Editor’s Notes: The Revenant opens in limited theatrical release Christmas Day and expands on January 8th.
What we now experience as a densely populated land of opportunity was once an open, uncharted landscape of desolate harshness. Cold, barren, unforgiving America is the canvas for The Revenant, a film that is – very directly – about the struggle for survival, and the human reserves one must tap in order to mount that struggle. The prevailing physical traits of the struggle are profoundly ugly– fierce, relentless brutality. And yet there’s such breathtaking beauty in this open landscape, replete with stark natural wonders and gorgeous glimmering light…even in a wintry atmosphere where the clouds would be expected to flatten the palette. That is where The Revenant lives – on the thin dividing line between ugly and beauty.
The prevailing physical traits of the struggle are profoundly ugly– fierce, relentless brutality. And yet there’s such breathtaking beauty in this open landscape, replete with stark natural wonders and gorgeous glimmering light . . .
That thematic territory is nothing new for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who has always mined that territory of human beauty encased within personal tragedy, be it on a grand scale or keenly intimate, whether the drama take place on a global scale or just within the confines of its protagonist’s tortured mind. The Revenant covers similar terrain, but there is a directness here that borders on simplicity. Coming off the massive ambiguity of his Oscar-winning Birdman, Inarritu ups the scale but trims down in terms of narrative definition. This is an epic of suffering and revenge, full stop.
Does that make The Revenant a lesser film? Not necessarily; “simple” and “straightforward” needn’t be strictly pejorative terms. But after five features of such soul-shattering complexity in every facet, this does feel like a departure of sorts for Inarritu, who jumped into this shoot almost immediately following the completion of Birdman, marking the shortest between-films span of his career. Narrative simplicity aside, it’s not as though this shoot was remotely simple; to the contrary, it’s become quite notorious for its tortuous conditions and rigorous planning. Shot over the course of nine months, in three different countries, intentionally limited by Inarritu’s and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s decision to shoot predominantly with natural light, The Revenant’s mounting was nothing if not complex. The ultimate question, then, becomes: was this straightforward narrative worth such a harrowing undertaking?
If one allows time for the film to linger and marinate – which is essential – the answer is unequivocally yes. The Revenant is an imperfect beast of a movie, at turns a brutally intense character study and a too-precise betrayal-and-revenge drama. But when Inarritu focuses his gaze on the plight of his protagonist, touching on graceful cords of reflection, renewal, and rebirth, the film proves that its severe canvas and arduous mounting are tied inextricably to its larger context – a gut-wrenching portrait of human will, clinging to life and seeking a purpose to keep breathing.
The Revenant is an imperfect beast of a movie, at turns a brutally intense character study and a too-precise betrayal-and-revenge drama.
Leonardo DiCaprio headlines the film, and stories of his dedication to this role have already become legend. He plays Hugh Glass, the chief navigator in a large corps of American frontiersman on an extended fur-trapping expedition through the treacherous West in 1823. The troop’s key initiative is to obtain their pelts while surviving an onslaught of attacks from marauding Indians, though the natural elements prove to be of far graver danger, as Glass soon discovers. He’s mauled by a protective Grizzly bear and left in such dire condition that his team is forced to press on without him. Two comrades, Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Bridger (Will Poulter), volunteer to stay with Glass, tend to him until his inevitable death, and then give him a proper burial. Fitzgerald, however, is anxious to rejoin the team, and goes about particularly vicious means to extricate himself and Bridger from the situation, abandoning Glass to die alone.
Except Glass doesn’t die. Even if a large piece of him is dead, his will never ceases. He clings. He claws. He keeps breathing. And his tale of survival – in face of an uncompromising landscape, roaming predators, heinous injuries, and a natural environment that seems to have selected him for extinction – is the soul of the film. Long sections unfold without words; struggle speaks its own language. Visions of his slain Native American family alternately plague and inspire Glass on his perilous trek, which becomes almost meditative in its singular goal of survival. Nature is Glass’ temple, by which he can communicate psychically with those he’s lost, envision with angry resolve those who abandoned him, and use whatever spare means lay in front of him to mend his injuries in order to forge on. Motivation takes multiple forms – the memory of his family is one, the plot for revenge is another. But eventually those wells run dry, and so the film’s most challenging question is, how does one find the will to keep breathing when there is nothing tangible to latch onto?
It’s a stirring philosophical question, explicated with fierce humanity by DiCaprio, who most certainly does eat raw bison liver, and sleep in a carcass, and much more. It’s a blunt-force performance. His silent survival tale, shot with painstaking, iconic beauty by Inarritu and Lubezki, is equal parts horrifying and magnificent. Whenever his plight remains the film’s centerpiece, The Revenant is endlessly riveting…if sometimes difficult to watch. When the story pivots to include its tertiary characters, the plotting and dense dialogue interrupts the purity of the film’s meditative silence.
It doesn’t help that Hardy’s villain is a veritable mustache-twirler with no nuance whatsoever, or that the film has to contort itself to wedge in this ultimately thin plotting when its soul remains with the isolated survivalist tale. Inarritu and co-writer Mark L. Smith likely felt some devotion to the broader narrative since, after all, it is based on true events. But only in the extended sequences of Glass, alone amid the empty, unforgiving expanse of nature, is The Revenant able to achieve what it truly aspires to be: a contemplative exploration on the human will to survive.
The Revenant able to achieve what it truly aspires to be: a contemplative exploration on the human will to survive.