By Harper W. Harris
Whether you agree with its sweeping of last years Oscars or not, Birdman was a big deal. It brought mainstream attention to an artsy, technically impressive film that laid out some pretty serious criticism of the current state of cinema, overrun by indistinguishable superhero films that will undoubtedly be forgotten in five years time. With such a jazzy, modern film under his belt, it was a bit surprising to see that within a year Alejandro González Iñárritu would have a new and wildly different film coming out just in time for Oscar season, this one a violent period piece set in the American frontier.
The Revenant tells the story of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a tracker with familial ties to Native Americans, who has taken a job with a group of fur trappers. When things go south after a sudden and devastating attack by the locals, the much diminished band is forced to flee with what they can carry, and Glass’s job as navigator becomes much more important. While their captain (Domnhall Gleeson) trusts Glass with their lives, the outspoken Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) disagrees with his methods. When Glass barely survives a horrifying bear attack, he is left with Fitzgerald and another to care for him, with the promise of an extra reward for doing so. After a violent betrayal, Fitzgerald abandons Glass for dead, and he spends the rest of the film seeking revenge while barely surviving the harsh wilderness.
The first thing to notice about The Revenant is its stunning visual style. While at first it feels very reminiscent of Birdman in its penchant for the long shot, it quickly becomes clear that it functions very differently here. Rather than being used as a technical marvel, it feels less showy and more purposeful here, and is used often to greater effect. In the best cases, it provides a kind of POV that is rare; it not only throws the viewer into the action, but the movement has a real sense of character, changing tone as the scene progresses. This sense extends to the sound, which richly surrounds the viewer and provides an interesting 360° experience that is worth paying attention to despite some oddly poorly done ADR.
It is also quite gorgeously shot, and feels akin to the films of Terrence Malick. While the story is one of violent revenge, the camera is almost more fascinated with the quiet beauty of the nature that surrounds the tale. It lingers on babbling brooks, swaying branches, and slow moving snails in between bouts of bloody survival. It’s a film that will no doubt make you both fear and long for the majesty of the great American midwest.
Although the film is maybe more interested in the grand morality of it all, there is much to say about the performances within. DiCaprio’s Glass is an intense character, and is played with a strength and sadness that is not often seen. That said, I didn’t feel like I had a good grasp on who he really was, outside of a man who cared deeply for his family. This bothered me a little, but I think this is purposeful, as we are only meant to know him as a man possessed by one all-encompassing motive: to survive and seek revenge. The physicality of DiCaprio’s performance is obviously impressive, as he goes from being shred to bloody ribbons to barely avoiding starvation and freezing to death, and nearly the entire performance is accomplished wordlessly due to his injuries.
As good as he is as the lead, it is Tom Hardy’s portrayal of the antagonist Fitzgerald that stands out as truly exceptional. He is at once selfish, evil, racist, and unconscionable and yet driven by understandably human desires. Hardy lends the character a sense of underlying fear and a seriously flawed view of fatherhood that is fascinating to watch. The two leads make an excellent pair, and it is their equal and opposite wills to live that drive the film and keep it interesting throughout the 2.5 hour runtime.
The Revenant is a film that feels rich with meaning, and is designed to be engaging to both the viewer’s need for a character-driven story and his analytical mind that is eager for something deeper. There is a lot to dig into regarding fatherhood and family, with some interesting visual metaphors for birth and rebirth for good measure. Visually, the film feels like pieces to a puzzle, with repeated imagery found in both nature and man. Overall, The Revenant is a revenge film like few others; rather than building to a bloody climax (which it does) simply to grant the audience the satisfaction, it aims to question the morality not just of revenge, but of survival itself. It wavers back and forth on the issue, at once seeming to uphold the virtue of survival against the odds as the greatest of human endeavors in Glass and yet shows us the same drives in the ruinous Fitzgerald. The ending is poignant and powerful, and will leave you stumbling out of the theater.
The Revenant is a little bit Werner Herzog and a little bit Terrence Malick, and its stark and subtle beauty will leave you with a sense of the intensely meaningful, and for that reason is definitely worth checking out.