Don’t judge a film by its production problems—a lesson established years ago by James Cameron’s Titanic and reconfirmed now by another big-budget Leonardo DiCaprio project, The Revenant.
Writer/director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s follow-up to his Best Picture-winning Birdman is an old-school western that arrives on Christmas Day upon a wave of ominous press about its torturous production. Those difficulties reportedly included a budget that spiraled from $95 million to a supposed $165 million; a shoot complicated by Iñárritu’s desire to make the film sequentially and to use only natural light; and incessant weather-related delays that necessitated a relocation from Canada to Argentina, and forced co-star Tom Hardy to drop out of his subsequent role in Suicide Squad. From the sound of it, The Revenant was an arduous chore to make. And as the final product proves, it was definitely worth the trouble.
Inspired by Michael Punke’s 2002 based-on-real-events novel, Iñárritu’s latest is, on the surface, a straightforward revenge film.
It concerns 1820s explorer and fur trapper Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), who’s mauled by a ferocious grizzly bear in the American wilderness and then left for dead by his comrade John Fitzgerald (a captivatingly cold-eyed Tom Hardy)—albeit not before Fitzgerald, more interested in self-preservation than loyalty or honor, kills Hugh’s half-Native American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) in plain view of the crippled Glass. It’s an especially brutal blow to Glass, who, as seen in surreal flashbacks, already lost his Native American wife to American soldiers, one of whom he killed in order to protect his adolescent offspring.
Though horrifically clawed to pieces, Glass literally rises from his own grave (the first in a series of resurrections) and sets out across the harsh land in search of Fitzgerald. His subsequent mission plays out with few plot twists, as Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith’s script, devoid of the intertwined-strand message-making that plagued the filmmaker’s Babel, proceeds like a single-minded B-picture about one man’s unrelenting quest for the vengeance he craves, and deserves.
That resolutely one-way trajectory makes The Revenant, in a basic sense, a throwback to old school pulp fictions—especially the back-from-the-dead Point Blank and The Limey. While the director doesn’t complicate his familiar genre tale, he does embellish it in ways that both enhance its visceral thrills, and deepen its themes.
Working with famed cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (an Oscar winner each of the past two years, for Gravity and Birdman), Iñárritu delivers one breathtaking snapshot of suffering and tenacity after another, in the process making The Revenant the most awe-inspiringly beautiful film of the year. The duo’s camera begins by gliding in and out of a chaotic battle with fluid ferocity, moving in to close-up and out to grand, expansive panoramas (and back again) with a masterful grasp of spatial dynamics. Such aesthetic virtuosity is ever-present, with Iñárritu and Lubezki crafting a bevy of prolonged single-take centerpieces that vacillate between intense intimacy and large-scale wonder and terror, all of them shot with a naturalistic splendor—the majesty of forests coated in fresh snow, the formidable iciness of roaring rivers, the gnarliness of torn-to-shreds human and animal carcasses—that has a rugged, tactile quality to it.
In other words, you can just about feel the grit, grime, spittle, blood, and tears coating everyone—and everything—in The Revenant, which conveys precisely what it would be like to exist in Glass’s weathered shoes. Despite its A-list pedigree, Iñárritu’s film is an out-there experiential work that situates viewers in a very particular time and place, fighting through the elemental forces—external and internal—preying upon Glass. In that regard, it has something in common with Gus Van Sant’s Gerry and Elephant, experimental indies that articulated unspoken ideas through atmospherics.
Iñárritu’s many breathtaking compositions, meanwhile—gazing up at swaying treetops, at lone figures amidst barren landscapes, at heavenly sunrises and sunsets, and at rushing water (not to mention a canteen decorated with a spiral-circle design)—are all directly modeled after the work of auteur Terrence Malick, as are the hushed voiceovers from unseen characters and oblique flashbacks to moments of bliss and desolation.
Such sights invariably come across as borderline plagiaristic, just as Iñárritu’s single-take shots resonate as Birdman-ish look-at-me gestures. In The Revenant, however, Iñárritu’s brazenly showy tendencies are justified by his imposing formal artistry, and by the way his visuals work in tandem with his story’s weightier concerns. Be it the up-close-and-frighteningly-personal bear attack that leaves Glass at death’s door, a sequence where Glass takes shelter from a storm by disemboweling a dead horse and climbing inside its hollow body cavity, or a magnificent flight from Native American attackers in which the camera mounts up alongside Glass on horseback, and then hovers over the gorge he plummets off of, the film captures the harsh, unforgiving exquisiteness of the untamed American wild. It also, crucially, gets at the grueling nature of survival: how persevering requires suffering; how physical pain can be dwarfed (and negated) by emotional agony; and how God cares little for pleas of help and salvation, if He even exists at all (other than in the next morsel of meat tasted by a famished tongue).
Bolstered by a cracked-lip, mouth-foaming performance of anguish and fury by DiCaprio, in a physical role that often requires him to go long, silent stretches crawling about the ragged earth like a newborn (re)learning to walk, The Revenant is laced with protective-father undercurrents but, at heart, is about the primal impulse to endure. Glass dons the fur coat of his bear attacker but eventually becomes an animal in man’s clothing. That ironic twist speaks to the film’s portrait of survival as an instinct shared by all living creatures, and which, as seen in the actions of Glass, Fitzgerald, or a Native American chief looking for his kidnapped daughter, supersedes notions of morality, fairness, or decency.