Review: The Revenant

Jack Whitehead 21 January 2016

Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s latest feature brings art film back to Hollywood from the dead. In any usual circumstance such a lazy classification would be meaningless, but not here: this film is art in its most literal sense, displaying frames of exquisite beauty from start to finish. With The Revenant’s narrative of a man’s struggle against nature and his fellow man’s inhumanity, Iñárritu and his co-creators have raised the bar for mainstream cinema, all whilst facing levels of adversity fittingly comparable to those of the film’s protagonist.

The Revenant follows the life of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), an American frontiersman taking part in an 1823 fur-trapping expedition in the Midwest led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson). After being mauled by a bear Glass is left for dead, but not before he witnesses the death of his son at the hands of fellow traveller John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), an event that prompts his atavistic quest for revenge levelled at the man who killed his son (Forrest Goodluck). The quasi-legend, based in part on Michael Punke’s book of the same name which also inspired Richard C. Sarafian’s 1971 film Man in the Wilderness, presents Glass as a mythic force of nature, and in doing so creates a refreshingly unique portrayal of endurance.

The Edge (1997), Touching the Void (2003), 127 Hours (2010); what distinguishes the latest from Iñárritu is the extent to which the audience becomes part of this struggle, both through the blunt, unimpeded rawness with which the events evolve on screen, but more tangibly through the manipulation of the camera, which contributes so much to the film’s neorealism that it becomes a discernable element itself. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is often praised for its picturesque composition and his deft crafting of light and shadow; what is more apparent in this film than ever before, however, is the intricate choreography of his extended takes and their gruelling intimacy.

Epitomised by the film’s opening sequence that sees the camera dart amongst trees as the expedition of fur-trappers are attacked by Arikara warriors – at one moment falling to the ground as an arrow pierces a neck, at the next panning 360 degrees before plunging into water to capture a man drown, and then flying thirty feet up in the air – this movement of the camera paradoxically defies any notion of forced perspective of the scene, whilst concurrently drawing attention to itself in every way. Lubezki’s digital eye is a very physical presence throughout the whole film, at times becoming an objective element when DiCaprio’s breath fogs up the lens, or in the final moments when Glass directs his piercing eyes right at us, imploring us to ask what we’d do in his situation.

Iñárritu can only reach a certain point in placing us in Glass’s shoes however, and experience becomes empathy as we watch the survivor of a horrific bear attack (that expertly characterised and not out of place as one of the film’s minimal CGI moments) cascade down icy river rapids, ascend out of a freezing grave, and crawl inside a disembowelled horse. Yet once again this is made more real than ever by the method approach of DiCaprio, who must be praised for the levels of resilience he conveys despite uttering only a handful of half-grunted lines of dialogue in the entire 156 minute run-time.

Without placing too much emphasis on anything extraneous to this piece of cinema, it is hard to ignore the compelling nature of DiCaprio’s struggle created by the perceivable difficulties in filming such sequences – the ‘living hell’ akin to Apocalypse Now setbacks, including the cold, the treks to remote locations, the restrictions of shooting only with natural light and in a linear order etc.

Whilst DiCaprio is the sole presence on screen for the majority of the film, his physically challenging performance forms just part of the impressive acting in this feature, the most notable of which outside of Glass and Fitzpatrick comes from their young fellow expeditionary Jim Bridger (Will Poulter). The fresh face of the group displays some of the film’s greatest psychological stirrings when he is tricked into abandoning Glass by the malevolent Fitzpatrick, and subsequently becomes torn between guilt, fear, and doing the right thing.

DiCaprio is not to be outdone in psychological intensity however, and the film’s primary narrative is interspersed with fragments of his previous life with his Native American wife, moments which contribute to the film’s mystical shroud. Unfortunately, although these give rise to some more beautiful cinematography, they are perhaps the only element of the film that feels out of place in a picture otherwise unrelenting in its tension and grounded physicality, underpinned incidentally by the intensely brooding soundtrack from Ryuichi Sakamoto in conjunction with Bryce Dessner and Alva Noto, which repeatedly returns as if it was predestined to, with its ominous semitone motif orchestrated with string chords as vast as the landscapes they accompany.

Whether or not The Revenant will capitalise on its twelve Oscar nominations we’ll have to wait and see. What is a certainty, as the film’s deterministic themes repeatedly make clear, is that ‘revenge is in the hands of the creator’, and I, for one, can’t wait to see how this creator comes back at Hollywood next.