Published on January 26th, 2016 | by Nathan Raine0
Controversial shooting methods seem to have paid off for director Alejandro Iñárritu, with his new film The Revenant. Maybe we’ll see an Oscar for Leo?
What once spat venom, the saggy orifice of Hollywood is now, almost uniformly, discharging a steady glob of watery bile. Those most insipid, perhaps, are the action and adventure films. Gone are the days of Coppola leading a drug-fueled expedition into the heart of darkness, putting his cast, crew, and a slew of locals through virtual war before emerging from the jungle with a cinematic tour de force. Gone are the days of Herzog and Kinski trapped for months on end in some remote location, determined to come out with a masterpiece or kill each other trying. Today, we have green screens, unions, safety regulations, rigid schedules, actors with trailers furnished with heated toilet seats. Why scale the mountain when we can shoot in front of a green screen at a lot across the street from a Starbucks?
To pull off this kind of film now, the visceral, soul-consuming sort that immerses you in a world where you’re conscious of the agony endured both in front of and behind the camera, you need an asshole of a director whose only priority [despite pressure to be on time, be on budget, be safe, be kind] is what happens between “action” and “cut.” Alejandro G. Iñárritu is just that sort of asshole.
Re-teaming with camera-god Emmanuel Lubezki, Iñárritu’s The Revenant is a beautifully captured portrayal of brutality, determination, and suffering — none of which, reportedly, were in short supply during production. Reports had crew members and a producer abandoning the production, complaints of unsafe working conditions, a hugely engorged budget and schedule, and even rumoured scuffles between Iñárritu and actor Tom Hardy. By all accounts, it was “a living hell” to shoot, the director accused of being uncompromising in executing his vision [shooting exclusively with natural light in the Albertan Rockies likely not help things either]. But if the results are any indication, we’re all better for it, because The Revenant has a profusion of that thing Hollywood has long been missing: verisimilitude. That vague sense that what we’re watching might be infused with some truth; that the action and suffering on screen might not just be performed, but felt. It allows us an immersive experience, something not unlike live music in the way we can respond in an instinctual, human way. This is the glorious note that The Revenant manages to hit, not for a brief moment, but for nearly its entire duration.
The Revenant, in its waste-no-time beginning, opens with a band of trappers ambushed by a tribe of Pawnee. The brutal chaos of the battle is captured in a series of unbelievably fluid long-takes by Lubezki’s signature gravity-defying camera: he threads us through a flooded woodland and into a clearing at the mouth of a riverbed, arrows and guns shots firing in every direction, the camera vacillating from trapper to Pawnee. We have yet to establish any spatial orientation, and the sudden ambush feels like a force of nature in itself — death can strike from anywhere when you’re surrounded by the storm.
It feels like Iñárritu must have opened with his most potent scene, yet from there the ferocity only grows. But his critics [and I’m certainly not one of them] lament this very tendency. He has a habit of piling-on; dragging characters and audience alike through relentless emotional or physical pain, his films becoming something you inevitably endure. For me though, perhaps appealing to my inner sadist, I’m never put off by Iñárritu’s heavy hand, and once again, with The Revenant, he’s guilty as charged. The audience barely has time to recover from the ambush before thrown into the [soon-to-be] infamous grizzly scene. Hugh Glass [Leonardo DiCaprio] finds himself between two waddling bear cubs and the grizzly mother. The filmmakers are patient with the brutality, moving at the lethargic pace as the bear toys and mauls Glass within an inch of his life. The scene is one of the many examples of Lubezki’s masterful aesthetics. He moves the camera slowly and uncomfortably close to the action; the bear panting and fogging the lens, resting her gargantuan paw on Glass’ skull, shredding his flesh with her razor claws, are all comprised of long, unbroken shots, Lubezki refusing cutaways to grant the audience any amount of relief. It seems, after the opening deluge of violence, as if Iñárritu and Lubezki are daring both Glass, and audience, to survive the nightmare.
The heart of the story consists of Glass’ struggle to survive, despite his ever-worsening conditions. After the mauling, the other members of his band forced to move on, Glass is left in care of his half-native son, Hawk, [Forrest Goodluck], a young trapper [Will Poulter] and John Fitzgerald [played by the wonderfully garbly Tom Hardy]. Fitzgerald, who proves not to be the greatest makeshift nurse, fixes to leave Glass for dead, and ensures he’s without any resistance from Hawk. It’s a world without room for humanity — murder and scalping are just an everyday thing. To survive, and ultimately seek vengeance on Fitzgerald, Glass must scrape together an unconscionable amount of willpower. He is fuelled by retribution for not just his son, but as we learn in a series of Malickian flashbacks, prior travesties committed against his murdered wife and family. Fitzgerald seems to represent he who took everything from him, and Glass deserves the vengeance he craves.
Perhaps what’s most impressive about The Revenant is the amount of realism that Iñárritu and Lubezki achieve despite a somewhat contrived narrative. The filmmakers never lose control over the audience or the jolting pace of the film, creating a constant flourish of commanding, awe-inspiring images to tell it. It’s also strengthened by DiCaprio’s performance, who is as committed as we’ve ever seen him. DiCaprio gets buried alive, sinks his teeth into raw animal flesh, ducks into an icy river to escape death, and even strips naked to dive into a tauntaun/horse for the night. Glass is wracked with pain for nearly the entire film, and we feel every gash and wound that inflicts him. He seems to recover from his cornucopia of ailments in super-human time [one of my only problems with the film], Iñárritu acknowledging the conceit in a spiritual/bodily healing experience in a cobbled together sauna. But I’m more than willing to accept an expedited recovery in exchange for narrative progression. And, it speaks to the ever present willpower Glass displays — how physical pain can be repressed, even ignored altogether, through the will to stay alive. It gets at the brutal nature of survival, and although Glass hardly speaks, his slow transition from rotting compost to vengeful ice warrior is, thanks to DiCaprio’s commanding performance, a thoroughly compelling one.
Equally as commanding is Tom Hardy’s Fitzgerald, a man himself victim of some inhuman crime, though, contrasting DiCaprio’s Glass, Fitzgerald seems to have lost a bit of is own humanity. This disparity becoming one of the major themes of the film, Iñárritu oscillating between moments of compassion and intimacy [the snowflake moment one of the film’s most moving] to moments of intense cruelty. Breaks in the insanity give us short, poetic interludes, Lubezki’s camera finding nature’s beauty amidst man’s savage ugliness. Wolves hunt a pack of wild buffalo, moose huff as they cross an icy river, dream sequences connect Glass with his family — these moments feel supernatural, and show some sort of serenity, balance, and restorative quality found in the wild.
The Revenant is harrowing stuff, and Iñárritu seems solely concerned with creating a visceral, immersive experience. It’s film that doesn’t let you look away, that punishes you for the few times it lets you catch your breath. Of course, Iñárritu will face a barrage of criticism from the gadflies that circle anything with award-season success. Some will have a distaste for how big it goes, arguing that the masses will mistake extravagance for greatness, and in turn will translate a payoff with little golden statues. But Iñárritu’s motives don’t feel indulgent here [something he may have been guilty of in Birdman]; all the excess and insanity serves the narrative, he only want to blow the bark off the tree. It might not be a masterpiece, but its worth all the blood, sweat, and tears that were shed both in front and behind the camera.