The Oscar winning director of “Birdman” shows us the extreme ends of human nature against a breathtaking background of freezing wilderness.
While not all enjoyed 2014’s “Birdman”, everyone seemed to agree on Alejandro González Iñárritu’s genius camerawork and editing that made the movie seem like one very long take. We’ve seen it used as a gimmick before (ala “Silent House”) it was never so complex and compelling. “The Revenant” is cut in a much more conventional format, but the end result is infinitely more impressive.
The film has a short, dream-like intro that gives us a tiny glimpse into Hugh Glass’ (Leonardo DiCaprio) past. It’s very vague, but we immediately learn a few things about him and the one thing he holds most dear, his son. Almost immediately we are dropped into a native american attack on a group of fur traders that Glass is guiding. It is hard to think of another cinematic sequence that compares to the next 10 minutes. The camera, in long unbroken takes, places you in the middle of the action. The audience feels like they are right there as arrows from invisible sources fly through the air and comrades collapse screaming on the ground. If possible, step back from the spectacle for a moment and consider what you are experiencing. The camera, in long unbroken takes, is rotating in full circles. Over land, through the water, onto a boat. No crew members, cables, gear, etc. are visible. Meanwhile, death and mayhem reign in every direction, perfectly choreographed. This is but a precursor to other amazing “how’d they shoot that?” segments in the movie.
After the vicious attack the remaining traders are in a race to make it to the safety of Fort Kiowa nearly 200 miles away. During their trek, an unfortunate encounter with a grizzly bear leaves Glass mortally wounded. Two men, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and 19 year old Bridger (Will Poulter) volunteer to stay behind with him as the rest of the group continues on. Unfortunately, Glass doesn’t die as quickly as the cowardly Fitzgerald hopes, and fearing another native attack, they leave him behind for dead, taking everything he owned with them. Thus begins Glass’ harrowing 9 month (?) journey back to civilization, fueled by an unearthly desire for vengeance.
One of the fascinating aspects of “The Revenant” is the contrast between the beauty and cruelty of man & nature. Many of the characters commit terrible acts, while others inspire us with their sheer determination, willpower, and self sacrificing compassion. The various shots of this snowy wilderness are beautiful, but we are soon reminded just how cold hearted and merciless Mother Nature is.
If any complaints can be levied at this film, it’s that perhaps the plot isn’t thick enough for a film of this length, or that DiCaprio doesn’t have enough dialog considering the amount of screentime he has. Let it be known that this is DiCaprio’s most awe inspiring performance yet. Not only do we completely buy into his character and share in the agony he is experiencing, but on a professional level he does so while in torturous conditions. And while many may boil the plot down to a simple revenge story, consider some of the metaphors and biblical parallels Iñárritu employs: A “revenant” is someone who has been resurrected. One character pressures Glass to “accept his sacrament” moments before his “death.” There are strong themes of Justice, Vengeance, and Forgiveness. Also consider how the moon in its different phases is used to punctuate certain scenes. More specific elements are worth discussing, but cannot be done so without revealing too much.
“The Revenant” is a breathtaking, cinematic masterpiece that should be experienced on the largest screen possible. It will certainly receive a number of oscar nominations, if not wins. Do not make the mistake of waiting too long to watch this.