCaprio's Tough Mudder Challenge
The Brutal Poetry of Nature
Iñárritu's Eye for Empty Metaphors

About Joseph Wade

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Joseph Wade is secretly three bulldogs in a trenchcoat. Their favorite movie is Turner & Hooch.

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