The Revenant (2015)
The stark contrast between beauty and brutality informs the entirety of Alejandro G. Innaritu’s lengthy The Revenant. This is a story of man vs. nature, but this is also a story of man vs. man, and that battle plays out in more ways than one. Innaritu chose to go in a wildly different direction than he did for Birdman, his critical darling released just a year ago. The Revenant is never funny, never enjoyable, and seldom easy to watch; this is a film you should see, but it isn’t likely to be one you want to return to unless you’re really into cinematography.
Innaritu wrote this script with Mark L. Smith by taking the content of the Michael Punke novel of the same name and throwing in additional emotional wrenches. The story centers on Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass, a navigational expert in the early part of the 19th century who is aiding a team of rough-around-the-edges fur traders. We learn through dreamy flashbacks that Glass lost his Pawnee native American wife because of an attack years ago, and that the young boy with him is his son. Glass and his son draw the ire of the barbaric John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy in barely intelligible form), a team member who believes the father and boy were responsible for a native attack at the film’s beginning that leaves most of the crew dead and the expected financial gains in question.
Things get immediately worse for Glass, as he is mauled by a mother bear looking over her cubs. While the dwindling group takes care of Glass in an attempt to nurse him back to health, not much progress is made. He can’t speak, he can’t move, and just about every inch of his body is decorated with wounds. With further tribe attacks imminent, the group needs to move, and Fitzgerald eventually uses this fear to leave Glass for dead in the middle of nowhere during a destructive winter season. It’s up to Glass to find a way back to his group, unveil the truth, and exact his revenge on the loathsome Fitzgerald.
There are plenty of ways a director could go wrong in chronicling this material, as a survival story with revenge elements reeks of boring and hokey possibilities. Innaritu avoids these pitfalls easily, making the stark world around Glass a living, breathing thing. There are multiple scenes used solely to soak in the gorgeous scenery of the vast expanse surrounding Glass, and it’s a pretty cool parallel. Nature is presented as aesthetically picturesque, and it is able to help deliver the tools Glass needs for survival. But it also doesn’t care about Glass. Winter storms abound, difficult terrain prevents travel, and predators are just around the corner.
The same can be said of the human beings in The Revenant. There are tribes and members of Glass’s crew alike that are willing to help him, but there are also less intrinsically caring men who either don’t care about his survival or would like to actively prevent it for one reason or another. The violent swings between good and evil are all over this movie, whether they come from nature or man. That’s one of my favorite things about Innaritu’s latest; friends and enemies often come in the same package, and sometimes it all begins to look like pure chance.
It’s doubtful Innaritu’s vision would have possessed the same power without Leonardo DiCaprio headlining this cast. DiCaprio conveys a lot of complicated emotions within these two-and-a-half hours, and he does it without much in the way of dialogue. The guy barely has any lines for much of the first portion of the movie, and the bear attack leaves his throat too damaged to do much more than whisper at best. There aren’t a ton of actors who are able to do this much almost exclusively relying on physicality, and this is yet another in an unimpeachable run of dominant performances from a great artist.
As for Innaritu himself, holy shit. He’s already shown his ability to tell all sorts of stories with all sorts of different visual approaches through 21 Grams, Babel, Birdman, and more. Sometimes he’s irreverent, sometimes he’s stoic, and sometimes he’s bizarre. With The Revenant, Innaritu opts for epic, as the journey of one man against impossible odds is a tried-and-true method of garnering critical attention. He doesn’t approach his subject matter the way a more milquetoast director would, though. Innaritu’s sometimes unnerving soundtrack choices, lengthy shots, and thematic visuals all help lend The Revenant a much more distinct and meaningful tone than more standard decisions would have yielded.
As good as The Revenant is, it’s not an enjoyable or fun experience. The bear attack itself is an unblinking exercise in violence and tension, no physical confrontation is avoided with the camera, and every second of Glass’s grueling trek through the wilderness is just that. This is obviously all Innaritu’s choice–and a good one at that–but this is far from the blockbuster adventure movie it’s possible some viewers may believe they’ll be seeing.
There is a really poignant scene near the end of the film during which a shot of a picturesque, snowy forest is split with a smattering of dense, dark blood. It’s a powerful image, and it sums up The Revenant a whole lot better than I did without having to spend 1,000 words to get the job done.