Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

Dec 23, 2015

The Revenant (2015)

by Will Ross


A year after Birdman tickled me with its ambition (despite the ramshackle result), the goodwill that its bombast inspired has faded. Those impressed by Alejandro Iñárritu’s ambitious dogmas and craft but frustrated by his lack of moment-to-moment thematic rigorousness know very well the wishful thinking that comes with each newly announced project, the hope that he’ll finally overcome his issues and produce a great work. The Revenant seemed especially promising, thanks to two things: first, it had a simple plot (a group of fur trappers flee an attack and leave their navigator Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) for dead, but he survives and struggles across hundreds of miles to safety); second, it had a dogma of elaborate, ultra-wide angle cinematography that had both a world-class lenser (living legend Emmanuel Lubezki) and the flexibility to keep it from cocking itself up (i.e. there are cuts).

These central ingredients pay off as you’d hope by mitigating Iñárritu’s more chronic issues (though you’ve probably guessed that you’re not about to read a rave review). Iñárritu’s passion for technical challenges lends itself naturally to slow, single-minded material, where his elaboration on single beats is used to detail the sheer brutality and hardship of Glass’s journey, and the wide angle of the lens captures the full breadth of the environment’s dangers, and the lengthy, roving camerawork with sparse cuts imbue each peril that Glass faces with a sense of inescapability. A grizzly mauling early in the film — which, rather than the opening battle, is the event that incapacitates Glass — perfectly exemplifies this, with the grit of the dirt and the pain on DiCaprio’s face and the unbearable duration of the event all ripping away at the audience’s sense of hope. The remainder of the film dedicates itself to the slow, gradual attempts to restore that hope.

Or so it seems. The Revenant spends most of its running time cutting between Glass’s long crawl to safety and the two men who left him for dead. One of these men, Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), murdered Glass’s boy and deceived his comrade in order ito abandon Glass before the proper burial that they swore to give him. Glass’s sorrow at his loss is clear for much of the movie, but his motivations for pushing through are somewhat ambiguous. They may be no more than survival, and indeed the film points us in this direction with a kind of earthy spiritualism on occasion (one character remarks to another about a time when his starving, secular father happened onto a squirrel and decided that, since the squirrel gave him his deepest need in his darkest hour, that squirrel was God). The film could well have been an exploration of the tensions between finding spiritual or intrinsic meaning in life and the wrenching cruelty of the natural world, but it does not marry this conceit with its overall framework as a revenge thriller. Vengeance is clearly a motive for Glass to go on, but it isn't clearly his raison d'être until the film's final half-hour, at which point it`s too late to fully invest in the film or identify with Glass on those terms.

So, as usual, we have an Iñárritu film that has some central themes that directly connect with its formal methodology, and a whole lot of confused and complicating elements that interfere with its ability to execute on that solid core. Sometimes it works just as it intends, sometimes it works in spite of itself, and sometimes it just fumbles around. A key example to this is the cinematography, the film’s most prominent feature. Lubezki's constant near-fisheye lens choices were reportedly intended to create the sense that the viewer was in the midst of the action. The reasoning stems from the fact that a wide-angle lens requires closer proximity of the camera to its subject to fill the frame (think of a fully zoomed-out camera), and a wider lens can therefore imply intimacy (conversely, a long lens often has a distancing, even voyeuristic effect). This is conventional wisdom, and it often holds true. But The Revenant is a good example of both positive and negative contradictions to convention, since the lenses are so wide that it creates an uncanny impression of physical space that actually removes us from it, and its wide 2.35:1 aspect ratio means that there is almost always an enormous amount of space to the left and right of a shot’s subject, making it more panorama than portrait. In spite of itself, this can work towards immersion; the opening battle is full of whirling details across the frame’s length and depth, and Lubezki’s and Iñárritu‘s control over mise en scène in this and other sequences can be immensely effective. In other moments of both action and repose, Leo is just isolated in one third of the shot, while the world sprawls across the other two thirds, and the emotional intent of the scene takes a back seat to one more big wide image of the environment that starts to lose that feeling of stark imposition after the first hour.

There are, however, a couple of unqualified successes in The Revenant. One is its performances — DiCaprio, Hardy, and tertiary player Domnhall Gleeson don’t exactly communicate vast, unique inner lives, but what their characters lack in psychological nuance they more than make up for with their pathos-laden embodiments of human beings who have been weathered beyond reason in body and mind. Another is its musical score, whose post-minimalist moodiness imbues the soundtrack with expressive textures that somehow avoid mindless repetition. Instead, it offers up fresh variations from the beginning of the film to its end. Maybe Iñárritu‘s next project will be able to accomplish that in every area of its craft, and he’ll finally — ah, shit.


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