Alejandro González Iñárritu’s hotly anticipated new film, The Revenant, has a lot of hype to live up to. Following last year’s critically successful Birdman, which initially brought Iñárritu to greater American attention, expectations seem astronomical. That said, if Birdman was his introduction, then The Revenant cements a space for him in mainstream American cinema. It’s a space that echoes The Revenant’s theme of juxtapositions and contradictions–the mainstream ‘true artist.’
The meaning of the title begins Iñárritu’s’s fascination with contradictions. ‘Revenant’ is defined as “a person who returns from the dead”. In this case, the resurrected spirit is frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio). While acting as a navigator for a large hunting party comprised principally of John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and Glass’s son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), Glass is mortally wounded in a bloody and intense grizzly bear attack. Left for dead by his fellow companions, Glass wakes up more dead than alive and must return to civilization while avoiding the dangers of the forest and the local Arikara tribes.
It’s this focus on dichotomy that characterizes Iñárritu’s approach to the film. He’s concerned with truth revealed through contrast, and frequently makes his point by juxtaposing contrasting elements. Take for example the philosophical differences between the Arikara and the whites, or the morally depraved Fitzgerald and the honor-bound Henry.
This focus on contrast extends to the visuals as well. Grand sweeping vistas are placed next to tight, intimate close-ups. Noted cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s talent is the film’s most notable asset and the most integral piece in realizing Iñárritu’s vision. His roving, fluid camera gives the film an impression of being present in an objective sense, as a watcher, not a participant. Battle scenes are chaotic in a way that deliberately stops the audience from identifying too much with a side. Who is winning? Who cares? Scenes are lit with available light, giving the film a unique naturalistic beauty comparable to Terrence Malick’s similarly shot The New World, and contrast plays heavily into nighttime scenes, a genius move that manages to evoke the film’s themes through visual finesse. Most obviously is the visual interplay between the light of man’s campfire and the inky darkness of unrestrained nature.
At The Revenant’s heart is not just a story of survival, but questions about the nature of man. After all, the destructive power of a grizzly bear is nothing compared to the destructive power of humans, a point made abundantly clear in scenes where Arikara and whites clash. The film seems to make a definitive stance on the inextricable connections between humans and nature, and the violence of each mode of existence.
Iñárritu expands on the survival movie à la Tracks, The Way Back, etc., but where the rest are heavy on inspiration, The Revenant makes sure to present a more nuanced portrait — a portrait of survival as unimaginably brutal, an ordeal that goes beyond a dirty face into the complete destruction of the human body. Glass is wounded to the point of death, and his journey finds him limping back, his body a Jackson Pollock painting of gashes and raw skin.
The film’s preoccupation with revealing a vision of humanity as composed of brutal survival creates a number of memorable, intense scenes packed full of well executed tension. Following the opening, we are treated to an incredibly immersive battle between the frontiersmen and the Arikara. It’s expertly choreographed, unflinchingly brutal, and an unforgettable way to establish the film. Concerns about the film being able to sustain it’s nearly three hour running time are immediately forgotten, and Iñárritu proves throughout that his ability to balance exciting grandiose battles with low-key personal drama is finely honed.
That’s not to say that much of the film is low-key, however. The actors do universally excellent jobs, and their performances are filled with raw emotional intensity. Hardy’s Fitzgerald is a compelling and terrifying villain because of his relatable desperation. Iñárritu aids his actors through the use of minimal CGI and naturalistic lighting, giving us the impression that we are among the frontiersmen. The actors take this connection and bring the world to life with excellent, believable performances. While DiCaprio is a standout, all of the actors have a great command of the necessary emotions: despair, hope, terror.
By the film’s end, the weight of the experience is impossible to deny. In making The Revenant, Iñárritu has managed to draw on the visual excellence that characterized Birdman, while also refining Birdman’s ability to balance the visceral and cerebral. The Revenant is outwardly simple, but inwardly complex, playing with themes that range from the brutality of nature to the treatment of indigenous peoples. It’s an incredibly accomplished film, and at no point does a single scene feel out of place or excessive.
In the last scene everything coalesces into a violent and beautiful whole, and after concluding the film’s philosophical journey, the audience is tasked with synthesizing Glass’s journey. Iñárritu purposefully mimics the sparse landscapes in the construction of the film, much is left unsaid, but it is not left obscured, and the film’s faith in the audience makes dissecting it all the more rewarding.