#18: The Revenant (2015)

Director: Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu
Western, Thriller
2h36min; R

⭐ ⭐ ⭐

You have to give Inarritu a fuckload of credit for swinging for the fences with The Revenant. In particular the first 45 minutes of the film are some of the best of the decade, probably even the century. Few directors ever get a chance to make something on this scale and even fewer do with that chance what Inarritu has done. Acting-wise and technically The Revenant is a masterwork. But not every shot lands and the ones that don’t are quite messy.

The film follows a crew of fur-trappers in the unorganized Dakotas after most of their party is massacred by a Native American tribe. The trappers make their way through the frigid wilderness with the help of scout Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his young son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). Glass moves to scout the surrounding terrain and is mauled near death by a grizzly bear. The crew’s captain, Andrew Henry (Domnhall Gleeson) leaves behind two men with Hawk to care for Glass while the rest of the party work their way back to base: Will Poulter’s Jim Bridger and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Frustrated with the profit failures of their mission and terrified of the tribe that is constantly on their trail, Fitzgerald murders Hawk and buries Glass alive, leaving him for dead. Consumed with a gargantuan rage, Glass crawls forth from the dirt and begins making his way across the blizzard-stricken west intent on revenge against Fitzgerald.

Much has been made of two things, DiCaprio and Emmanuel Lubezski’s cinematography. Contrary to popular excitement this is not DiCaprio’s best role (it almost went to Christian Bale- holy shit that would have been nuts) but it is his most physical performance. I still have to give top honors to his Howard Hughes in The Aviator. Most of what DiCaprio does it wordless and in the eyes, the subtle twitches of his pupils and the agonized grunts he makes after the bear attack. Most impressive is the wordless conversation he has with Hardy’s Fitzgerald as the latter contemplates leaving him to die in the cold. DiCaprio’s eyes have never held more fire in them. Eating bison liver and raw fish aside, the tortuous lengths to which DiCaprio goes to show Glass’ thirst for revenge is often jaw-dropping but all undone by the film’s climax.

Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score is the sound of unimaginable grief.

What has not been made much of is Hardy’s turn. It might be his best role, certainly his most conniving. Fitzgerald isn’t even evil really, he’s just a greedy American who wants to get warm and get paid for his work and when neither of these things happens he takes matters into his own hands. The little ticks, like how the hairs on the back of Fitzgerald’s neck stand up when Jim Bridger scrapes a dull blade against a metal canteen, are what make this performance so fascinating. “They turned my brain inside out,” he speaks of the natives who half-scalped him some years ago. The man is very damaged and if anything was taken from him in the scalping it must have been a conscience if he ever even had one.

Domnhall Gleeson and Will Poulter are fantastic- they’re the only two supporting actors who get much screen time. Forrest Goodluck is strong playing Hawk but he isn’t in the film long enough. Gleeson’s Captain Henry is somewhat a coward, a man who can’t do what must be done for the safety of his party when he hesitates on putting Glass out of his mystery via ball and pistol. Gleeson’s American accent is flawless and seeing him all bearded and gross opposite his clean shaven turn in this year’s excellent Ex Machina makes me crave his future work, never mind what he’s doing with Star Wars. Poulter holds his own in every scene, most of which are with Hardy. You can see that his Jim Bridger is not quite the hardened older traveler that most of the group is, that the kid isn’t just about $- he still has a conscience to grapple with his survival instincts that the hellish landscape has yet to tear from him.

The other focal point of most critics is Emmanuel Lubezski’s otherworldly cinematography. He deserves every blowjob headed his way. There are practically no shots in the film that don’t make me want to lick the screen. The Revenant might be the coldest-looking film ever made, shot mostly in Canada and concluded in Argentina. The film was made chronologically (Nicolas WInding Refn does it, the concept sounds promising) and shot using only natural light with the ALEXA 65, currently the most advanced movie camera available. Tracking shots are used quite liberally to the point that I stopped noticing about halfway through the film. Lubezki outdoes his work on Inarritu’s 2014 film Birdman and his amazing lensing in Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 film Children of Men. That film’s long-take battle sequence might have been bested by The Revenant‘s opening Native attack, a glorious display of savagery you have to see to believe.

DiCaprio’s eyes have never held more fire in them.

The opening sequence + the now famous bear attack + Fitzgerald’s betrayal make for one of the best first hours of a film you are likely to ever see. The first scene immediately brings to mind the unrelenting chaos of Saving Private Ryan‘s legendary D-Day intro- the fur-trappers are surrounded by chaos and you know where the arrows are flying from as much as they do. There are savages lurking in the trees, natives on the ground throwing tomahawks and butchering Glass’ party. I don’t know how he did it but there is a short bit where a native on a horse rides by and slays a man with a tomahawk and the camera gets up with the savage on the horse and then moments later, when the native is shot off the horse by a trapper the camera goes down with him and keeps moving. Absolutely unbelievable- Lubezki is one of the greatest cinematographers of all time. How can he top this? Seriously, I’m curious.

The bear attack that sets the film in motion is the stuff of legend. The beast, with its drooling jowels and snarls and breath fogging up the camera, is the most realistic visual effect ever created, even better than the tiger in Life of Pi. If there is one gripe with the bear it is that it makes the visual effect horses in the film’s opening look unbelievably fake. The ferocity with which it rips Glass apart makes my teeth grit together even when I know it’s coming. Notice the lack of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score in this instance. Inarritu wants you as deep in this moment as you can be- if he can get grip you here then he’ll hold you for the rest of the film, which he does but with mixed results. Never have I sat in a packed theater so utterly silent than after this scene. Every mouth sat open in disbelief and there was a guy behind me who I knew was trying to sitfle a cough moments after. It doesn’t get any better than that.

After that monumental first act the film moves at a glacial speed and I understand why but it doesn’t make watching any easier. This is a survival picture and though the survival tactics on display are impressive they don’t make for riveting cinema. There are a number of watercooler moments, like DiCaprio riding a horse on a cliff as seen in a trailer, but none of it is connected to the endgame. Most of the things that happen between Hawk’s murder and when Glass is found in the wilderness by  feels like filler to show just how difficult it was to survive in that time and place and for Inarritu to push the medium’s limits. Inarritu has spoken out many times about how difficult the film was to make but no matter how difficult the task was, if the final product isn’t great, what’s the point?

Emmanuel Lubezski outdoes his outstanding work on Birdman and Children of Men.

It received a bit of press prior to the film’s release and vanished into the cold soon after but Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score, featuring The National’s Bryce Dessner, but be paid respect. This is the sound of unimaginable grief. It is epic in every sense, filled with knife stabs of violin that guide the film in the same way that Hans Zimmer’s Interstellar score did for that film. The film’s core theme, heard in the most heart-rending moments including the film’s final shot, will forever make guts fall. It is the soundtrack to the cruelest place imaginable.

One of the last shots in The Revenant is a trail of blood in the snow. The blood leads into a stream similar to the one that began the film. Where the stream goes is uncertain. The film’s chief issue is that after everything it does not stick the landing. Glass confronts Fitzgerald in one very bloody showdown but when it is time to strike the killing blow what does he do? He fucking decides that Fitzgerald’s fate is in God’s hands. After all of the hardship just witnessed this is where the film decides to grow a conscience? No thank you. If you are looking to be awed by the unbelievable visuals then go watch The Revenant now. But if you are looking for a satisfying narrative? Absolutely not.

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