‘The Revenant’ (2015): a Gripping—Yet Imperfect—Frontier Saga


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The Revenant is the highly anticipated new feature from Academy Award-winning director Alejandro Iñarritu (Bird Man, Babel). Inspired by true events, the film follows trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) on a journey for survival across the wild American frontier as he seeks to avenge the murder of his son. Along the way he encounters a host of adversaries- from other men to mother nature herself (personified most poignantly by a fierce grizzly bear that nearly mauls him to death). Throughout, The Revenant explores epic themes such as: love, loss and redemption; the immense power and beauty of the natural world; the violence born by greed; and the resilience of the human spirit.

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Production

The Revenant was largely shot on location in Alberta, Canada, over a period of 10 months- nearly twice the production length of the average Hollywood film. This was due to several factors, including: the diversity of filming locations (a host of different environments were used to express the inner states of characters); Iñarritu’s insistence to shoot the film in near-sequential order (essential, he argued, in order to affect a realistic, emotional portrayal in the actors); and the decision to shoot during the final “magic hour” of available daylight (à la Terence Malick). Throughout the day the actors and crew would spend their time rehearsing the scenes. This would allow everyone to sink into a more “instinctive” approach to shooting by the time they began to roll cameras, during the frenetic final 90 minutes of daylight. Adding to the duration of the shoot was the intensity of the choreography that many scenes demanded. Some of the action sequences took days, even weeks to rehearse- the opening battle sequence alone took a reported month of rehearsal!

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Cinematic Excellence

The Revenant boasts a masterful creative team. From set design to costume, makeup, editing, and sound design, every discipline is adeptly executed in order to transport the audience into the film. Acclaimed cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman, Gravity, Children of Men) delivers a breathtaking visual experience. He shot on medium format (65mm) film stock—several times larger than normal 35mm— which allows for immense depth of colour, light and detail. Lubezki used wide-angle lenses in order to be able to fill the immediate foreground with the characters, while also capturing the vast, expressive landscapes in the distant background. Moreover, the camerawork is very dynamic. The battle scenes are immersive, fraught and unpredictable, like being in the midst of a rugby scrum, with arrows whizzing by the lens and warriors literally jumping over the camera [indeed, the feel is reminiscent of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998)]. Such chaotic, tense scenes are contrasted by slower, more meditative, symbolic, tableau-like scenes, which often portray memories, dreams, and inner reflection. [Note: regarding this point, watch this striking visual comparison between the cinematography of The Revenant and that of Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky’s films].

Throughout The Revenant, Iñarritu’s preference for practical rather than virtual effects is laudable. This is particularly true during the bear attack scene, which seems chillingly real— a seamless combination of practical and digital techniques. I might add, however, that not all of the film’s effects are so seamless: Iñarritu’s virtual buffalo herd falls flat in comparison to the scenes of real buffalo in Dances With Wolves (1990).

The orchestral score by composer Ryuichi Sakamoto consists mostly of ambience and the warm drones of string instruments. It is minimal, spacious, and emotional, reminiscent of the now-benchmark Hollywood fare set by the likes of Hans Zimmer. Whilst epic, I did feel it left something to be desired.

On the level of marketing, 20th Century Fox has released a number of short featurettes online, as well as an engaging 45 minute documentary on the making of the film- a clever strategy to whip up excitement around The Revenant during the pre-Oscar season, perhaps? The film did receive a staggering 12 Oscar nominations, including nominations for Best Actor, Best Script, as well as a nomination in the most-coveted Best Picture category. Kudos.

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Critique

However, for all it’s cinematic triumphs, Iñarritu’s The Revenant is not without flaw. The emotional heart of the story revolves around the filial love between Glass and his son, Pawnee- a bond that is unjustly broken. The narrative’s action is fundamentally fuelled by this relationship: when the boy is killed early in the film, it is Glass’s emotion for his son that propels him to endure extremes throughout the rest of the story; to survive and to seek revenge. Although there were very beautiful, poetic flashback sequences that suggested the closeness of these two characters, Iñarritu left the actual depth and dynamic of their relationship sparse, and largely untold. This was a missed opportunity, as, due to the lack of a sufficient backstory, I found myself somewhat removed from the intensity of Glass’s emotions. Unfortunately, this crucial omission made me a spectator to Glass’s  journey, rather than experiencing his intense emotions myself. Thus, there was an emotional depth and catharsis that I didn’t experience in watching The Revenant. Contrast this to Mel Gibson’s phenomenal Braveheart (1995)- another historical epic about love, loss and redemption- and one can understand the central, emotional importance of backstory.

Another moment in the film that rung out as a major missed opportunity occurred when DiCaprio’s character Glass discovers the body of his murdered son. At this crucial moment, the audience needs to experience the absolute anguish and despair that Glass is experiencing, having lost what was dearest to him in the world- dearer than his own very life. Indeed, this is the Oscar moment of DiCaprio’s whole performance- the crucial apex that has to summarize a torrent of complex emotions. At this moment, the camera has to stare unflinchingly at DiCaprio, as this is his moment of truthFor Glass’s character, the love for his son has been transmuted into a deeply instinctive, inevitable, and cosmic need for revenge. Revenge becomes his raison d’etre– the balancing of the debt of his own soul, without which he would languish and wither. And this is the moment in the narrative ark that DiCaprio must express this emotion, in order for the audience to be really, truly invested for the rest of his journey. Instead, they sadly miss the beat. No such explosion of emotions. Rather, at this pivotal narrative moment, Glass is somewhat removed, resolved, and philosophical.

For me, this is a critical mistake. Emotional connection and catharsis is the blood and heart of a film. Indeed, emotion is what makes stories come alive inside us. It is what makes us as an audience invest ourselves into a story. It is what makes kids and adults weep tears of joy and sadness when the alien and Elliot are finally separated at the end of Spielberg’s E.T. (1982). This is the ancient power that great stories hold- the ability to burrow deep inside us. Without this magical, alchemical essence, the audience is left somewhat indifferent. We can be wowed by its spectacle, by the art of its creators and the intensity of the performances- but ultimately, without this connection such films will leave us short. And in the case of The Revenant, a film that has so much going for it, this is indeed a shame.

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Conclusion

All in all, The Revenant is still an excellent film. It is raw, breathtaking, beautiful, savage, epic, and largely truthful. It will be a deserved classic with audiences, and will undoubtedly be decorated with several Oscars this year.  Yet as immense and moving as it was, it missed touching the deepest place in my soul.

Overall rating: ★★★★ / 5

Post-Script

As a filmmaker watching The Revenant, what struck me most after its artistic merit was its portrayal of the aboriginal peoples. Like so many Hollywood films that deal with indigenous themes—from Avatar to Dances With Wolves to The Last of the MohicansThe Revenant is fundamentally told from the perspective of a white, male outsider. While one could argue that this is a legitimate device for bridging Western, popular audiences with traditionally marginalized peoples and cultures, I found myself wanting to enter deeper into these perspectives. To his credit, Leonardo DiCaprio recently echoed these sentiments during his Golden Globe acceptance speech for Best Actor in The Revenant, where he called on and encouraged First Nations and indigenous peoples around the world to share their stories, triumphs and struggles through film. To me, The Revenant clearly demonstrates the interest, potential, and need for films starring such great, unsung heroes. Yet making such a film would be in and of itself an epic adventure…

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