Depending on who you ask, The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu’s sort-of western, a revenge tale set in the bitter, snowy cold) is either the best movie to come out in 2015, or it’s a slog–a pretentious mess of a movie.
Me? I guess I don’t belong in either camp. I think it’s strange that the film is being described by anyone as being overly ponderous. It sets out to tell a pretty simple story and the plot progresses easily, from each point to the next. It’s a story about how professional fur trapper Hugh Glass (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) decided to pursue revenge after having the worst couple of days anyone’s ever had: First, he was attacked by a bear. Then, his son was murdered. And then, after all that bullshit, he was left for dead and partially buried alive and had to crawl around eating scraps of leaves, berries and little bits of already-dead animal that he could find.
The Revenant doesn’t murk up its story with too much else, because not much else matters. There are no silly subplots that detract from the main focus. The Revenant‘s goal, overall, is pretty modest in what it wants to accomplish, and it does that quite well.
Most of what we see is DiCaprio’s oft-tortured hero struggling to survive against the elements. He goes over rocky waterfalls in cold water, he almost vomits eating a raw liver, and he has arrows and bullets flying at him at constant rates. He also pretty miraculously survives a fall off of a cliff and a crash through a tree. At one point, he has to spend the night in a hollowed-out horse carcass.
If all of this sounds hard to watch, it is. It’s a brutal, realistically told movie with an insane amount of detail. The cinematography in this movie is Emmanuel Lubezki’s seemingly nonstop commitment to making leaps and bounds in the field. Just about every movie he’s shot (especially, in my opinion, Children of Men) has been jaw-dropping. If a little cinematography goes a long way, a movie like this could be totally buoyed by it. Luckily, the storytelling has other strengths to get by on.
Sometimes the action of The Revenant slows and there are doldrums, but those never last long. Sometimes the movie takes a moment to appreciate the beauty of its setting and shows it off with crisp, razor-sharp imagery. And when it wants to get right down to it, when its action sequences start, it’s incredible to watch. In particular, the bear attack sequence might be one of the absolute best scenes of any movie to have come out that year. It’s accomplished entirely in one take and it utilizes brilliant CGI and special effects to make it appear as real as possible. The digitally-rendered beast behaves and reacts realistically, and is one of the few times watching a movie that the viewer forgets that they’re seeing something created by a computer.
Another great piece of action and direction would be the first attack, in which the natives launch a barrage of arrows at the white men. Given its long takes and epic scope, but never drawing attention to itself in a show-offy way, I was reminded of the D-Day sequence in Saving Private Ryan. The goal of the action photography wasn’t to say to us, “Isn’t this so cool?” It was to draw us in as an audience and put us there. We were intended to feel each bullet hit and arrow that penetrates flesh.
Like any great revenge story, there is a total amorality portrayed. It never waxes political on the idea of “Cowboys versus Indians” it simply has them as groups that harbor a mutual fear of each other, that explodes into unexpected violence.
The true story of Hugh Glass should be divorced from the film. These are two separate stories. The fact of the situation and the struggle for survival was just a starting point for a story about the limits of man, and what a body and soul can be put through before ever giving up.
The Hateful Eight (the other snowy western of 2015) was shot on 70mm, an archaic but absolutely beautiful format, and it looks fantastic. The Revenant, which was shot digitally and using only natural light, looks every bit as fantastic. Watching both films should pretty much settle the debate, and end with everyone realizing both formats have their reason for being. Film should never, ever be done away with because it can capture something digital never will. And digital cinematography is capable of breathtaking highs too cumbersome for film.