Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2015, USA
‘The Revenant’ is as much a box-of-tricks as Alejandro Iñárritu’s previous critic-pleaser ‘Birdman’, but it’s a box-of-tricks designed to win over a viewer like me. The unwavering long takes… repeatedly I found myself thinking Wait – this is a single shot! And it hasn’t finished yet… The camera moves from participant to participant in the opening camp raid, for example, and it doesn’t break. Then it goes underwater to follow a near-drowning and then back up again without cutting away. Long takes like this are showboating but also exemplary cinema. I am always a sucker for them.
The fact that this is supposedly based on the true story of frontiersman Hugh Glass is much touted, but of course one must always take such claims with a pinch of salt. It seems that Based on a True Story is equated with depicted truth and, maybe, a superior narrative. But this is rarely that case because films are fabrications and they have the habit of making the truth a pliable thing: they use oppressions, elaborations and omissions, usually not giving the complex truth at all and aggravating those well versed in it. For example, apparently Hugh Glass did not have a son. Besides, this true tale is surely just a framework to dazzle with cinema rather than narrative, although one can see why the idea of this tale is compelling.
And then the bear attack. I thought perhaps they had blown a trump card by featuring it in the trailer. The trailer that baffled me at first and then slowly got me more-and-more intrigued. But the trailer does not prepare you for the length and execution of the bear attack. About halfway through the scene, I realised my jaw had dropped. So smitten was I with this scene that at first I wondered if it was setting a precedent for CGI in narratives, the interaction between the artificial and real actors. But then of course I came to my senses and remembered that we had Richard Parker from ‘Life of Pi’ and it is probably easy to forget that almost the entirety of ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ was a CGI animal showcase. Or even 'Paddington'. But yes, the bear attack in ‘The Revenant’ is an exceptional special-effects sequence. This is not the only jaw-dropper, but it probably tops all the others the film offers.
And of course the film’s length and slender narrative will cause criticism, but there is always another visual jaw-dropper around the corner. It is fuelled by ambience, showstoppers and themes. The length and episodic tribulations are narratively coherent when the theme is given as only God decides when vengeance is over. In this sense, DiCaprio’s defeating death multiple times puts him in some way as God’s envoy, or at least under some Divine protection until he has completed vengeance (and what this says about God is another discussion). And there is the moment when Hardy/Fitzgerald states that there is nothing else to him but the identity his work gives him, which furthers the questions of what makes a man. But the film squarely puts the revenge fantasy centre-forward and that is always popular in American cinema. The film in not really interested in skewering this theme, just impressive rendering.
And of course, it has to be noted that this is a Boy’s Own Adventure so no real room for womenfolk, except in Terence Mallick-y maternal and floating form. And speaking of Glass’ dreams: the pile of skulls may be impressive production design work from Jack Fisk, for example, but it’s not original symbolism (even if justifiable as rendering the limits of Glass’ imagination). As such, these excursions into dreams are the least convincing aspect of the adventure, even if the try to colour Glass with some softness against the relentless theme of revenge. It also nods to the villainy of colonialism and the savagery and nobility of colonialists and natives alike, but these are more asides, gesturing to a more complex humanity that Glass is forgoing on his quest.
Tom Hardy swings from being impressively sullen to scenery chewing, often at the same time: at least these tendencies are fused here unlike ‘Legend’ where, playing both the Kray twins, one could see his tendency between both brilliance and gimmicks. He seems to be trying to trump Jeff Bridges and Nick Nolte for occasionally incomprenhisble mumbling accent. Quietly, Will Poulter steals the film by getting on and not trying to show off, using his vulnerability to make an impression at odds with the other heavyweights. And of course, DiCaprio’s physical trials in this role will demand accolades – he looks so obviously like he’s suffering!
S. Craig Zahner, the director of another exceptional western ‘Bone Tomahawk' really doesn’t like ‘The Revenant’:
"I certainly hope there’s going to be a western resurgence. My view on it is, The Revenant got made, Leonardo DiCaprio is a huge star and Inarritu is a big director. I think that movie is probably the single worst movie I’ve seen in the last five years and just totally empty and terrible and didactic. And it’s just awful—lacking humor and characterization, and anything I ever want to see in a movie. But that movie got made because there are two powerhouses there."
But ‘The Revenant’ isn’t about humour and characterisation (which both feature strongly and impressively in ‘Bone Tomahawk’). It’s about a world with the humour sucked out and reduced to survival and retribution and state-of-the-art film making. And the magic-hour vistas are just the start.