After winning every award imaginable for 2014’s Birdman, director Alejandro G. Iñárritu quickly got himself out to Canada for 9 months to film the gorgeous and gritty The Revenant, an adaptation of a novel inspired by an infamous frontier true story. Iñárritu brings Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy along for the cold and wet ride, crafting an epic that plays with our perceptions of cinematic survivalism by putting us through the wringer in an intense and minimalist big budget arthouse-inspired film.
To set the scene, The Revenant follows the survivalist adventure of Hugh Glass, a true life explorer, trapper and frontier-man who has become famous for the bear attack that he miraculously lived through. The film quickly throws the viewer into Glass’s journey by having him fight off Arikara attackers in the opening breathes and never relents from there, as Glass is left for dead by his party and struggles his way through the wilderness seeking revenge on those that have wronged him and those he loves.
It is immediately clear that Iñárritu is not interested in making your regular $135 million film about survival. For the most part he has crafted a beautifully haunting film, as it is packed with many breathless shots of the surreal backcountry of North Dakota, allowing the audience to fully appreciate and accept the tough journey that lies ahead of Glass. Iñárritu’s use of quiet and still cinematography to achieve the sparseness of the environment is the best aspect of his otherwise incoherent direction, which weaves many different filmmaking styles and attitudes together. From extreme close-ups, to one-takes, to allowing the camera to become a part of the scene – the direction simultaneously wants to suck us in and push us away.
There is another story of survival within The Revenant, it’s how the actors deliver outstanding work despite Iñárritu’s somewhat clumsy direction. Leonardo DiCaprio is determined, quiet, focused, physical and anger-filled through every cold moment. The physicality of the role shows a side to DiCaprio we haven’t seen before, as he is forced to crawl (oddly in the same style as Justin Long in Tusk) scene after scene, through snow and water, whilst acting with only his facial expressions due to a lack of voice and being hindered by limited muscle movement. It might not be as indepth immersion as Jordan Belfort, but it is so physically demanding and intense that questioning whether it is a good Leo performance shouldn’t exist, we should merely be in awe at how routinely incredible he is. Tom Hardy is quite amazing too as he broods and mumbles his way through his villainous role, showing a different kind of survival in a time where everybody was just trying to stay alive.
One issue that stood out the more I learnt about Hugo Glass is that the film has a scope problem. Whilst it is easy to fully understand and appreciate the vastness the film is displaying, Iñárritu and co-screenwriter Smith struggle to convey just how huge Glass’s experience was. Glass’s real-life 360 kilometre crawl and hobble fight seems a lot larger than that within the film, in fact it seems like he is traveling merely a few kilometres. Admittedly there are no easy ways to achieve this, but when your film is about an epic 360 km journey, there needs to be some effort made to show how large that journey is. Thankfully Lubezki’s cinematography succeeds in showing the extremeness of the environment, which goes a long way in reducing the impact of the limited scope.
The minimalism of the plot and development results in a film that requires the viewer to engage with the performances that are put in front of them, which thankfully is pretty easy. DiCaprio and Hardy provide fantastic adversaries, with DiCaprio going full-method in his enduring and intense role. Iñárritu’s direction leaves a lot to be desired, and you get the hint the reshoots may have sanitised or tweaked his original vision, but he still pieces together a coherent experience – and is aided dutifully by Lubezki and Mirrione, who respectively make the film gorgeous and find the energy within it. Ultimately though, despite some outstanding production work, The Revenant is a performance piece more than anything else, and that is a little disappointing all things considered.