Community Contributor Review: The Revenant (2015)

Revenant (adj): A person who has returned, as if from the dead.


“My heart bleeds. But revenge is in the creator’s hands.” – Hikuc, The Revenant, 2015.

Alejandro Iñárritu’s (Amores Perros, Birdman) latest feature, The Revenant, maps the journey of legendary folklore hero Hugh Glass and his torturous battle for survival and revenge through the hostile landscapes of 1800s Montana and South Dakota. Lifted loosely from the novel of the same name by Michael Punke, The Revenant offers a glimpse of a bygone world as picturesque as it was dangerous and inhospitable. Glass (Leo) and an eclectic band of men under the command of Captain Andrew Henry (Domhall Gleeson; Ex Machina, Harry Potter) undertake a hunting expedition for pelts during the Louisiana Purchase era and, after being graphically mauled by a grizzly bear, Glass is left horrifically wounded, close to death, and has to hopelessly watch as his son is murdered in front of him. He is then left for dead by his hunting party and he begins a search for the man responsible for the death of his son.

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This is a story of extraordinary adversity and the strength of will to overcome it, even in the face of unspeakable tragedy and overwhelming odds.

Although it’s a story primarily of retribution, loss and family, The Revenant is a cinematic success genuinely comprised of the sum of its parts; the directorial dedication to authenticity, the de-emphasizing of CGI and the total abandonment of the lazy comfort of green-screen all serve to bring an immersive and unparalleled cinematic experience to an audience that typically eschews artistry for cookie-cutter narratives. Independently and collaboratively, the location, costume, set and cinematographic departments verify the beguilingly exquisite landscape of the 1820s frontier and the torturous method acting undertaken by Leo and his supporting cast serve as contrast, a raw reminder that no amount of scenery worship and awe makes suffering any more bearable. The beauty of the film is that you know you’re watching something that, while visceral at points, never seems forced, gratuitous or contrived.

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To focus on the acting, one thing The Revenant boasts is that the characterisation of each part is refreshingly and ambiguously human throughout. Every role is one centred around reasonable wants and needs given the situation the lost men find themselves in. The delineation of the battle for survival never gives way to cartoonish violence for violences sake (this is not a film for the faint of heart), which is something necessary in order to carry the more trodden track, so to speak, of the tragedy/revenge dynamic. For instance, the film’s “villain” Fitzgerald, wonderfully acted by an almost unrecognisably bearded and gnarled Tom Hardy, is a calculating individual, who while unapologetically cruel and ruthless throughout never transgresses the reality of his situation. He’s a man who kills and lies and steals, but he is a man who has nothing except the promise of something more than freezing to death, something he has to take it upon himself to acquire. While we don’t necessarily empathise with him, Hardy brings forth such a downplayed powerhouse of a performance that of course we sympathise. He’s an actor seemingly bouncing from strength to strength, his cagey and methodical delivery is nicely complemented by the pensive Jim Bridger in what could easily be argued to be Will Poulter’s most accomplished role to date. As with Leo, he’s an actor that doesn’t even need to speak to convey exactly what needs to be said, it’s all through the eyes. Poulter delivers a performance steeped in conflict, channelling the crisis of faith of young Bridger at leaving his friend and fellow hunter for dead, and he does it well. Although the dialogue as a whole is at points as sparse as the surrounding terrain (although in fairness, who wouldn’t be a little less chatty with their vocal chords severed by an angry 300lb caniform), this doesn’t really affect the mood, as it centres it in its point in time quite nicely.

Leonardo Di Caprio and Tom Hardy in the Trailer for "The Revenant"

These were not articulate or educated men, and many of them lived from contract to contract, never pulling themselves out of poverty and often dying violently and young.

In terms of the lead, The Revenant has been dubbed by some ‘The Passion of the Leo’ or ‘Leo torture porn’, which taking into account the sheer volume of agony Glass is put through (riding a horse off a cliff, being partially buried alive and using gun powder and fire to seal an open wound to name just three) is a totally understandable takeaway, if a little reductive. While the action at points gets caked on pretty heavily, you don’t really ever get the sense that it’s too much for the film, and the role of Glass is acted with such gut-wrenching intensity that it’s hard not feel physically cold with Leo, to put yourselves in the protagonists shoes as he crawls his way through the frostbitten landscape.

In terms of assessing the realism Leo breathes into the character of Hugh Glass, suffering both on and off camera, it could well be argued that in the gear up to Oscar season and with such strong competition (The Room and Big Short specifically) that the method style acting serves as a means to seal the box office win for The Revenant, which isn’t quite the case. Firstly the film doesn’t really carry the kind of exploitative Mondo element that it’s been given notoriety for, and regardless of whether or not enduring pain could be considered as something less than tantamount to ‘real’ acting (as method actors suffering for art often does come under fire in the green-screen age, from elitists) the end result is nothing short of what you’d expect from seeing real people react to real situations, while still maintaining a confident hold on the role.

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Yes, DiCaprio actually does eat a piece of potentially poisonous raw liver, and yes he does really careen down frozen rapids and crawl through snow draped only in rags and fur at temperatures sometimes of 25 degrees below freezing, but as with Bale in The Machinist or Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man, the believability of the take is all that’s taking precedence from a directorial point of view, not the suffering of those involved. In the words Iñárritu – “if we ended up in green-screen with coffee and everybody having a good time, everybody will be happy, but most likely the film would be a piece of s—”. Considering this to be true of not only this film but other classics in which traditionally hyper-realism has been used to bring a film to life (Apocalypse Now, The Birds, Alien), it’s easy to see why going above and beyond in this case is something commendable, transcending the glory of an Oscar nomination. If used correctly as The Revenant does, it becomes a directors best ally in setting his work apart from simple story telling.

Lubezki himself having recently received Oscars for both Birdman and Gravity, two visually stunning but very different works, this is another great example of the diverse application of his talents, and of the strength of his relationship with long-standing production designer Jack Fisk. Mastering the long take and using it with as much relevance when jumping from character to character during the opening fight sequence as when applying it to impressive crane shots of unseen natural beauty, Lubezki succeeds in re-creating a past era, when the wild really was.

re_select_2.00001895 Inspired by true events, THE REVENANT is an immersive and visceral cinematic experience capturing one man’s epic adventure of survival and the extraordinary power of the human spirit. It is directed and co-written by renowned filmmaker, Academy Award-winner Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman, Babel). Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox. Copyright © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. THE REVENANT Motion Picture Copyright © 2015 Regency Entertainment (USA), Inc. and Monarchy Enterprises S.a.r.l. All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication.

The film explores the surreal, with characters gazing helplessly at avalanches, passing meteors, herds of CGI Bison (one of the few times CGI is noticeably employed, as American Bison are all but extinct in the wild). All of the above and more serve to pick the audience up by the scruff of the neck and drop us flawlessly into the world that Glass and Fitzgerald know as home, simultaneously forcing the same sense of impotence against the elements and incomprehension of the events of the world around us. The point of this is once again drive home that point of triumph against all challenges, no matter how much they might dwarf our struggles, or what we think our capacity for tolerance is. A revenge story though it is, it’s a film that makes you not only struggle for your reward with Hugh Glass, but leaves you with the same sense of wonder at the journey at the same time, and in that much the film really is a thing of unadulterated beauty.

One of the reasons that Iñárritu is held in such high regard by some is his commitment to the finished article, of which the acting is only a small part. In as much as watching actors struggle to overcome the elements helps to place you in their shoes, so does the knowledge that this film was created methodically over the course of nine months, and ran over budget by around $35 million (the film cost $135 million to finalise) and that no crucial expense was spared. The Revenant was shot totally sequentially and only ever using natural light and south facing cameras, giving it a trademark aesthetic and helping to push the idea of a Herculean linear narrative both cinematically and creatively, but totalling at only about 90 crucial minutes a day of actual filming. In amongst crew walkouts and some of the producers at points being banned from the shoots, the team had to move set repeatedly, chasing the snowfall across three different countries and twelve different locations in order to re-create the same mood throughout, using wide angle steadicam footage to illuminate beautiful landscapes, in which the actors themselves are very often lost to the sheer power of the films production. To say that The Revenant is a film comprised of the sum of its parts is to say that this, while being a Hollywood blockbuster and a generally entertaining two and a half hour epic, is also very much a film-makers film, and a lot of the appeal really does shine through because of that fact. Innaritu’s auteurial influence cannot be ignored or confused here.
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Though not perfect, worth a watch, worth a second watch, worth the Oscar nominations, and worth being remembered as the work of a director at his peak. The Revenant is a film that sets out ambitious goals, and over the course of its run time, achieves them.


So, what did you think?


– Max Colbert

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