The Revenant, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s aggressively masterful new wilderness epic, is the true definition of a consummate big-screen experience. Comparisons to Apocalypse Now, Aguirre, The Wrath of God, Jeremiah Johnson, Deliverance, and so many others before it are apt and fair; even after only one viewing, I feel confident in saying that this film belongs on the short list of great, filmed-at-no-expense extravaganzas. So few movies have attempted this sense of physical verisimilitude, and it all registers as a towering work that frequently boggles the mind, and most importantly, shakes the soul. Taking the simplest but most effective (not to mention timeless) of narrative conceits and setting this ferocious story of survival and death against one of the harshest environmental backdrops was a stroke of genius that would make Herzog envious; we know that Malick will be doing cartwheels during the show and after the lights have raised, as this is a film that feels cut from the same cloth as that legendary filmmaker – it’s like The New World on crystal meth.
The Revenant is extremely gory and unrelentingly mean and necessarily violent and not interested in holding your hand and being your friend or giving you “entertainment” in the classic sense of the word. But in ways that few studio movies dare to do, it challenges your expectations, dares you to keep watching, and asks you to submit yourself to a piece of filmmaking that’s been expressly designed to showcase death and suffering in all its forms. Nobody and nothing is safe in this film – men, women, children, animals, the landscape – it’s all there to be destroyed, ripped apart, and shattered. The performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy are both wholly consuming, but in very different ways. DiCaprio is the hero of the piece, and his emotional core can be traced easily – his son has been killed, he’s been left for dead, revenge is all that matters. These are inherent instincts inside of every one of us, whether we want to believe it or not. That this is a true story, all I can say is, good God damn. Tom Hardy is brilliant – yet again – and brilliant in ways that will fly over the heads of many viewers. What he’s able to convey with just his eyes, from film to film, is nothing short of extraordinary, and despite playing the villain in The Revenant, he’s a man of strict moral code, understandable to some degree, which makes his decision making, and finally his cowardice, all the more fascinating to observe. And when the two of them face off in the final act, all bets are off, anything goes, and the way that the filmmakers showcase their brutal face off with one another grabs you by the throat and never lets up.
But the star of the show is director Iñárritu and his peerless cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who with movie after movie, keeps making the case for the label of greatest working cinematographer in the world. And in a world filled with Deakins and Elswit and Richardson and Doyle and Debie and all of the rest of the greats, it’s even more impressive how consistent and extraordinary his films have been. Every shot in The Revenant is glorious; half of the film feels as if it were captured during magic hour, the use of natural light is stunning, and I just don’t understand how some of these long takes have been achieved; movie magic at its finest. Please reflect on this partial list: Children of Men, The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, Gravity, Birdman, The New World. Say what you want about the movies themselves (they’re all personal favorites from the last few years), but the visual nature of each and every one of them has been second to none, always groundbreaking, and frequently spellbinding. His work on The Revenant is likely his best, taking some of the visual cues he’s picked up from his now iconic (and often copied) collaborations with Malick, and infusing his imagery with a harsh sense of the extreme that is impossible to ignore. I can’t believe that Fox put up $135 million for a wildly savage, proudly R-rated movie that offers zero chance of sequels and lunchboxes and toys and action figures; in this respect it’s this year’s Interstellar, an ambitious, auteur driven anti-blockbuster blockbuster made by a singular filmmaker who isn’t interested in capitulating to anyone.
The Revenant asks a lot from the viewer – to remain patient, to witness an unending amount of bloodshed and bodily terror, and to put you in the position of both of the two lead characters, for better or for worse. The bear mauling is one of the great modern CGI set pieces that I’ve ever seen, and trust me, I’m ALWAYS looking for wonky effects or anything to pull me out of moments like these – NOPE. It never happened. It’s virtually flawless, with some individual shots that are as gnarly as it’s going to get. That steam that releases from the bear’s mouth and that mists the camera lens is a movie moment I’ll not soon forget, to say nothing of the bear’s foot pressing down on Leo’s face, claws out and ready. That’s the thing about this movie – there are SO many of THOSE moments – it’s pure cinema, fusing image and sound (seriously, the sound work in this movie is extraordinary, from the diverse score to the perfect use of ambient sound effects) and ideas into an incredible package that feels thrillingly alive and desperate to blow us away. It sits alongside George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road as the defining movie, for this viewer, of 2015, and a work that I cannot wait to see again.
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Written by Nick Clement