It seems like only yesterday that the 2014 little arthouse movie that could, Birdman, surprised everybody with its Oscar win, and like Alejandro González Iñárritu (Upside of Birdman‘s Oscar win: I can now pronounce his name) was starting, after years of independent dramas, to finally become a household name. Well, in the same year, Innaritu is back with The Revenant, something completely different from his usual repertoire, and something completely different for the current state of cinema in general. For one, it runs a mammoth 156 minutes long, for another, its dialogue is left mostly to the supporting players, and it also is a very unconventional revenge story. As predicted, Leonardo DiCaprio being cast in the lead role guaranteed it a lot of buzz, and this time, he’s making headlines for both an adorably ill-informed comment about global warming in Alberta, and for having learned the Navajo language and eating raw meat and sleeping in a dead horse carcass to prepare for the sheer savagery of what he’d have to endure in the role he was to take on. And is anyone really surprised? I mean really, is there anything he can’t do? Even in movies that aren’t so stellar, the man is an acting powerhouse and his performances leave audiences wowed no matter what.
Thankfully, The Revenant is a movie that lives up to its stellar performance from its lead actor. But it’s more than just that; it takes the simple revenge story concept and turns it on its head by making its visuals tell the tale rather than the characters’ dialogue. What’s truly fascinating about The Revenant is that everything goes exactly the way you’d think it does as far as the story goes, but exactly how things end up being is what defies your expectations. Additionally, this film doesn’t mince words in terms of how the story is told. Stylistically, the depiction of the story is comparable to The Coen Bros’ masterpiece No Country For Old Men, in how it chose not to sugarcoat the violence and brutality of what was happening but show it all in its gruesome glory. One of the most talked about scenes of the year is the infamous scene that sets the plot in motion: Leo’s character getting mauled by a bear. The scene is long, drawn out, violent, raw, brutal and absolutely does not spare any details; no, we see every second of the attack; every chunk of flesh ripped from Hugh Glass’ skin, every drop of blood spilled, every gory detail. Combined with Leo’s majestic performance and the visual detail on display, this scene is powerful and hard-hitting in every imagineable way.
Some potential spoilers ahead
The story is pretty clear from the trailer already: Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fur trapper in 1820s America, is part of a military-organized hunting party in the wilderness of the Louisiana Purchase, whose sole aim is hunting for pelts. After narrowly escaping an ambush by the Arikara Natives, they’re only further slowed down when, after being separated from them, Glass gets viciously and brutally attacked by a mother bear with her cubs. After just managing to kill the bear, he’s left seriously and critically wounded, and the fact that the party know fuck all for medical care doesn’t help. So John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), being the cock he is, leaves Glass for dead, leaving Glass to have to endure the harsh conditions and his injuries to survive to take his revenge on him. It’s a simple story, but the execution is exactly what makes the story so brilliant.
Innaritu spends much of the first hour developing the relationship between Glass and his party, and this is where much of the film’s dialogue is spoken. What’s truly brilliant in these scenes is the interplay between the hunting party’s scenes and the Arikara’s tense moments. Their two stories seem to go hand in hand, and though the Arikara aren’t shown much, their storyline is drawn to a satisfying close at the end. The hunting party is mostly lead by Fitzgerald in the first hour as well, and the party’s real leader, Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) doesn’t truly take over until near the end of the film. The second hour is where the film mostly cuts back and forth between Glass and Fitzgerald, who has taken Jim BRidger (Will Poulter) with him. However, Glass’ scenes are the most interesting. They have very little dialogue in them and the extent to which Innaritu depicts the desperation of the situation that Glass finds himself in is impeccable. Every snowstorm, every stream Glass falls in, his increasingly thinning body due to malnutrition, his injuries, etc. are depicted in harsh detail; Glass eating raw buffalo innards and effortlessly communicating in Navajo certainly helps too. Not to say that Bridger and Fitzgerald’s scenes aren’t interesting- in fact, their tense dialogue is brilliantly executed and how well Fitz manipulates Bridger is intense in their exchanges- but it’s no match for the quiet genius of DiCaprio’s powerhouse performance.
Additionally, the cinematography and all other technical aspects of the film are stunning. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is the true star here; there are several moments in the film where the camerawork just defies belief. It’s been a long time since a movie has made me just stare at the screen in wonder, going “how on earth did they get that shot?“There’s so many impressive shots, and it’s not just scenery porn, it’s how well Lubezki manages to capture the scope of some of the wide open spaces. In example, one shot in particular is an overhead shot of Glass floating down a stream to escape the Arikara, and the shot zooms out to a great height; exactly how they managed to execute this without needing many takes is beyond belief. How he captures the intensity of real snowstorms is also truly stunning and far more impressive than most special effects-laden spectacles released in the past little while too. The sound design is absolutely monstrous here too; every roar of the mama bear, every gunshot and explosion in the ambush scene, every rumble caused by buffalo and more assault your ear drums with much purpose and bombast that the sound itself helps thrust you into the reality of the situation.
If there’s any drawbacks to The Revenant, it’s that the movie is a tad long at 2 hours and 36 minutes, thus requiring a fair amount of patience, and there’s a number of superfluous dream sequences that do seem a tad pretentious and overindulgent. Otherwise, The Revenant is a triumph on an artistic level from Alejandro G. Innaritu; a visual and acting masterpiece grounded by its star and a bloody and brutal revenge tale whose disturbing attention to detail will help the film remain in your head for long after the credits have finished rolling.
The Revenant is a spectacle of performance, with cinematography and brutality that starts with a bang and never lets up.