Conventional wisdom tells us that violence and vengeance form a circle, but that notion suggests the return to a beginning place, a place of innocence where said violence existed only in potential. What if, instead, it were a spiral, emanating from a microcosmic central point, it’s range growing ever-wider as it sprawls out into the universe? How does one go against such an unstoppable course like that? What are the alternatives?
This is one of the central questions put forward by The Revenant, the latest film from venerated director Alejandro González Iñárritu, adapted from the book by Michael Punke. The beginning of the film’s spiral takes place long before it’s story does. In the wilds of the untamed America of the 1820s, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is scout for a cadre of soldiers harvesting pelts to trade when they are beset by a raiding party of Native Americans. Only a few escape the onslaught. Among their number are Glass, his half-Pawnee son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) and a handful of men that include wary commander Captain Henry (Domnhall Gleeson) and the untrustworthy John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy).
When Glass is viciously mauled by a grizzly bear, their already-difficult return journey home strains under the weight of caring for him. Fitzgerald offers to stay behind and help Glass, but a brutal act of betrayal sees Glass left for dead and Fitzgerald and cowed cohort Bridger (Will Poulter) eager to catch up with their departed companions. Glass, against insurmountable odds, struggles with the bitter elements, his significant injuries and the threat of varying human factions who would kill him on sight for safety. His is a quest not just for survival but for wholly understandable vengeance.
The Revenant weighs in at an oppressive-sounding 156 minutes, but not one of them is wasted or feels unnecessary. Iñárritu has crafted an old-fashioned Hollywood frontier epic, albeit skewed through a more cynical modern eye and having harnessed the greatest possible tools at his disposal. As such The Revenant feels like the collision of traditional, time-honoured subject matter with cutting edge technique.
With Glass as our furious, stubborn protagonist, we are guided through an incredible odyssey. Visually, few films have ever been such a feast. The roving camerawork of Emmanuel Lubezki recalls that used throughout Birdman, his last collaboration with Iñárritu. Takes are seemingly sustained beyond reason or technical capabilities. In Birdman this felt pretentious, but here the pomposity of the gesture is to scale with the project. The Revenant is grand enough to house such bravura flourishes and they are saved for its astonishing set-pieces. In retrospect Birdman feels like an experiment in the run-up to this film. Elsewhere there’s a lightness to the camera’s drift as well, recalling Terrence Malick circa The New World. Tonally, however we are nearer the heart of darkness tunneling of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now or Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath Of God.
The end result is staggering. Few filmmakers alive today would attempt something as ambitious as this. And while The Revenant is ably assisted by CG elements, these rarely take centre stage, instead being applied in order to immerse the viewer as much as possible. The already infamous bear attack is one such example. The viewer senses the trick in the frame, yet Iñárritu suspends our disbelief through the nail-biting tension and anguish of the scene. It’s a blistering, heart-stopped few minutes, and far from the only example of the film’s vice-like ability to grip the viewer in paralysing empathy.
Underpinning everything is a downright beautiful score from Ryuichi Sakamoto in collaboration with Alva Noto. I’ve enjoyed their work separately, and here they work minor wonders. The music murmurs behind Glass, it broods. Only once does it become obtrusive during perhaps the film’s only false note in which Glass dreams of the ruins of a church. For this scene alone Iñárritu overplays his bombastic tendencies. Less would have been more.
Elsewhere, however, there’s precious little to fault in what is, in the main, as much a chase film as Mad Max: Fury Road was, albeit one set at hobbling speed. That said, there’s no lethargy to The Revenant. Glass’ journey is hard and visceral, and for a while it seems as though it is only the prospect of vengeance that is sustaining him. But gradually Iñárritu manages to colour this. DiCaprio is excellent in a performance that removes language from the equation repeatedly. On the surface it may appear as though he grunts and scowls his way through the movie, but on reflection there’s a complex journey taking place. The Glass mauled by the bear in act one is not the man who emerges in act three.
In supporting roles, both Hardy and Gleeson are notable. Hardy is as maddeningly indecipherable here as he’s ever been, mumbling his way around Fitzgerald’s villainous and selfish manoeuvres, painting a man driven not by dimensionless malice, but rather pitiable fear and weakness. Gleeson, meanwhile, is a tiny revelation, showing more mingled grit and frailty than he’s previously afforded us. In doing so he puts forward what is easily some of his finest work.
Yet truly the sense one gets when watching The Revevant is that of a whole host of elements working in coherence with one another to raise the picture up. Production designer Jack Fisk brings a practical sensibility to the film, hair and make-up ghoulishly sell the hardships written into the features of every character present, while behind the camera one senses Iñárritu gamely grasping for more. To create his calling card. To construct a classic.
Such earnestness threatens to topple the picture under its own sense of self-importance. Yet, for this viewer, the balance remained perfect throughout. I was happy to be indulged. And I was captivated. The film’s detractors dismiss it as alternating nature-porn and misery-porn. Yet in doing so they’re failing to engage in the gruelling journey undertaken by Glass. Pour yourself into his story, involve yourself in his remarkable struggle against the ambivalent cruelty of man and nature and you’ll be rewarded with a film overflowing with highlights.
It’s not often I leave a film immediately wanting to experience it again. And The Revenant is a film to be experienced. Participate in it. And don’t wait for home release. See this on the big screen. Be surrounded by it. For all its iciness, its questionable bloat and grandeur, it’s a landmark cinematic release.
A serious contender for Film Of The Year then, and we’re only two weeks in. Happy 2016.