When I reviewed Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s oscar-winning Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), I wrote that the director had made “the cinematically ambitious look easy”. With his follow-up, The Revenant, he proves this to be the case once again, whilst making something a lot larger and more epic in scale.
Whereas Birdman was a darkly comic satire of celebrity, largely contained within the walls of a theatre, The Revenant takes us into the wilderness; showcasing snow-covered mountains, forests and fields that are exquisitely shot by one of the greatest cinematographers working today, Emmanuel Lubezki.
On the surface, this is a lot more accessable than Iñárritu’s former offering. The plot, at a glance, surronds a frontiersman named Hugh Glass who, in the 1820’s, is savagely mauled by a bear and left for dead by his group. To add insult to the many life threatening injuries that he has, his Shawnee Indian son is murdered right in front of his eyes. Believed to be dead, Glass has to fight for survival in the brutal and bitter wild, whilst hunting down the man responsible for his son’s death.
So, essentially, The Revenant is a western; one filled with all the tropes you would expect from the genre. Gun-wielding frontiersmen fight bow and arrow-weilding Native Indians; huge landscapes of rock, mountain, trees and snow fill the screen to jaw-dropping effect, crying out to be seen on the biggest screen possible. At the heart of the story is revenge, a recurring theme within the western, and that old school cowboy-type machismo pretty much oozes out of the screen from beginning to end.
However, The Revenant isn’t exactly the type of western you may be used to. It’s far from the John Ford, technicoloured, glossy Hollywood features of old. This is grey, bleak and cold. There’s a lot of blood, a lot of spit and a lot of snot and a lot of teeth.
The film has all the makings of a thrilling blockbuster and, at times, that’s exactly what it feels like. There are some truly exhilarating sequences spattered throughout, with an opening battle that feels like Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s answer to Steven Spielberg’s infamous portrayal of the D-Day landings from Saving Private Ryan.
It may not be quite on the same scale as Spielberg’s iconic depiction of war, but here Iñárritu turns what could have been a typical ‘cowboy and indian’ shoot-out, into something much more visceral. During the sequence you’re transported into the centre of the horror, as a battle of blood, bullets and death reigns all around you. You feel the battle in your chest, you smell the blood on screen, and that’s just the very beginning.
What follows is an intensely painful scene in which Glass is attacked by a bear, that feels so real and lasts for so long that it’s altogether uncomfortable and terrifying at the same time. And then you have the film’s blood-soaked, bone-crunching finale that is utterly thrilling, edge of your seat stuff. So exciting is this final showdown that I felt like I was almost jumping out of my seat, whilst other members of the audience audibly gasped on a number of occasions – although I’m sure that was more down to the violence than anything else.
Yes, there are individual moments in The Revenant which will be enough to keep the biggest action enthusiast, or western fan, very happy. Yet, when you look closer, through the generic veil, it is a film that is filled poetry, spirituality and metaphors. In truth, it’s an arthouse picture masquerading as a crowd pleaser, which may just end up disappointing a lot of people.
During the middle portion, there’s certainly a sense of reflection within the film as Glass traverses the wilderness and if often met with images of his dead family. Whilst I could almost feel others losing attention during this large section of the story, there was enough going on within it to keep me enthralled.
First of all, the imagery is stunning to look at. Whether it’s something as simple as the embers of a fire floating toward the night sky, or something much more grander, such as an ariel shot of Glass walking through a desert of snow; the visuals are remarkable.
Then you have Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance, which may just earn him that coverted first oscar. One of understated intensity, he has the difficult task of conveying a wide spectrum of emotions, whilst hardly saying a word. At times, it feels like he isn’t doing much to warrant all this talk of awards. He doesn’t get a lot of big speeches, but he does put in a performance of great physicality. It’s all about the way he stands, the look in his eyes and the grunts that he makes.
Because of this, I didn’t mind when The Revenant begins to slow down. If anything, I found it equally as enjoyable in trying to decipher the symbolism and metaphors that the film presents, of which there are many. Some are more obvious than others. For example, a scene which sees a naked DiCaprio climb out from the carcass of a horse, clearly represents a rebirth for the character.
In fact, animals and the natural world in general, play an important metaphorical part to proceedings. Iñárritu seems to draw up similarities between man, beast and the brutality of the natural world order. We see buffalo atracked by wolves, a focus on a horse’s eyes just before its shot, and, you can’t help but feel sympathy for the bear that attacks Glass, who is simply trying to protect its own cubs. In this instance, the bear and Glass, who also wants nothing more than to protect his son, are mirror images of one another. Glass is the bear and the bear is Glass.
This is all barely scratching the surface of The Revenant, which has mysteries and secrets still hidden deep within it, which demand further analysis over multiple viewings. One thing is for certain though and that with this, Alejandro G. Iñárritu has achieved what so few many aim but ultimately fail to do. He’s made an arthouse film hidden within a western full of true grit, and, in doing so has reinvented the generic wheel in the process.
The Revenant proves that cinema can be both entertaining and exciting, whilst dealing with something more substantial and challenging at the same time. It’s a confident, bold and brutal piece of work which reminded me of the type of film my grandfather would have loved. I’m not sure I could give it any higher praise than that.
Image credit to http://www.impawards.com