Iñárritu’s latest film masters brutal realism and emotional depth
Medieval Europeans believed in revenants: corpses returned from the dead to punish the living, often out of revenge. The context of this term makes it all the more fitting for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest film, The Revenant, because this film is revenge distilled into its most unadulterated form.
Set in the 1820s in the snowy frontier of the Louisiana Purchase, the film tells the true story of Hugh Glass (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), a fur trapper who is left for dead after a fateful injury and vows revenge against his traitor and former cohort John Fitzgerald. What follows is a revenge narrative which is familiar in plot, but luxuriously dark and beautiful in its delivery and scope, with some of the most technically and visually original content in recent memory.
The Revenant is shot entirely in natural light, and its technical innovations are such that Iñárritu’s images always appear crisp and bright onscreen. Emmanuel Lubezki’s camerawork is replete with fluid, dynamic shots made possible by technology like the Steadicam. Before The Revenant, I never thought I would see cinematography which so audaciously breaches the vanguard of technical ability. Lubezki’s shots are often done in one extended take, drifting through the carnage of turf wars and the stunning beauty of western Canada with equally deft and mysterious exactitude. This absorbing strategy reaches an affective fever pitch in a scene in which Glass encounters a bear, the details of which are best discovered on your own—if you have the stomach.
The film’s sweeping aerial shots reminded me of Stanley Kubrick’s camera flying over the Rockies in The Shining. However, unlike that film, whose grandiose imagery inspires awe and terror, The Revenant evokes that same awe in spite of the terror. While these sequences and Glass’s ambiguous flashbacks can drag on to the point at which they begin to feel pretentious, the film’s look still tends to convey meaning more often than detracting from it. The camera behaves like a ghostly presence, swooping into and commenting on our reality by the very act of observation. Despite its intense action, this is overall a quiet movie with sparse dialogue. And this sat well with me, because The Revenant already speaks volumes through its own sullen tone.
The Revenant presents some of the most harrowing images I’ve seen in a film. This one is not for the squeamish. The movie’s long stretches of meditative quietude are juxtaposed by moments of brutal, realistic violence. Prepare for stabbings, scalpings, arrows to the throat and disemboweled horses—to name a few gory treats. And of course, there’s the bear. The way Iñárritu focuses on the violence inflicted against the indigenous Pawnee peoples is a particularly sobering detail to the film’s unflinching realism. The violence is of a pedigree so relentlessly punishing that it cultivates sympathy rather than disgust. When we see Glass incapacitated and gagged, immobilized from his injuries, shrieking desperately for help, we cringe and squirm, but we also connect with Glass on a deeper emotional level. This is compounded by a stellar performance by Tom Hardy, who plays a satisfyingly despicable human being hell-bent on living as if beyond the authority of his community. Lubezki does not shy away from a good close-up, a technique he uses to terrifying effect in The Revenant, especially when showing faces of endless desperation caked in sweat, filth and blood. This is, at its core, a pretty clear-cut revenge flick, but its compulsive sense of pain, loss and betrayal is so well-developed that it propels the film forward with exhilarating thrill and purpose.
The Revenant is not a movie for everyone, let alone the faint at heart, but it is one of the best movies to be released in 2015. If you’ve got a hard heart and an empty stomach (plus two-and-a-half very empty hours), do not hesitate to see this movie.