“The Revenant”: A Slow And Steady Instant Classic

Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu became an instant superstar last year with Birdman, the super-limited-release film that opened to PACKED theaters, few as they were…and, as we all know, went on to snag Best Picture AND a Best Director for Inarritu.  That movie starred Michael Keaton and, taking off from Hitchcock’s Rope, simulates one continuous movie-length take.

With The Revenant, I wonder if this will be a signature/gimmick of Inarritu’s: Doing something “experimental” every film.  At any rate, this time, he gives us a movie filmed completely with “natural light”–which means no equipment for brightening things up, short of torches and campfires (and the sun, if you want to count that).

Of course, “artificial lighting” exists for reasons other than “convenience”–and even there, unsurprisingly, this film provided quite a challenge for everyone involved: All the day sequences had to be filled just so…at specific points during the day.  But beyond that…with only “natural lighting” for the camera to pick up, the result is a dark, low-key color scheme.  It almost certainly cannot be used for a film with a “warm” mood, let alone a “happy” one.  For a film showing a man’s environment as biting cold and unforgiving…it’s perfect.  The Revenant is at once a monument to the possibilities of “all-natural light”, and by implication a demonstration of its limitations.  “Natural light” or not, the “day” sequences invoke an unnatural permanent twilight.  Of course, within the context of the “mood” of the film, that’s all for the better.

The movie is beautiful…hauntingly so.  Aside from the wide shots of the land, and the occasional moments of color in the sky, there is the intense poetry of the camera–intimate, vivid, and raw when it has to be.  Inarritu retains his love of LONG takes from Birdman, and it helps with the “you-are-there” realism.  On a side note: This, would-be-filmmakers, is how to do “shaky-cam”–never motion-sick, always true to the intensity of the situation…and Inarritu and his cinematographer only use it when they have to.  The action sequences are chaotic…and delightfully so.  An initial sequence involving an Indian raid will have you on the edge of your seat–at once epic and down-to-earth.

The Revenant is ostensibly about fur-trapper Hugh Glass’s (Leonardo DeCaprio) revenge against John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who kills Glass’s Pawnee son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) and leaves Glass for dead after the latter is mauled by a grizzly bear.  But this is not Man vs. Man; this is Man vs. Nature, with Glass’s revenge quest as a motivator to press on.

In the meantime, the emotional arcs of the piece make things quite complicated.  We go into the film knowing from all the marketing that Fitzgerald is The Bad Guy who does what he does ’cause he hates Injuns.  And so, as the movie begins, we wait for the betrayal…and watch him, bracing ourselves for the inciting moment.  And as we watch…we come to discover, to our shock, that The Bad Guy has his side of the story.  He hates Indians because he was scalped by Comanche.  His animosity towards Glass stems from, as far as he’s concerned, VERY questionable decisions Glass has made lately.  And when the moment happens…while we never forget that Fitzgerald is The Bad Guy, we still–even in that moment–see his side.

Our reminder, however, of his ultimate villainy concretizes in his manipulations of young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), aka the “dye-rect” ancestor of Lt. Aldo Raine of Inglourious B—erds.  For his part, poor Bridger is constantly struggling to do the right thing…and only goes along with the plan because of Fitzgerald’s deceit.

A lot of buzz has surrounded Leonardo DeCaprio’s performance in “The Revenant”–ever since the initial trailers, if not since the initial announcements.  To whit: “THIS could be the movie that gets DeCaprio that Oscar–AT LAST!”

Well…come the Oscars, he apparently has to contend with Michael Fassbender and Eddie Redmayne.  I wouldn’t know about those other two performances, except that if Redmayne DID pull off “man-mode” and “woman-mode” convincingly in The Danish Girl, more power to him, I suppose.  All I know is, Leo did indeed give a performance worthy of the highest praise.

For much of the film, he barely says a word…but he is speaking with his eyes, and his movements, and the grunts he manages to get out as Glass struggles and strives to survive.  He fights, and fights, and keeps on fighting against the forces of nature.  It is Man vs. Nature, brought to vehement emotional heights.  And you believe he is struggling…as you cringe and hold your breath at the pain and agony.  This is, in every way, a Great performance.  There were various points where I sat in awe at how DeCaprio and Inarritu managed to convey the injuries and wounds of the character.  We believe what Glass is going through, and we believe he is fighting to overcome…and we root for him to survive and triumph, every step of the way.

There are two issues I have with this film.  The first involves a joke making the rounds these days about how Tom Hardy is “required” to be unintelligible.  That’s hyperbole, of course…but frankly, his voice in this movie is often very clouded, to the point where I was wishing for subtitles.

The second involves a curious subplot where we follow the Chief of the tribe who attacked the trappers in the beginning, as he searches for his daughter.  While this arc does–eventually–turn out to intersect with Glass’s story…somewhat…the truth is, I was frankly unsure what to make of it.  While the acting is admittedly excellent, the subplot frankly feels like its own separate movie.  At the end of the day, what is its purpose?  How does it really support the storyline we walked into the theater and sat down to see?  Until the connections (finally) occurred, my only real response to it was…mild impatience, as I waited for the movie to get back to Glass, or even to Bridger and Fitzgerald.  And as for said connections…did those moments really need the Chief’s story to back them up?  Maybe they did.  I just don’t know.  I just wish the screenwriters had made sure to “justify” that subplot a little bit better.

Finally, an issue other critics have brought up in this movie is how it seems to slow down in the second act.  Is this an issue?  Only if you prefer fast-paced action to slow-burning drama.  The action sequences are spectacular, but The Revenant is first and foremost a drama of human survival.  Slow?  Perhaps.  It’s as slow and as fast as it needs to be.

Rated R for some decidedly graphic sequences (the bear attack being only one example), a scene of sexual assault (having nothing to do with the bear, regardless of the rumors), quick moments of men in the buff (though not sexual in any way), and language…mostly from Tom Hardy.  At least, I think he’s cursing.

Movie Grade: B+

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