If you just watched a single scene, or framed a single shot, from The Revenant, you could be forgiven for thinking that the film as a whole was a masterpiece. It’s decision to shoot in all natural light make some of the most immediate and beautiful compositions I’ve ever seen, and next to Macbeth, this is the greatest cinematography porn that was filmed this year. Emmanuel Lubeski might win his third Oscar in a row, and it would be richly deserved.
Unfortunately, that cinematography has to serve a story. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu adapts the true life tale of Hugh Glass and his hunt for revenge against those who abandoned him after a bear attack, which as a story itself would make one of the greatest tales that Werner Herzog never made. But the script makes changes to the story, mainly that of Glass having a native son, that are meant to add to the noble savage narrative and instead obfuscate the film’s tougher moments. With that change comes dream sequences and scenes of hallucinations that seem only to break a monotony a man suffering the worst Aristocrats joke ever for two and a half hours. In terms of the Iñárritu canon it’s the best tendencies from Amores Perros – still his best and most visceral film – and the annoying pretentious posturing that affected much of my enjoyment of Birdman, with plenty of conversation about God and the noble savage that culminates in a painfully bad final shot that I honestly don’t understand what the director was trying to accomplish.
The much touted look of the film is both the movie’s greatest strength and weakness, because every shot is like it; wide angle, dream-like lenses changing from character to character (not all long takes, but definitely a considerable amount). It reminded me of a comment from Heart of Darkness, the behind the scenes documentary of Apocalypse Now, where Coppola says after the first sweeping helicopter shot you have to stay at that level for the entire film (thus why both movies have had notorious production problems). The difference is that, unlike Apocalypse Now, there is a long period of time in The Revenant where the shots don’t convey anything new about the story, about the character or about the theme. As a result it stays in stasis for a long period of time, repeating itself until the nihilistic attitude gets tedious. The wide angle shots of the beauty of nature bring to mind Terrence Malick’s The New World, and the brutal story brings to mind Werner Herzog a la Fitzcarraldo and specifically Aguirre: the Wrath of God. If Iñárritu was going for the former, than it doesn’t have the variety or correlation between images that Malick can at his poetic best, and if he is going for the latter than the diorama like feel of shots actually detract from the intensity when they are used every single time (though this problem lessens as the film goes along). This was most obvious in the instigating action of the son’s death, where I was surprised at just how little impact I felt either emotionally or just in the spectacle of it all
The acting is good across the board, though relegated to archetypes. This will be the film that finally wins Leonardo DiCaprio the Oscar, and the memes will finally end. Beyond it being “his turn”, the Academy loves a physical performance, one where it looks like the actor suffered, and sure enough you feel every hit and stab that Glass receives. Tom Hardy as Fitzgerald continues to go down the rabbit hole of picking the strangest accent he possibly can, but I continue to be more than happy to follow him. The most nuanced performances probably comes from Will Poulter as Bridger, forced to abandon his leader under the pressure of Fitzgerald and conflicted for doing so, and the tension between him and Hardy is some of the film’s strongest scenes.
Iñárritu has never really been a director of tension, but the best sequences of The Revenant are the one’s where he plays on that the most. Although the opening sequence is great – which really got my hopes up for the entire movie – it will be the bear attack that everyone talks about, and following Glass uncut through every mauling provides the most uncomfortable intensity of the entire year (maybe the most intense Lubeski has filmed since the car scene from Children of Men). Beyond that, when the camera follows the masculine clashes of character, like between Bridger/Fitzgerald or Fitzgerald/Glass, moving from perspective to perspective in single agonising takes as bravado turns to pity, is when the film truly comes alive.
But as it stands, like Birdman, the movie exists mainly to show what a technical genius Iñárritu is. It’s infuriating just how magnificent Jack Fisk’s production design is, just how breathtaking the movie can be, all to serve that feels the need to fuddle a simple story with flashes of ideas instead of flashes of truth. For all the talk of the wild, for all the posturing to God, for all the artistic dream sequences, The Revenant is a Western in bearskin clothing. I just wished that bearskin left me feeling a little warmer.