The Revenant: Iñárritu’s Ode to Classical Cinema

From the beautiful visuals, to the overwhelming violence, the bleakness of the landscape, and the primitive setting, Alejandro González Iñárritu has followed up Birdman with an equally challenging (and perplexing) cinematic experience.

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, channeling Jack Nicholson, with a powerful gritty performance, The Revenant pulls no punches, putting both its cast, and audience through a gruelling journey. DiCaprio, notable for his heavyweight performances, and his lack of an Oscar win, commits to this role like De Niro in Taxi Driver, or more recently, Gyllenhaal in either Southpaw or Nightcrawler.

DiCaprio and Hardy

It’s a career defining film, but DiCaprio’s performance isn’t the only star turn in Iñárritu’s eerie epic. Tom Hardy, fresh from his excellent work in big budget franchise cinema like Mad Max, and his equally compelling small screen appearance in the Peaky Blinders, is an excellent antagonist and foil for DiCaprio. In my opinion, Hardy’s performance is as good as DiCaprio’s, at times even outshining his co star.

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Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald, an amoral US army veteran who’ll do anything to survive.

The narrative is based on a book written by Michael Punke. Set in the cold and untamed American wilderness in the early 1800s, The Revenant tells the story of Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), a skilled frontiersman and tracker with a young Native American son. We’re first introduced to Glass when he’s leading a party of trappers, just as a deadly Native American attack decimates their ranks.

Glass, alongside a handful of his comrades, manages to escape down river, but they’re forced to abandon their boat, and head into the wilderness on foot in order to avoid roving Native American war bands. Things quickly go from bad to worse when Glass is attacked by a bear, and left for dead by his colleagues.

Revenge Driven Survival

The only thing driving Glass to survive is the need for revenge, a narrative hook that fits the Western genre. This simplicity provides little structure for the narrative that follows, and although the visuals and the excellently choreographed set pieces provide plenty of stunning moments, they feel atomised and separate from the story itself.

This is my only complaint with The Revenant. It’s sprawling, it’s long, and it’s likely to try the patience of audiences. But that patience is amply rewarded with not only excellent performances, but also tense, vividly drawn moments of terror, of man vs the wild, of overwhelming sadness, and unbelievable cruelty.

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Sublime visuals in The Revenant.

What The Revenant lacks in terms of structure, it more than makes up for with its composition. The visuals are beautiful, the setting and the set design lend realism to the narrative, and the skillful direction captures the experiences of the characters, allowing audiences to feel what they’re feeling.

Harrowing Battle Sequence

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The opening battle sequence between the trappers and the Native Americans is harrowing and gory, with hand to hand fighting that’s as brutal as it is unskilled. These are people fighting to the death, and The Revenant immediately introduces us into an uneasy and dangerous world.

The camera glides, the editing is smooth and unobtrusive, and the emotions felt by the characters are mirrored by the audience. Survival in this landscape is down to luck. This early moment is a perfect example of how battle scenes and sequences should be captured on film, and it’s one of the strongest cinematic introductions I’ve seen in a while.

What struck me the most about The Revenant is the fact that this is a quest with real consequences. There’s no guarantee that the good guy will win out, and there’s little to suggest that such simple concepts as good and evil even exist in this world. It’s haunting, unsettling, and compelling cinema, and even with its flaws, the ambition and scope is breathtaking.

Sublime Visuals

This is image conscious film making, and it feels substantial, and weighty. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who worked on Birdman, and Gravity with Iñárritu, and Terrence Malick on The Tree of Life, expertly captures the stark beauty of a primal world.

He uses realistic colours, and stunning static establishing shots of sublime landscapes.  Lubezki lends a classical composition to The Revenant, making for an interesting contrast with Iñárritu’s contemporary and fluid camera work.

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Nightmarish dreamscapes and vignettes lend artistry to The Revenant.

The Revenant’s influences include notable films like Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God, seen most clearly in The Revenant’s closing lines of dialogue. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain and even Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto are good points of reference for the tone of Iñárritu’s film. But for me the clearest influence comes from Terrence Malick, specifically his films The New World, and The Tree of Life.

From the dreamy vignettes, to the power of nature, and the hints of madness, The Revenant borrows from cinema that has come before. But it finds its own voice; it’s guttural, imperfect, yet frequently poetic.

This voice isn’t always clearly defined, but Iñárritu’s film sits comfortably with the ones mentioned above, with its sublime exploration of the place of humanity within temporal, violent, and natural contexts.

Elemental and Animalistic Themes

The Revenant is elemental and animalistic, and the film constantly reiterates those themes. There’s a well drawn moment around the midpoint of the film where Glass emerges onto a vast plain to a crescendo of hooves. The camera flips round and we see his perspective as a herd of buffalo charge past, with a pack of wolves close on their tail.

The strong survive, the weak don’t, and it’s as simple as that. There are no indestructible heroes here. All there is is violence, death, and attempts to survive in an inhospitable and cruel world.

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Glass sheltering from the elements.

The Revenant stands out for its attention to detail; from the Native American leader who speaks French, to the mewling recently orphaned bear cubs on the edge of a shot. This is a bold, brave, and thoughtful cinematic epic, and it further cements Iñárritu as an auteur willing to take risks in pursuit of his art.

Birdman in the Wild West

Iñárritu’s fingerprints are all over The Revenant. The camera movement seen in Birdman is toned down, restrained, but no less distinctive. Coupled with a drum heavy soundtrack, it’s clear that Iñárritu is establishing his distinctive brand of film making, further honing it to find the best balance between style and clarity.

The Revenant is harrowing, bold, eerie, brave, and sprawling. It doesn’t always work, sometimes it loses its focus, but the performances are outstanding, the visuals beautiful, and the setting stark, cold, and cruel. When put together, it becomes Iñárritu’s opus; an ambitious film reminiscent of Herzog’s and Malick’s work, but unique with its all star performances, and its uncompromising commitment to tell its story.

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