Review: The Revenant

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Savagery and beauty are not synonymous words, yet they often coexist in the same environment. Such is the duality of nature. Ever since he gained cognizance, man has been in both conflict and harmony with nature, fighting to stake his independence from it, while coming to accept his indebtedness to it. The relationship between man and nature is one of storytelling’s oldest narratives, and it takes on a bracing new vision courtesy of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. True to the director’s wont, The Revenant may be too grueling at times, but its muscular craftsmanship and central performance provide a human anchor within a world of majesty and brutality.

In 1820’s North America, a fur trading expedition by Americans is making its way through the unmolested lands acquired through the Louisiana Purchase. The group’s best scout and hunter is Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose half Native American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) is on the expedition as well. While instructing his son on hunting, Glass unwillingly triggers an ambush from a Native American tribe. Only half the crew survive the ensuing battle, who are now forced to chart a new course. Tensions run high amongst Captain Andrew Henry’s (Domhnall Gleeson) company, especially between Glass and the easily irritable John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). As Glass goes out for further scouting, he suddenly stumbles into his worst possible nightmare: a grizzly bear with two cubs. Mauled within an inch of his life, Glass barely manages to kill the bear, and he’s fortunately found by his comrades quickly thereafter. As he wheezes away his assumedly final breaths on a stretcher, the crew decide they can’t continue carrying him, so Hawk, Fitzgerald and John Bridger (Will Poulter) stay behind with him. In an act of selfish ruthlessness, Fitzgerald kills Hawk and tries to finish off Glass himself, leaving him half buried in the forest. When Glass miraculously gains his faculties, he sets out on a mission of vengeance that will test his spirit and his resolve.

Suffice to say, the narrative of The Revenant is not the feel good story of the holiday season. As Glass ventures through the wilds of untamed America, he endures every environmental calamity imaginable. Commitment to a film of this stature is no small task, and Leonardo DiCaprio throws himself headfirst into every scene. It can be easy for many major movie stars to find a groove and reap the benefits of their name brand, but DiCaprio feels like one of the few who actively pushes himself on each new project. In The Revenant, not only does he challenge himself physically, but he also gives a largely silent performance, relying on body language to communicate Glass’ interior state. Whatever lines DiCaprio does have, half are in a Native American dialect. In some ways, it’s his most effortful performance to date, but that’s the minimum requirement, as DiCaprio provides the film with the empathetic core it needs.

If the battle against the elements takes the fore, then a secondary conflict between fellow man is also present in The Revenant, if a little less fully realized. The film diplomatically takes in a larger portrait of both Native American tribes and also a French scouting company, but the relationships between all parties is pretty simplified. The actions of Henry’s company come down to life and death scenarios, but the motivations behind John Fitzgerald’s treachery, for instance, are hazy at best. Tom Hardy’s character might be two dimensional, but his anxiously wide eyed villainous turn remains welcome. Gleeson and Poulter also have moments to shine, both serving as moral compasses in a land bereft of law.

While the human pieces of The Revenant are crucial, they are minuscule in comparison to the wilderness that surrounds them. The film pays equal attention to the environments these men traverse, and the images on display are often breathtaking. Emmanuel Lubezki continues to stake his claim as one of the great cinematographers, relying on natural light throughout. Several scenes are extraordinarily choreographed, particularly the opening battle as well as Glass’ deadly grizzly bear encounter. Lubezki and director Inarritu opt for long takes during these sequences, giving the blocking a heightened immediacy. There are portions of Glass’ trek that may have benefited from implication, but it’s worth appreciating Inarritu’s uncompromisingly raw approach. Stephen Mirrione’s editing gives the film a deliberate pace, but also doesn’t linger too long. Some of the most elegantly cut passages from The Revenant involve dreams and flashbacks that Glass has about his deceased Native American wife and the life they had with their son. It is in these haunting scenes that the film maintains it’s graceful center. Meanwhile, all of the cosmetic and aural elements in the film feel tactile, even some of the wildlife which was realized with CGI.

If nothing else, The Revenant gives one an immense appreciation for all of the technological advances over the last two centuries. As an immersive experience, the film succeeds on many fronts. The real question is whether the human experience of The Revenant has as much to offer. When face to face with his own mortality, man often submits to his animalistic instincts in order to survive. It is not a righteous choice, but it is a necessary one. Further, what is to be gained from revenge? What long term satisfaction can there be? Perhaps The Revenant often looks to the simple answers from these questions because of the context in which they’re asked. As Hugh Glass finds himself submerged in desperate circumstances, his choices are inherently stark. Justification must wait.

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~ by romancinema on January 2, 2016.

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