The Revenant is an absolute masterclass in filmmaking. Alejandro González Iñárritu has brought to the screen the widescope yet precise storytelling we have come to expect from top directors like Hitchcock and Scorsese. Where Iñárritu’s last film, Birdman left me cold, the performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, among others, will ensure this film cements his legacy. From the first scene to the last, The Revenant pulses and grips the audience, brutally aware of what may happen but never truly knowing.
The Revenant follows the true life adapted story of Hugh Glass, an American pioneer explorer who fights for life after he is savagely attacked by a bear. With life threatening injuries in an unforgiving terrain, Glass looks to survive as well as seek revenge on those who left him for dead. This is a classic tale of survival but takes on a greater dimension as we are submerged in the frontier. The film was shot on location in Canada and Argentina and their mountains, rivers and forests are as much part of the film as the various explorers and indians who risk their lives across it. No character in the film is truly heroic, with violence and selfish actions par for the course, there is shades of grey at play constantly and we can only relate how we would act faced with the same challenges in front of us. Once again we are dragged into the film, no longer just a spectator.
Iñárritu shows that a director is much more than a shot caller where a film like this is concerned. In conjunction with cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, Iñárritu has created a visual masterpiece. Shot with natural light on location, the film is vibrant but real, it feels of its time while still taking advantage of modern technology to capture unimaginable scenes. BY far the most memorable scene in the film is the opening in which the explorers are attacked by a tribe of Indians. We are treated to a single take where the camera is thrown around, darting between flurries of arrows and stopping to focus on acts of brutality amongst the chaos. The flow of the scene and pace so early in the film is captivating, the heart pulses as Iñárritu curates the madness. While the rest of the film continues to utilise many similar long takes and selective focus (often the wilderness is more focal than the actors), the first scene remains the high point of the film stylistically and we instead focus on the plot and emotional draw as it continues.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy are easily two of the best actors in the world today. DiCaprio is a guaranteed Oscar winner at some point in his career and with few other male performers taking such a huge role on this year, perhaps it is finally his time. Tom Hardy is the future. In a year where we displayed such varied performances in Fury Road, Legend and The Revenant, there can only be excitement for his future. Here both actors are allowed to chew the scenery as the conditions demand fear, aggression and determination throughout.
Ridley Scott gave us The Martian in 2015, a film that never truly crackles like The Revenant because the stakes never feel like they are there. We know what will happen to the man stuck on mars and we know there is someone coming for him. Here we have no way to know where the film is going, each scene has the audience on the edge of their seats with their hands gripped white. I had felt that the 150 minute running time may be excessive for such a bleak tale, but despite the elongated length of the time, it rarely slips into boring and has enough beats to keep the attention despite having enough filler to cut down the run time well. The Revenant is not a perfect film, there is elements of the plot which are convoluted and unnecessary and bog the films savage themes in more spiritual depth. There is an overall metaphor at play which when examined is heavy handed and misguided in its execution.
As a visual work of art and an immersive tale of survival, The Revenant is perfect. It is hard to watch but it is worthwhile. I could not help myself be drawn to the characters on screen and their plight as Iñárritu weaves his filmmaking tapestry for his adoring fans. While not doing much in the way of storytelling or dialogue, The Revenant is for the eyes and heart, not the brain, and for me is captured both and held them for the full duration.