[Note: Tommy’s review of The Revenant was originally posted in December; with the film set to expand nationwide tomorrow, January 8, we are reposting it]
Boiling down to a simple ‘man vs. nature’ tale, what The Revenant shares with the best of survivalist films (Deliverance, Alive, The Grey) is less a focus on the physical but more the emotional and mental toll it takes to survive. Which is to say it’s not just about what manly things man must do to make it out in the cold terrain; but how he must think, what motivates him to continue, to even bother taking one step further. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu has always been a bit of a sentimental, if not downright schmaltzy filmmaker. Birdman, Babel, Biutiful at times tipped over into outright mawkishness, bludgeoning its writ into pap. The Revenant, though, through its stripped down narrative, marks Iñárritu’s most clear-eyed and effective film yet.
It’s still the same themes at play here – man, bogged down by worldly desire, seeks to transcend himself through spiritual enlightenment. Instead of Birdman’s has-been actor weighed by the need to reclaim fame, it’s a wounded 1820s frontiersman haunted by the need for revenge. Leonardo DiCaprio, all grunts and half-whispers, stars as said frontiersman, buried alive and left for dead out in the winter wilderness by his fellow companions (Tom Hardy & Will Poulter). After coming to, he must brave the vicious climate, his injuries & a tracking Indian party all in the pursuit of the men who betrayed him. Yet The Revenant isn’t so much a revenge story as it is about letting go of past grievances. The question isn’t will DiCaprio get back at Hardy; but can he ever move past it?
There are long swooping shots of the trees swaying in between gusts of wind, of glacial water flowing, of snow and rain dripping down from above. Many have already begun to invoke ‘Terrence Malick’, in particular The Tree of Life; yet where Malick uses the natural world as proof of the divine, Iñárritu posits the opposite – that divinity exists despite the cold indifference of the natural world. There’s no warm romanticism in The Revenant’s depiction of the outdoors. No lingering Malick-esque shots of a flower blooming or the golden hour sky or the glistening yellow wheat fields, the simple beauty of nature used as proof of Godliness. In The Revenant, every shot of the trees and snow and rain and water and mud is indicative of just how unnatural, how unforgiving, how cruel and unrelenting the outside can be. The Tree of Life’s low-to-high angle shot, trees pointing upwards to the heavenly crystal clear sky, is repurposed in The Revenant – instead of the bright skies of Malick-yore, The Revenant’s ‘heavenly skies’ are obscured by rain and snow. The trees, rustling above, aren’t pointing to the heavens but blocking it; nature is an obtrusion to Godliness.
The crux of The Revenant centers around what motivates man in such a harsh and unforgiving climate, a barren landscape where religion and faith seemingly has no place. DiCaprio’s frontiersman is torn between his base need for revenge and the noble pursuit to live on in his family’s name (handled somewhat ham-fistedly by recurring visions of his dead wife). That DiCaprio’s moment of catharsis comes inside the ruined grounds of a church, decrepit and ravaged by the savage land, only further externalizes this inner turmoil. And that the church bell still rings despite the building’s rugged exterior is proof enough to where Iñárritu’s true allegiance lies.
Midway through, Tom Hardy (chewing up scenery just a tad too much) gives a long speech about how his father, stranded in the wilderness himself, found ‘God’ in the eyes of a squirrel and how his father didn’t hesitate for a second to eat that squirrel, to eat God himself. The implication is clear – Hardy arguing there is no God, no morality, no right or wrong out in the wild, only predator and its prey, his earthly worldview marking him (in the film’s eyes) as villainous.
If this thematic through-line threatens to tip over into self-indulgence, Iñárritu compensates with some of the most thrilling set pieces of the year. An opening Indian raid, a now somewhat infamous bear mauling, a one-shot knife fight – all prove Iñárritu may be at his best (ironically enough) when he isn’t aspiring to lofty spiritual ‘subtext’ but instead getting his hands dirty in some good ol’ fashioned action beats. The bear attack sequence, in particular, is so visceral, so perfectly staged and realized that the rest of the film almost can’t quite live up to the moment.
Emmanuel Lubezki’s photography is key, perfecting the roving camera-work he & Iñárritu used on Birdman. The camera will loop around, pushing in so close on characters that their breath fogs up the lens, that their blood splatters across – and yet, The Revenant will not cut away, continuing to play these now blood stained and fogged-up scenes within the shot. The result isn’t so much immersive as it does draw attention to the apparatus. DiCaprio’s abandoned frontiersman is never alone – because the camera is right there with him, pushing into his bearded mug, encircling him, inspecting his wounds, the camera so close you can’t help but wonder why Leo doesn’t just swat it away like a pesky fly.
The camera isn’t just a ‘character’ in The Revenant, but the lynchpin to Iñárritu’s thematic point. Even in the most barren and harsh landscape, you are never alone. The camera – omnipotent, always there even though you can’t see it – is divine, proof that there is more than just this base world. Characters mistakenly will stare up at the gloomy sky, searching for something, anything more when true enlightenment lies right in front of them, in the lens of the camera itself.