I’m not the biggest fan of director Alejandro G. Inarritu’s work, especially last year’s overrated but not terrible, Birdman.
He’s either uncompromisingly grim to the point of headache inducing melodrama, (Biutiful), or mindlessly self indulgent and irritatingly self aware (Birdman). His initial “Death Trilogy” by name alone should give you some casual insight into the director’s mindset. Truth be told, I didn’t think he had it in him to make a movie as barebones and deceptively simple as The Revenant.
Coming off 2014’s Best Picture winning film Birdman, it seems that Inarritu decided to follow things up with a passion project. A 135 million dollar passion project!
Somewhere in line with Tarsem’s highly underrated 2006 visual masterpiece The Fall, The Revenant springs forth as a director seeking both ambition and scope.
Inarritu ditches the claustrophobic niches of his backstage theater, dressing rooms and on stage sets for the endless snowy mountains, freezing dead trees and agoraphobic wilderness of the American frontier. And what a harsh frontier it is! Both beautiful but uncompromising.
On the surface, The Revenant is a fairly simple film to describe. Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) are guiding a group of American fur trader’s, led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhall Gleeson), through the unsettled lands of the Louisiana Purchase.
Starring opposite, and holding his own with Oscar hopeful DiCaprio, Tom Hardy embodies the film’s central antagonist John Fitzgerald. A man driven to survive by any means necessary. He has no family and no friends to speak of. He loves to drink and cause trouble, but he’s alone in the world.
Desperate men make even more desperate decisions.
Through some dark events, Glass’s fur hunting party is attacked by Native Americans, he himself is attacked by a bear, and he is son left with no son, half dead, half buried in a frozen grave.
It’s not too far off of director Alejandro G. Innaritu’s typical miserablist fantasies he’s been churning out since the beginning, but this is merely a facade for a much more inspiring and hopeful film. You might even call it optimistic if it weren’t for the cold-blooded, white knuckled events that lead us to an admittedly open/ambiguous ending.
The Revenant’s first wise decision is within the script itself.
This is in every way a man vs nature plot-line with a revenge pinnacle, but opposed to a lot of films in the genre, I felt more compelled to root for mother nature instead of man.
Birdman and The Revenant both study what it takes to survive, but I think The Revenant does a better job of putting this theme into action. Birdman concerns itself more with metaphorical survival, in which Michael Keaton’s character is attempting to survive an ever changing and expanding artistic climate.
Where as The Revenant is about literal survival through Glass and Fitzgerald, in an ever changing and expanding natural climate. It’s not as literal of a script and because of that, it’s stronger and more rewarding to the viewers.
While sparse to begin with, I noticed heavily in the second viewing how much repetition plays into the dialogue, most lines being said 2 or 3 times either word for word or in a mild deviation.
It’s a smart choice on Innaritu’s part to keep the dialogue down to a minimum, especially for those who felt Birdman could have used a muzzle on more than a few characters.
I hate to bring up Birdman again but, whereas Birdman is filled with “intellectual” types, The Revenant is filled mostly with men who probably couldn’t even spell “intellectual”. These aren’t smart or philosophical characters and most of the screenplay reinforces that fact by featuring actions instead of words.
They act before they think and are fueled on instinct.
Nature in this film is photographed with the utmost beauty, natural landscapes, frozen tundras and forests, freshly fallen snow covering everything. If it weren’t for man’s intrusion this could seem to many a paradise of quiet, serene peace.
Alas, this is not the way of human nature, and we are apt to destroy things of beauty.
Juxtaposing the beautiful shots of nature, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki shoots the world of man in an ugly, unflattering light. The makeshift towns, the camps, the people themselves are all terribly gross, rundown and plain old grimy to gaze upon.
The only human characters shown in a modicum of respect are the Native American characters often shot from low angles to give an extra sense of pride. In a lot of ways actually the movie seems to be a cry for forgiveness or an elaborate apology to the people our ancestors essentially led into near extinction.
Through carefully used repetition The Revenant displays a world, or at least a mindset, that may not be terribly far from our modern views. We continue to destroy, to chase and to feel greed, anger, hatred, and want.
Lines of dialogue, certain shots and camera movements, and continuously bone crushing setbacks all work to represent the circles man kind and specifically American kind tend to find themselves trapped inside.
Will we continue to survive? Probably. But the cost of survival is ever growing and eventually we might completely drain the very world that sustains us.
Thats what I got from the surface viewing of The Revenant at least. While the movie might seem like nothing but a string of terrible, soul crushing events, meant to make the viewer cringe and shy away, it’s actually a strangely uplifting film at times.
One that I’d dare to call optimistic? Not a word I use often when speaking of Innaritu.
★★★★ A beautifully made survival tale with more on it’s mind than one would have you believe. Innaritu’s best.
All images via 20th Century Fox