by: Michael Shields
Across the Margin’s Michael Shields makes his case for the best film of the year with Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s The Revenant…
Filmed in the treacherous backwoods of Canada and the rolling frostlands of Argentina, The Revenant is at its core a revenge film. Based loosely on the unimaginable real-life exploits of pioneer Hugh Glass ((Hugh Glass’ ventures have spawned multiple books (Frederick Manfred’s 1954 novel Lord Grizzly, as well as Michael Punke’s 2002 novel, The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge – on which Inarritu based his screenplay on) and another feature film, 1971’s Man in the Wilderness, starring Richard Harris.)), the film, directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and starring Leonardo DiCaprio (Hugh Glass) and Tom Hardy (John Fitzgerald), tells the tale of a man purposely left for dead after a gruesome bear attack. Through extraordinary circumstances and throughout the most unforgiving of landscapes, Glass exhibits the unflappable will and the limitless potential of the human spirit while demonstrating the lengths a person will go to find retribution when someone takes everything from you. The Revenant is an absolutely engrossing work of art, an unflinching journey into the psychological toll of giving yourself over entirely to vengeance.
In late 2014, amongst the publicity tour for Birdman (Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), which won the Oscar for Best Picture, Inarritu railed against modern day blockbusters. While Birdman may have starred a former Batman, Michael Keaton, as a washed-up actor famous for his role as a superhero now vying for dignity in the public eye, Inarritu paraded a healthy distaste for films featuring caped crusaders, explaining that superhero films, “have been poison, this cultural genocide, because the audience is so overexposed to plot and explosions and shit that doesn’t mean nothing about the experience of being human. ‘Superheroes,’ just the word hero bothers me. What the [frick] does that mean? It’s a false, misleading conception, the superhero. Then, the way they apply violence to it, it’s absolutely right wing. Ultimately, it’s about nothing. It’s a package, and you open the box, and there’s another box, and another, and it doesn’t lead you to the truth.” Regardless of your viewpoint about comic book adaptations, what is admirable is that Inarritu did more than just voice his angst about the condition of modern day cinema. With The Revenant, he displayed in no uncertain terms that large-scale cinematic alternatives are possible. By offering a grandiose, yet profound, theatrical experience, without all the bells and whistles of thunderous explosions and overzealous computer generated images, Inarritu practiced what he preached and set a new precedent for not only the survival genre, but for cinema itself.
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, in tandem with cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, who also won an Oscar for Birdman last year and for Gravity the year before, are proving annually that their art resides on a higher plane. Lubezki’s cinematography continuously places the viewer in impossible locations. In The Revenant, his stunning camerawork hoists viewers high up a on horseback as arrows haphazardly whizzing by. He launches them over cliffs and places them horrifically within the bowels of a horse. And most dauntingly, he situates them directly beneath the muzzle of a walloping bear. Lubezki, remarkably, shot The Revenant with the aid of only natural light. “We wanted to make a movie that was immersive and visceral,” he explains. “The idea of using natural light came because we wanted the audience to feel, I hope, that this stuff is really happening.” ((Lubezki has shot using almost entirely natural light previously, stating that Y tu mama tambien was probably “90% natural light.”))
The Revenant isn’t simply beautiful, or a refreshing surrogate to Hollywood’s propensity for superhuman powers, it’s a sprawling epic rife with profound concepts that linger with you far after escaping from the glacial, menacing world that Inarritu so meticulously crafts. The entire plot of The Revenant centers around Glass’s fatherly devotion to his son, Hawk, and in this way the film acts as a penetrating emotional experience. For The Revenant forces one to wonder if it is likely easier to give into death’s reprieve, than what redress does justice truly furnish? And what pitfalls endure from giving yourself over fully to the lure of revenge? Glass’s devotion to Hawk surely was the spark that ignited his adherence towards retribution, but what is presented in The Revenant is something much more complex, as what Glass was chasing was not just the man who killed his child, or even the man who left him for dead, but rather a force of malevolence that antithesizes righteousness . For Glass, it was surely personal, but also bigger than his ambitions at the same time.
As much as The Revenant plays out as a Man vs. Man psychological tour de force, what boils beneath the layers of vindication porn is a harrowing account of Man versus Nature. Flaunting the possibilities of humanity’s sheer willpower, The Revenant chronicles the depth of suffering a human can encounter when bombarded by the extremes of nature. And it is here, in the tale of a gravely damaged man raging against cessation, that Leonardo DiCaprio’s undeniable talents are so easily discernible. To persist, Glass must brave biting-cold waterways and catch fish with his bare hands only to devour them raw. He sucks the marrow from the bones of an unidentified, horned animal carcass, and is forced to tear into the flesh of a raw bison, all of this while withstanding the wrath of a seemingly unending winter. DiCaprio, fully committed and immersed to the authenticity of the project, and reinforced by an equally astonishing performance by Tom Hardy, excels in this extremely physical performance, where Glass’s suffering is wholly palpable, and where he pushes the limits of his body, and the very craft itself, for the sake of the performance.
From one of the most arousing opening scenes in all of film’s history, unto the inevitable showdown between Good and Evil along an iced riverbank, The Revenant is a grind. It’s uncomfortable. And it’s downright frigid. But never was a promise made to the beholder that everything worthwhile is easy. With The Revenant, Inarritu has reinvented the survival/revenge genre, furthered the potential of cinema – both technically and in its ability to affect – and created a timeless epic that will long be remembered as one of the all time greats. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s The Revenant is as strong a film as the undying will present within Hugh Glass, and as gorgeous a film as the mountainous landscapes that distinguish its essence.