As if it was in doubt after last year’s masterful Birdman, director Alejandro Iñárritu and lenser Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki have delivered another cinematic masterpiece. Here we see them effortly switch genres into an elemental story of survival and revenge.
Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t so much perform his role as the Pawnee-speaking trapper and guide Glass as he endures it. Without giving much away, his character faces more than one situation that would earn him the eponymous appellation of revenant. He is, in fact, quite explicitly compared to another figure who returned from the dead. Merry Christmas, movie fans!
Lubezki’s work with Terrence Malick comes into full effect here, with image after image — breath-takers all — of the natural world commenting on the action of the film. It is only in one narrative turn, late in the story, where I was taken out of the savage beauty of the world that the filmmakers created. Spoilers ahead!
Although the film has more than its share of coincidences, not least Glass’ improbable survivals and recoveries, the only truly baffling screenwriting decision to me was Domnhall Gleeson’s Captain Henry, in command of a full regiment, sets off in pursuit of Tom Hardy’s Fitzgerald with only Glass in tow. You can’t convince a few soldiers to join you?
Perhaps I missed some plot point. Because Fitzgerald stole the regiment’s money, would Henry not be able to convince some other soldiers to come along? Wouldn’t they want to get their money back?
The treatment of native peoples, particularly Glass’s proximity to them, is a bit retrograde as well. Even though the filmmakers try to give the Cree (?) chieftain a parallel quest of searching for his daughter Powaqa, it is short-shrifted compared to even Glass’ simplistic quest to find and kill Fitzgerald.
What are we to make of the ending? As well-choreographed as the fight was, I was sad it all came down to two men scrabbling in the snow. These indians who have, at multiple times, tried to kill Glass, now kill his enemy and leave him be, apparently at the behest of Powaqa. No hard feelings, bro.
At least at the end of another symbolic quest film this ending evokes, Greed, the antagonist and protagonist’s final battle is a suicide pact. We might conclude that Glass’s visions of his dead wife, and his acknowledgement of the camera, do symbolize that he has died at the end. But his breathing continues into the credits, which I read as the filmmakers commentary that he remains undead, a revenant.
These flaws are easy to overlook, since this unvarnished vision of the frontier’s brutality is a much-needed correction to a long-whitewashed tradition of Hollywood westerns. Pelts mattered more than people; rape and murder was commonplace; other races were casually treated as less-than-human; a grizzly bear can F you up.
This film has two long-take sequences that belong in the pantheon of film history. The initial attack sequence on the trappers is so brilliantly choreographed, the film itself never quite tops it. The moving parts to this are mind-boggling to contemplate — extras, story moments, practical effects, digital effects, camera movement. It must use blended shots, yet, in shooting with natural light, how can they even get the takes to blend? Between this and the dream-sequence cutaways, Chivo truly deserves to win his third-in-a-row cinematography Oscar.
Also, the bear attack sequence is brilliant in its own way. The filmmakers must have digitally-enhanced a real person in a bear suit and rehearsed DiCaprio’s reactions perfectly to get such a believable interaction between the Glass and the bear. There are a few moments that are obvious effects, but mostly I was caught up in the brutality of it. And the brutality of it is crucial to the rest of the film, where Glass’ recovery is made all the more miraculous. I don’t know if this film will finally earn Leo his Best Actor Oscar, but his commitment to the performance cannot be questioned.
The Revenant is an obvious masterwork. I can only think that the success of Birdman is muting the critical praise. Time should vindicate this film, again and again if need be. Mark me, it will keep rising from the dead.