Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu directs Leonardo Dicaprio in what will come to be seen as one of the greatest films of this era, The Revenant. It will stand alongside the great directors who have worked on a Hollywood budget and scale, but that have created something far beyond the average. It is grand and daring on a scale that has attracted a wide audience, but subtle and beautiful in a way that will be missed by many. It speaks a language that only some will pick up.
Due to the mass press coverage and build up around the film and Dicaprio’s part in it through the awards season, the back and forth discussion has often been motivated by sensationalist media stories and personal reactions, with all manner of half finished responses. The bear sequence, the bison liver, the filming conditions, Oscar hopes, demanding direction; it has been treated like the tabloid press coverage of a celebrity programme, rather than a film that speaks the language of cinema, and is capable of achieving a deep and personal connection between individuals. All great films do this, they become more than disposable entertainment and will outlive media discussion, until they become something more timeless and longer lasting.
The backbone of the story is that of the legend of the real life frontiersman Hugh Glass. In 1823, in the American wilderness, Glass is part of a fur trapping company who are ambushed by Native Americans. Later Glass is horrifically mauled by a bear, and left for dead by his men, his son killed. He survives to take revenge, travelling across hundreds of miles of the harshest wilderness to find some sort of justice for his son.
What Iñárritu does is imbue The Revenant with many things beyond the simplistic telling of a story. He explores the emotion and the experience behind all of the characters, and to a major degree the natural environment they are part of, and brings out of this something deeply moving. The whole film seems to strip back human experience into its most basic form, the way one individual connects with another and with the environment.
Much has already been said about Dicaprio’s performance, which is perfect. He conveys so many emotions, often without words. He becomes the one individual that we follow and that we connect with, but Iñárritu’s story telling does not completely polarise. He connects you with all the characters. Fitzgerald (played by the appropriately named Tom Hardy), the rough, lower class, outspoken member of the fur trapping outfit, Bridger (Will Poulter), Anderson (Paul Anderson), Hawk, Glass’ half Pawnee son (Forest Goodluck), and Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), the Native American Pawnee tribe, and beyond the characters, to the animals in the film, and to the wilderness itself. His camera seems to have an empathetic eye, we see people as people rather than as simplified versions of good and bad.
Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography, shooting for only one and a half hours a day in natural light, and the long flowing takes that attracted attention in Iñárritu’s Birdman continue here. They are used to great effect. But the camera is allowed far more scope in The Revenant, as if sensing a far larger presence. The natural environment takes over in part and is expressed through the film. There are many moments of subtle editing, and sequences of non-linearity that work beyond a rational level, akin in some ways to the style of films by director Andrei Tarkovsky. Along with this the minimalistic soundtrack of Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto combines natural and electronic, and often builds to crescendos at highly selective moments, alongside additional scoring from composer and music artist Bryce Dessner.
The dream sequences, and the immersive natural environment are the film’s slow and timeless undercurrent, with the brutal violence, the intensity of the action sequences and the human emotion, creating a more personal and connected narrative. The intensity of experiencing The Revenant itself is not something that could, or really should, be described in words; reviews can only describe a sense of what has been conveyed by the combination of sound and visuals, but Iñárritu’s film, if watched in the right way, can have a profound effect and the performances, the direction, the production and the story, have all gone together to create something quite special.