Movie Review: The Revenant
By Matthew Huntley
January 18, 2016
The most striking quality about Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, and perhaps what’s making it one of the most lauded films of 2015 (and deservedly so), is its intense palpability. This is one of the most exhilarating, challenging cinematic experiences in a long time, a film that’s unabashedly brutal with its imagery and sound, yet it’s also beautiful and heartrending. Not since Joe Carnahan’s equally praiseworthy The Grey (2011) has a motion picture imbued us in such a cold, harsh environment, although it’s the kind we marvel in because it’s so invigorating. One of the open lines is, “As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe…keep breathing.” This is a film that never stops breathing and we feel it.
But it’s not just its atmosphere that makes The Revenant so compelling. It also tells a moving story of tragedy, loss, vengeance, and redemption, and although one could argue its narrative themes play out somewhat traditionally, they lend film its heart and emotion. And even with such a minimal story line, the entire production generates a profound visceral effect.
The screenplay by Mark L. Smith and Iñárritu, partly based on the novel by Michael Punke, centers on a group of American frontiersmen hunting and trading pelts in the desolate wilderness of 1820s Montana. The men, tired, cold and on the edge of being unruly, have been routinely fighting and dodging the Arikara, a Native American tribe who have been making their own trade agreements with the French.
One of the Americans, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), was actually married to a Pawnee woman, who gave him a son named Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). For this and other reasons, his fellow trappers consider Glass to be the most experienced and skilled hunters in the unit, and there’s even a rumor he killed a higher officer in order to save his family, which is something the cunning and cold-hearted John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) believes to be true and tries to use against Glass. Fitzgerald was partly scalped and nearly killed by the Arikara and now he cares only about making money and leaving this “Godforsaken place,” no matter who has to connive or even kill.
Following a violent opening battle sequence, the Americans, led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), decide to retreat to their base camp. On the way back, Glass goes hunting in the woods and has a near-fatal encounter with a mother grizzly bear in a scene, like so many others The Revenant, that must be seen to be believed for its raw conviction (notice that it plays completely without music). Glass barely survives, and while most of his fellow soldiers believe he’s just as good as dead, Henry asks two of them to stay behind and watch over him and, should it come to it, give Glass a proper funeral. Fitzgerald and the young, idealistic Bridger (Will Poulter) volunteer, along with Hawk. Eventually, Fitzgerald’s greediness leads to a tragedy and sets in motion the events that put Glass on a grueling journey from Montana to South Dakota as he seeks revenge.
I’m deliberately avoiding a summary of the events that take place in The Revenant so as not to give away too many details, but I can say the film incorporates some of the most rugged and natural imagery ever captured on camera, which puts us in the position of the characters, so much, in fact, it hurts. Iñárritu is merciless this way, and he used a similar approach with last year’s Birdman by making us think that film was essentially one long take, a strategy that made us sense the characters’ exhaustion. But here it’s a different kind of effect because of the locations, which are bleak and unforgiving, and we actually feel cold as the characters attempt to acclimate to their environment.
From a narrative perspective, I do wish the screenplay had developed the characters beyond just “hero” and “villain.” They’re not given as much dimension as they otherwise could have been, especially Fitzgerald, whose dialogue sometimes seems like overkill and anachronistic. I have no idea how people spoke in the 1820s, but I doubt they used the F-word as much.
Still, the actors certainly do more than just “what they can,” and in fact, DiCaprio shines the same way he always does. He may be one of the most recognizable and popular actors of our time, but he’s also one of the most enthusiastic, and here he once again immerses himself into the role and convinces us he’s an actor first and a celebrity/heartthrob second. It’s no wonder so many high-profile directors, from James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan, and now Iñárritu, choose to work with him.
Above all else, The Revenant is a film of rich and earthy atmosphere. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography and Lon Bender’s sound design combine to create a completely riveting adventure. As I sat in the theater, I jotted down all the shots and sounds I found particularly arresting, including ones that, on paper, seem simple but nonetheless yielded great power, including a slow, flowing stream; a rusting canteen; a quiet, low-angle shot of towering trees; heavy breathing; weary men trying to carry a stretcher up a snow-laden, slippery mountain; furious river rapids; ants using each other to climb up a rock; a horse’s eye; and a man and a horse jumping off a cliff, the latter of which makes our hearts leap.
Collectively, these make The Revenant a most indelible experience and often trump the narrative in terms of their long-lasting effect, but still, the story and acting give them greater weight and we ultimately walk away from the film feeling the same hardships and vindications as the characters. Iñárritu and his team of filmmakers, many of whom he works with consistently, seem to know this is why we go to the movies in the first place. It’s probably also why they tend to make really great ones.