Film, Reviews

The Revenant early look movie review: a savagely brilliant survival story

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In a brutally beautiful masterpiece from Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu — the sort of film destined to be debated and dissected in excruciating detail in cinema studies class — star Leonardo DiCaprio never copped it so hard. The eternally boyish-looking 41-year-old has finally snapped out of aesthetic adolescence.
Iñárritu’s hybrid survival in the wilderness story, icy-cold western and hardboiled revenge pic has him frozen like a popsicle. Beaten like a piñata. Slashed like a Freddy Krueger-fondled teddy bear. Playing fur trapper Hugh Glass in a story set in Wyoming wilderness circa the 1820s, DiCaprio gets shot. Mauled by a bear. Frozen. Buried alive. Flung off a cliff. Hurtled down water rapids. Pummelled by snow. His throat cut. Back lacerated. That pretty face mutilated.
And that’s just the first 30 minutes. This epic outdoors adventure story, adapted by screenwriter Mark L. Smith from a 2002 novel of the same name, was inspired by Glass — a real man whose mauling by a grizzly bear and hunger to avenge people who betrayed him is the stuff of legend.
Glass’ encounter with the bear is a visceral scene so realistic it led the studio, Fox, to awkwardly announce the character was not, in fact, raped by the furry mammal. The leader of a US military-led hunting expedition (Domhnall Gleeson) arranges for men to stay behind and look after the freshly snacked on protagonist — but hulking alpha male, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), would prefer to pocket the coin and leave him for dead.
Thus the significance of the film’s title. Glass is an experienced tracker with a half-Native American son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck, playing a fictitious character), whose presence in the group leads to conflict. Glass married a Pawnee Indian woman. Flashback scenes show memories tinged in literal fire; we watch surreal visions of a toothless child and a burning hut.
The Native American characters feel like the key to everything, a way of navigating the film’s cryptic elements. Iñárritu incorporates scenes bathed in magic realism, and while a breathtaking early skirmish establishes the Indians as a dangerous force, their presence becomes complex and even allegorical — elusive emotionally but deeply tuned to the land.
The Revenant has at least half a dozen lens flares too many, as if the J.J. Abrams of yesteryear (the director has promised not to over indulge for Star Wars) snuck into the editing room and let rip. But production values are impeccable from the start: a film that looks like a series of beautiful paintings and sounds like a nightmare. Perhaps the kind experienced alone, under the stars.
At one point DiCaprio, captured breathing in extreme close-up, fogs up the lens, turning it white with his breath. Iñárritu cuts to a cloudy powder-like sky, correlating a single physical journey with natural elements that feel vast and omnipotent. Extreme long shots, which are used rarely, have an almost harrowing effect: we share such physically intimate space with the protagonist that the area around him becomes terrifying.
Iñárritu’s previous film was the awards-laden Birdman. The director recruited the same cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, to imbue The Revenant with breathtaking  long takes. Lubezki is no stranger to holding the frame. He filmed Gravity’s gobsmacking 17 minute opening shot (that film earned him an Oscar), helmed the faux single-take style of Birdman (another Oscar) and several unforgettable scenes in director Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 masterpiece, the dystopian drama Children of Men.
Legendary French critic André Bazin was famously sceptical of editing, arguing sophisticated visual interpretation is derived from single images. Juxtaposition involves meaning formed by the combination of two images which, he said, is akin to a filmmaker holding your hand and telling you what to think.
One presumes the critic would be sent into catatonic despair if he were around to witness Michael Bay’s famously frenetic “fuck the frame” style (direct quote), but maybe he might be appeased by Iñárritu and Lubezki’s approach. In The Revenant every cut feels scrutinised, every movement of the frame free-flowing but fastidiously arranged.
Long takes challenge actors to maintain high levels of intensity, certainly for films as emotionally pressure-packed as this. DiCaprio is outstanding in a role that has him silent for extended periods of time and hurls his body around like a leaf in a tornado.
So, sheesh, maybe the Academy should just give him the Oscar now and spare us the wait. A person’s life might be on the line. If he doesn’t get it for this savage and sumptuous survival story — a great film, and one bound to stay with you — there’s no telling what he’ll do next time.

5 responses to “The Revenant early look movie review: a savagely brilliant survival story

  1. Agreed. A remarkable film. Not since Master and Commander have CGI effects worked so seamlessly and invisibly to create such a viscerally naturalistic world. And that bear attack!? Oh. My. God.

  2. You did not mention the score – by SAKAMOTO Ryuichi (or Ryuichi SAKAMOTO) subliminally dark for much of the time – the same man who composed the theme for the David Bowie star role in “Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence”! But everything else you write here accords with my own understanding. I thought not a dud amongst the entire acting team from Leonardo diCaprio on – and was stunned by the dignity portrayed by the First Nations actors – whether in the brutal attack scenes or that final disappearance as they crossed the stream on horseback and disappeared. Vengeance, revenge, justice of the life-for-a-life kind – almost rendered banal (the viewer suddenly feeling compassion for him and his circumstances) as Fitzgerald offers his reward money as some recompense for his act of murder as he becomes aware of his own imminent fate – and tries to make amends before meeting his Maker…

  3. I’m afraid I’m a naysayer. This movie will probably get an Oscar because it is beautifully shot, it’s edge of the seat tense, it’s brutal….and then there’s the bear.
    But the telling of history and the general narrative is pretty shallow. It always felt like it was missing something while I was watching it. And what that was centred around the marginalization of the Indians and the focus on the white protagonists even though the brutality that this movie is hell bent on portraying grew out of the dispossession of, and the theft from, the native American Indians, not to mention their savage genocide.
    What could have been a profound portrayal of the events about which the book is based, just became another Hollywood tale of violence and mayhem, albeit with the distinctive style Iñárritu brings to it.

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