Movie Review: The Revenant (2015)

the_revenant_trailer_grab_h_2015The tabula rasa quality of nature brings with it numerous interpretive contradictions that are often times difficult to decipher. It’s a plain of undeniable physical beauty, yet horridly cruel in its impending indifference; it can grant some spiritual tranquility, yet also act as an unforgiving tormentor; and for some it’s proof of the divine, yet very few who suffer its elemental extremes are able to find that supposed grace. Through the medium of cinema, the American frontier has been a particular exploration of these battling contrasts, usually acting as a metaphorical backdrop to contemplate philosophical truths. These truths often pertain to an interior conflict between transcendent enlightenment and unchecked individualism: the interior struggle between civilized man and his natural animalistic human nature, a development of varying concepts of justice defined by society or the vengeful individual’s own defiant retribution, and even the concept of survival as attained through communal gathering or through lonesome, determined self-interest. However, for director Alejandro G. Iñárritu and his exploration of the human spirit, the truth is a complex mixture of all these clashing dichotomies. His latest film, The Revenant—which literally means “a person who has returned, supposedly from the dead”—possesses overt spiritual and resurrection connotations juxtaposed with unrelenting punishment and physical brutality, a sort of frontiersman stations of the cross of man, beast, and nature that brings its protagonist closer to divinity through the transcendence of suffering. It’s an endurance test of emotional anguish, physical erosion, and the mental fortitude needed for survival, all of which accumulate to a core message of how a state of grace can be found by letting go of earthly restraints that are anchored by the darkened depths of our instinctual human nature and the ruthless, unforgiving wild that mirrors it. The Revenant might be too harsh, too raw, or too emotionally stagnant in its narrative simplicity for most audiences, but it’s Iñárritu’s seamless blend of vicious corporal realism and ethereal visual poetry that make this harrowing survivalist-vengeance western so immersive and beautifully rewarding for those willing to endure its cold, unyielding journey.

As a cinematic artist, Alejandro G. Iñárritu has found a deep appreciation and muse for the qualities of human suffering as evidenced by a number of his character driven chronicles: the starkly realistic triptych of connected torment in Amorres Perros (2001), the grim reflection on mortality and fatherhood in Biutiful (2010), and even the dizzying meta character study of fleeting prominence and existential meaning in Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (2014). With The Revenant, Iñárritu has found his most literal backdrop for presenting his familiar exploration of personal anguish conquered by a broken, yet willful, spirit in the grisly survivalist account of explorer Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio). Based on the historical-fiction novel of the same name from Michael Punke, the screenplay is stripped down, streamlined, and dramatized by Iñárritu and co-writer Mark L. Smith (Vacancy, The Holes) to highlight its unconcealed vengeance driven motifs. The screenplay hits all the major dramatic points of the novel: Glass—an outcast guide for a profiting fur-trapping expedition in the 1820s—is left for dead in the wilderness, and must fight the torturous elements, endure his fatal injuries, and survive all encroaching threats so he can take his revenge on those responsible for his misfortune. It’s a brutal testament of punishment, of tenacity, and of acceptance, where the revengeful spirit gives purpose to those in a land where faith and morality have been expunged (as evidence by a decaying wooden church in the middle of its grayly shrouded wilderness). However, the film also ventures how true serenity—the translucent beauty that can be found in the seeming absence of grace—can only be discovered when one is rid of the past, in letting go of personal grievances, accepting the heart-breaking losses, and forgiving the wrongs that have been suffered. It might be straightforward in concept and even simpler in its muddled religiosity, but The Revenant is more experimental in its revisionist ambitions and its template serves as a foundational launching point for its intended lyrical poignancy.

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If Glass represents the difficult struggle of preserving humanity amidst a growing faithless and empty landscape of the uncivilized wilderness, then his antagonistic foil John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy)—the man who leaves him for dead—represents the full embodiment of nature’s unknown morality. This uncivilized, half-scalped villain lives and breathes the Social-Darwinist mantra of “survival of the fittest,” living out the relativist recreation of the moral order by ascribing to the Nietzschean consequences of what happens when “God is dead.” He even recalls a story about how his father saw “God” in the eyes of a squirrel, and didn’t hesitate to eat it (when the film drifts into obtuse dialogue of this kind it begins to show its minor weaknesses). The need to enact vengeance on the duplicitous and corrupt Fitzgerald is what drives Glass, but it’s also what takes him to the point of no return. These two characters represent the two possible outcomes that emerge when exposed to the indifference of nature, and how the uncivilized wilderness with no sense of religious, societal, or structured moral order can make even the best of men untamed, self-interested beasts. It’s a testament to the performances of both these men that make the dichotomies contained in The Revenant resonate with such vibrancy. Hardy utilizes his ability to physically disappear into a role as an intense advantage, and in expressing the character’s villainy and greed with an unrestrained dedication he makes it completely believable why someone would venture the elemental extremes to claim their vengeance on him. Leonardo DiCaprio makes that journey a believable necessity for abandoned explorer Glas with a portrayal of wordless tribulations represented through crawling agony, limping frailty, and a determined physicality, which shows an astonishing range from the already talented Oscar-nominee. Whenever he does speak it’s through a Native American tongue with his mixed race son or through the pained rasp of a man teetering on the edge of death. DiCaprio’s dedication, discovery of catharsis, and journey through a beautiful character arc is what gives The Revenant its rewarding end to its harrowing journey of spirituality found in intense brutality.

Iñárritu’s visual experimentation is clearly channeling the dreamlike attributes of Andrei Tarkovsky and Terrence Malick, both of whom construct projects that linger, flow, and transform utilizing their metaphorical physical surroundings. Though far more ruthless in its delivery, The Revenant does succeed in mimicking the artistic genre’s experimental conventions: prolonged sweeping shots of glacial rivers, haunting forestry, and the shrouded mists of the untampered wilderness; dreamlike escapism to imagined settings; surreal whispers of an alluded spiritual realm; and unspoken flashbacks that intermittently unravel a character’s subjectivity and hidden demons. Collaborating cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Birdman) has been a leading visual influence behind Malick’s hushed spirituality, having filmed both The New World (2005) and Tree of Life (2011), so it’s no wonder that The Revenant’s otherworldly qualities seem confident in their familiarity. But this borrowed attribute seems intent on twisting Malick’s flattering view of man as part of nature’s immediate tranquility, as The Revenant’s purposeful visual choices obstruct nature’s emergence with the use of snow cover, the sprawling concealment of gray clouds above, and the indistinguishable monotony of the forest. Iñárritu and Lubezki capture their film with unflattering natural light in the unforgiving, frigid, harsh terrain of the untampered outskirts of Calgary, Montana, and Argentina, always invoking palpable realism that interrupts the film’s occasional brushes with the spiritual. Lubezki’s lens flows throughout every thrilling sequence with pitiless verisimilitude, whether it’s the 360-degree surrounded sense of dread amidst an Indian raid, a one shot mano a mano knife fight in the snow, or the astoundingly conjured bear mauling that’s shocking in its violent detailing and relentless in its one take intensity. These immaculately crafted sequences are ided by the eerie score from Bryce Dessner, Carsten Nicolai, and Ryuichi Sakamoto, all of which allow The Revenant to find its immersive power in feeling, or rather its ability to be deeply involving even when it’s at its most harrowing.

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There’s no denying that Iñárritu can be bombastic in his filmmaking and even be maddeningly simplistic as a messenger, which are both prominent features in some of his cruder works from Babel (2006) to Biutiful (2010). Subtlety isn’t part of his delicate wheelhouse of talents, which is why Birdman, or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance worked so well in its playful self-awareness towards its exaggerated technicality, humoristic performances, and how the hyperbole of its message was ingrained in the material. The Revenant works on this same level, though not as an equal. It’s a series of potently crafted sequences around an emotionally powerful performance, but it’s all guided by a narrative that’s overly simplistic in its existential contemplations and has wide psychological brush strokes. The stripped down story never quite matches the immersive appeal of Iñárritu’s technical virtuosity, an aspect that makes it difficult to love even though it’s easy to admire. Still, there’s something to be said for daring craftsmanship, and Iñárritu makes the case that greatness can be found within each astonishing moment after moment, even if the entire piece lacks in overall effectiveness. There’s inventiveness in its imagery, gripping emotion in its dramatics, and some thought-provoking reflection on the graceful transcendence of suffering. And even though narrative contemplation and technical prowess don’t meet as pristinely as spirituality and the corporeal existence do in The Revenant, there’s still much to admire about its epic scale ambition. Because of that ambition The Revenant makes itself a theatrical event, one that dazzles with visual artistry though just barely misses the opportunity for actual greatness.

Grade: B+

This film will be in limited release Dec. 25th; Wide release January 8th

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