Movie Review: The Revenant
By Ben Gruchow
January 13, 2016

God, I hope PETA doesn't get after me.

Here is a genre film that positively cries out for the 70mm frame. The Revenant consists of a few characters drawn in broad strokes, performing the actions we’d expect of their archetypes. They occupy a story that, being critical, is fairly simplistic and a little pulpy, and sticks the landing more or less on a technicality. I’m not sure that the criticism matters all that much; the primary purpose of adventure cinema is to invoke feeling, and the film provides a visceral tether between us and characters that - on paper - have more in common with mythic figures than human beings.

That tether comes courtesy of two rather superb central performances, and a vividly realized sense of time and place courtesy of terrifyingly good cinematography and editing. And director Alejandro G. Iñárritu keeps an even handle on the film’s tone, shifting from realism to surrealism according to some wonderful discipline that’s always on-key without ever really announcing itself.

What happens on a storytelling level within this canvas isn’t too far removed, strictly speaking, from those high-adventure pulp magazines from the fifties; those were the ones with titles like “Red Tide of Death” and “Devil in the Deep” (the movie passes on the rampant misogyny, thankfully). Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, an expedition guide with a hunting party somewhere in the northern region of the Louisiana Purchase, roughly where the Arikara tribe settled. Tensions between the two over pelts lead to a film-opening attack sequence that’s the first (and longest, I believe) of the movie’s four main structural set pieces. We get a few moments before this pandemonium; we’re introduced to Glass, as well as the captain of the expedition, Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), but only enough to learn names and the broadest outlines of the main character’s relationships to each other.

The second structural set piece consists of the vicious mauling Glass takes at the hands of a grizzly bear, and it’s this one that sets the remainder of the story in motion. Grievously injured, Glass is left for dead by his none-too-willing teammates. We then follow him over a rather unspecified period of time as he attempts to find his way back through miles of sub-freezing temperatures and Arikara territory to his party’s barracks. The third and fourth structural set pieces constitute the most and least surprising instances of action, respectively, and I’ll not go into detail on them.

All very straightforward, very linear, very simple. One of the most impressive things about The Revenant, actually, is the way Iñárritu and DiCaprio coax such impact out of comparatively little; there’s not a lot going on here on a narrative level, and you can see the bones and cartilage of any number of generic man-against-the-wilderness movies poking through with some visibility.

This one doesn’t even necessarily rise up to their level on all counts; as long as we’re on the subject of the movie’s shortcomings, we might as well address the fact that the storytelling in evidence is really just average, with a couple of diversions that arrive at outright laziness. A crucial encounter toward the final act depends on an abrupt and obtuse character introduction; all it really does is give us a clear shape of what we can expect at the climax. The effect of the climax itself is wholly contingent on various parties arriving at a precise place at a certain time. There’s a tremendously thin line between thematic development and deus ex machine when it comes to a film like this; Iñárritu stays on the better side of that line, but only just.

And at the end of the film, we can look back and see where certain plot points and themes meet up and account for each other; it’s also not hard to see how those themes are fleshed out less by the movie and more by the gaps that we fill in on the movie’s behalf, based on our own cultural perspective.

Three things are principally responsible for bringing the counterweight down on all of this not-insignificant criticism. The first, and most obviously accessible, is the performance of DiCaprio and Hardy as Glass and Fitzpatrick. Both of these characters are based on real-life individuals, and play them on this wavelength. There is no doubt embellishment, and the conflict between the two men reportedly played out differently in reality. Embellishment we expect, though, and the movie is gracious enough to clarify that it is “partly” based on a true story.

Embellishment or not, partial or not, the two actors provide what are the film’s two very best performances. It’s easy to imagine these characters being played for heat and volume - Hardy’s Fitzpatrick, especially - and the wiser decision of playing for exhaustion and haggard desperation is carried all the way through to the movie’s final set piece.

DiCaprio’s performance is very nearly wordless - he’s monosyllabic for the opening and closing of the film, and muted for much of the midsection - but he’s inhabited this person, and we are never in doubt about any aspect of his motivation or strategy. It’s terrific work.

The second component to the movie’s success is almost invisible, and it’s the editing by Stephen Mirrione. Looking back at his filmography, he has a way of juggling multiple storylines without making you feel the weight of any of them. His job is simpler here, because we spend so much of our time with Glass; as if to compensate for the cleaner through line, we get some truly fantastic precision in flow and rhythm. There are two specific moments during the film where I smiled with pleasure at the pure elegance of the cut between one shot and another. The one I remember better occurs early on, at the moment where a boot splashes water droplets on the lens coincide exactly with ripples and disturbances in the person’s next step. It’s the type of blink-and-you-miss-it moment that serves to transition seamlessly from one shot to the next; you only notice it’s there if you notice the artistry of the cut.

Finally, we have the photography, and it is this more than anything else that elevates the material of The Revenant. Digitally-stitched “long takes” are so common with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki that we should be bored with the showiness on display, except that it’s still just about impossible to spot any seams. At a certain point, then, we abandon the idea that we’re looking at flawless impressions of long, moving shots and we merely accept them as part of the movie’s reality.

And there is some stunning work going on here; nothing, perhaps, on the level of sheer technical wizardry as the car shot from 2006’s Children of Men, but stunning nonetheless. This is the first time in years where the adage that a longer shot proportionally increases the suspense of a moment has been used to such effect. The bear-mauling scene, in particular, gets virtually all of its steady, gnawing panic (the remainder is from the excellent CGI work) from the fact that the camera never affords us respite from the moment; it just goes on and on and on. The movie’s most surprising moment, involving a cliff, also arrives courtesy of this kind of prolonged tension, and it’s invigorating.

So here’s what we have, then: a fairly standard-issue story told cleanly, with two-dimensional characters illustrated honestly, serviced by a cinematographer at the top of his game and a director who seemingly had a goal to present the American frontier in the grandest and most unfathomably emotional and tactile way he possibly could. The assets of the latter outweigh the liabilities of the former; this is a colossally intimate and harrowing film for one with a visual scope so broad. It’s not the best film of the year, and it was already interesting enough without adding the conventionality of the final set piece, and those are about the worst final charges I can lay at its feet.