Movie Review: The Revenant

By Dan Cava

January 7, 2016

First we see water. A brook running steadily over rocks and brambles. Then we see snow. It’s cold and seems have to been cold forever. Trees creak and squeak, but no birds. The sun glints off the lens, and we are now are aware that this is a movie. The water is still there, but it’s angrier somehow and louder. We see a shape: a shoulder? We hear our own hearts beat…no, those are drums. Now a line intersects the many barren trees. The line is the barrel of gun. Hands on the gun, a man, then a group of men. It is very cold.

The Revenant announces its intentions in its long, unbroken opening shot. As I’m fond of saying while channeling Yogi Berra, it is an incredible example of itself. Academy-award winning director Alejandro Inarritu has something very specific in mind and, if you are willing to go with the flow, you’re going to experience one of the most singular and striking movie theater experiences of the season. If not, well, Star Wars is still around: it’s great, and you won’t have work very hard for that one.

Alejandro Inarritu and Leonardo DiCaprio on the set of ‘The Revenant’ image via 20th Century Fox

But you’ll have to work for this one. The Revenant is a grueling and gorgeous film. Fresh off of his directing Oscar for Birdman, Inarritu has decided to spend his once-in-a-lifetime “next movie” award cred on a big-budget movie art experiment in mixing the beautiful with the battering. The movie is relentlessly cold, unnervingly physical, and openly spiritual. It’s long and serious and, in case I haven’t mentioned it, cold. Some will certainly find it punishing. I found it breathtaking.

The Revenant is not a realistic movie, but a rather movie that is vividly stylized by realism. This is really important, because if something in the marketing line “inspired by real events” or the buzz around Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance has led you to believe that you’re witnessing something factual, you’ll not only miss the filmmakers’ intentions, but you’ll run the risk of being disappointed by movie’s blatant movie-ness. This isn’t how it would happen. Rather, if a grim and hyperbolic revenge fable were subject to the laws of nature, this is how it would happen. Can you see the difference? It’s an extremely specific balance of extremes, and Inarritu strikes it beautifully, constantly letting naturalistic elements intermingle with blatantly cinematic signals. An ancient, seemingly handmade village is warped by a wide angle lens. The camera creeps to within inches of an exhausted man, and his breath fogs up the screen. The wind blows and is filled with voices from the past. This is not real life. This is a fever dream in which the real and the surreal cohabitate. In other words, it’s a movie.

Telling a story like this requires commitment and intensity, the two things that most define the last fifteen years of Leonardo DiCaprio’s work. There has a been a lot of chatter about his alleged desperation for an Oscar, but I don’t think that’s quite fair in this case. Leo has always been drawn to play men on the edge, and The Revenant’s Hugh Glass is just the edgiest role in a long line of edgy roles. Possibly the only other actor capable of going this hard is Tom Hardy, and as it turns out, he’s in the movie, too.  Leo’s silent Glass and Hardy’s chatty, conniving Fitzgerald make for easy opposites and eventual rivals. It’s a pair of incredible and uncompromising performances, mesmerizing as much for their endurance as for their artistry.

Image via 20th Century Fox

All of this hypnotic harshness is presented to us with immersive sound design and absolutely jaw-dropping large-format cinematography. The Revenant is the first movie shot on the new Alexa 65 digital camera, and director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki uses every inch of the screen to encase us into the brutal Canadian beauty. Lubezki is a master at using natural light, and the stark frontier images he and Inarritu deliver are both enormous and startlingly detailed.  The Revenant production is rumored to have gone way over budget by avoiding greenscreen and sticking to all outdoor shooting, and the effort seems to have been worth it. The Revenant is one of the most visually stunning movies of the year.

The Revenant’s single-mindedness is sure to divide audiences. It’s anything but casual. It has bear attacks and battle scenes and live burials. It’s big, bold, bloody, and blizzard-y. All of the gore and grandiosity demand a response. Some viewers will be exhausted, some exhilarated. I was both, and I loved it. A must-see movie theater experience for the sharp eyed and strong-willed, The Revenant is a rare chance to see cinema at its most uncompromising.

This review is dedicated to Tommy Hans, because he reads them and because we all survived, didn’t we?

Star Rating: 5 out of 5 

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