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The Revenant is Intense, Thrilling Filmmaking (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | January 22, 2016 | Add Comments

The Revenant (2015)Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant hurls audiences into the frosty Frontier right away, with a thrillingly disorienting opening battle. For two hours and thirty-six minutes, it immerses us in a cold, bitter, unforgiving world where survival and revenge reign supreme. It’s a mythic epic with a Western-movie plot, fantastical realism touches, and bloody-thriller action. This is bold, brave, singular filmmaking, and even when it doesn’t quite hold up, it leaves you in complete awe. 

 After the Oscar-winning Birdman, Inaritu plunged into an even more challenging project: a nine-month shoot set in some of the most demanding settings you could film in. Rumors swelled around the film in the months leading up to its release: a dozen incompetent crew members were fired, a producer was banned from the set, actors faced hypothermia and ate raw liver, and Inaritu proved himself as a testy perfectionist. What’s true and what isn’t about the shoot doesn’t matter, but the movie sure feels real and immediate. Technically, The Revanant is flawless: there is not a single wasted shot, and many are stunningly beautiful. Inaritu uses seamless CGI, long takes, and a pounding yet subtle score to throw us right into Glass’ extraordinary journey. He has used all of his tools, and energy and patience, to create this movie and it has largely paid off.

The film opens with a ruthless, violent attack from the Natives that sets the tone for the film: gorgeous imagery, carefully orchestrated direction, largely physical but highly expressive performances. Amidst the carnage is a familiar face: Leonardo DiCaprio, in full fur coat, gun in hand, his teen-boy face hidden under a bushy beard. He plays Hugh Glass, a fearless, resilient hero who’s love for his family leads to a mad hunt for justice.

The Revenant (2015)Glass’ wife, a Native, was killed in a village attack but their biracial teenage son, Hawk, still stands by his side. The father and son are part of an expedition of fur trappers trying to escape the Natives, led by Captain Anderson (Domhall Gleeson). The vain, racist John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) despises Glass and Hawk because of their relation to the Natives and Glass’ high ranking status. After the opening battle, a mama bear attacks Glass and leaves him with almost dead and with nasty scars everywhere. Glass is carried along by the men men for a while, but Hawk, Fitzgerald, and the young Bridger are soon left alone to care for this dying man. Selfish, evil, and scheming, Fitzgerald kills Hawk as his father watches (while unable to move) then buries Glass alive, lies to Bridger about it all, and walks off to reunite with Anderson. Glass is infuriated and heartbroken, having lost his wife and now his son. So, against every conceivable odd, he climbs out of his burial and begins to walk hundreds of miles to find and kill Fitzgerald and have his revenge.

This is not a terribly original story. The Revenant is part Western revenge thriller, part contemplative and spiritual man-versus-nature drama. Inaritu, working from the screenplay adaptation of Michael Punke’s novel he co-wrote with Mark L. Smith, spells out the central relationships between Glass, Hawk, Fitzgerald, Bridger, and Anderson with sparse, sometimes unintelligible dialogue and the expressive performances of his cast. Here, he builds on the style he developed in Birdman: long-take intensity that boils and builds to showpiece sequences. His cinematic virtuoisty sometimes felt more than a little showy in Birdman, but it works perfectly here. The film begins with two astounding sequences: the relentless and perfectly choreographed opening battle and the much-discussed, violently suspenseful bear attack. Both are difficult to watch, but equally captivating.

This really is a technical triumph. Cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki does some astonishing work here, focusing on the details while immersing viewers in the panoramic sights of the wintery forest. Not a single shot is wasted, and almost all are stunningly beautiful. The terrific long takes don’t draw attention to themselves, but add to the visual power of the film. Lubezki tracks the action and observes the locations in a way that doesn’t bring us out of the movie but right into it. The word immersive may be overused, but it’s dead-on here. Inaritu uses largely seamless CGI, convincing make-up, and a pounding yet subtle score to throw us right into Glass’ extraordinary journey.

Inaritu has no struggles with crafting fabulous, ferocious action scenes. Inaritu isn’t only aiming to make an action flick, but also a film that has a lot about nature, death, and survival. The movie’s long middle-section consists mainly of Glass fighting nature on his way to vengeance, coming to terms with his grief, and eating a fair amount of raw animals. Plot-wise, this is an uneventful stretch and it is no small feat that Inaritu keeps us (mostly) enthralled. He throws many questions at us: how does Glass find the will to persevere and survive? What are Fitzgeralds’ motives? Can nature’s strength over man be challenged and even defeated? What comes after death? There’s a lot of ambiguity and question marks that loom after the credits roll. The movie relies on a whole lot of showing and barely any telling. That can sometimes be frustrating, but we are left to project our own ideas onto Glass.

With this immensely demanding role, DiCaprio has garnered enormous praise. Much of it is certainly based on the “Look what he did for a movie” factor; DiCaprio reportedly ate raw fish, raw meat, slept in a dead horse, and endured subzero temps and the constant threat of hypothermia. In a sense, it’s sort of a purposeful non-performance.He didn’t have to do much acting to showcase a sense of suffering. But his reliance on a few grunts and his piercing eyes shows a sense of subtlety and strength only capable from a very confident, composed actor. He conveys loss, grief, triumph, madness, anger, and pain while barely saying a word. As the truly evil Fitzgerald, Tom Hardy is all bulging eyes, pissed-off mumbling, and sudden violence. When he finds moments to reveal the character’s motives, we see that Fitzgerald is a man trying to beat nature and fellow men just like Glass himself.

For all it’s greatness, The Revenant an imperfect beast. The bare-bones story has a beautiful simplicity that pushes visuals to the forefront and leaves much for the viewer to decide, but it’s simplicity can feel like a one-dimensional sketch of a greater painting. There are times when the 156-minute run-time strains, and we wish things would speed up. But Glass wishes things would speed up too, and Inaritu, DiCaprio, and Lubezki throw us into his journey with breathtaking realism. The film might have worked better with a stronger, more sophisticated, script (some characters are hardly developed, dialogue can be a bit obvious). Instead, the movie relies on near-wordless visual storytelling to convey grand emotions and bloody conflict. It has a truly unique power all its own, and that is partly due to the sparse script.

The Revenant (2015)The film loses some steam during the second act, but (spoilers for rest of this paragraph) the movie amps up the suspense and conflict once Glass reunites with Anderson and heads off to confront Fitzgerald. The climactic fight is not a simple shootout but an over-the-top explosion of knives, guns, and horses. It’s intense, over-the-top, and extremely satisfying. In the final moments, Glass realizes there is nothing left for him: his wife and son are dead, and he’s hardly fit to repeat his harrowing journey back home. The taste of the revenge was sweet but brief, and now he’s hardly sure the trek was worth it. The ambiguous final image, of a lost and frightened Glass staring into the camera, gives the movie a haunting final chill. In an attempt to come to terms with his loss, a lost man loses himself further in his quest for justice. The fulfillment of movie violence turns into an existential chill, and Inaritu has effectively pulled the rug out from under our feet.

In the hands of any other filmmaker, The Revenant would be a vastly different film, perhaps more of a straight action movie or an average historical drama. Inaritu, along with Lubezki, DiCaprio, and the rest of his crew, have made an extraordinary film. At times, it is almost an endurance-test for viewers but a soulful beauty still slips through it all. The Revenant puts us through a difficult, challenging, sometimes gorgeous journey, not unlike Glass’ experience. It is intense, suspenseful, thrilling, and terrifying; a cinematic creation of startling immediacy and beauty. Inaritu has used all of his tools, and energy and patience, to create an epic and it has paid off.

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