I’d heard both good and unpleasant things about Alejandro Iñárritu’s revenge adaptation, The Revenant. I’d heard it compared to Grand Budapest Hotel in that every shot is an artwork, and I’d also heard it was long and boring. What I didn’t know a whole lot about before I went in was the storyworld. I had a basic awareness of the “son of revered man killed by jerk, man seeks slow and torturous death for jerk” plot, but that was kind of it.
So, armed with little knowledge and a bunch of mixed reviews, I strode into the cinema with a sliver of hope. What I got in return was the joy of watching what was unmistakably the most visually sublime piece of artistry I’ve seen in decades, and also the most traumatising.
The performances were excellent, with Leonardo DiCaprio adding Hugh Glass to his ever-growing repertoire of stunning character work. I sadly am not certain it’ll get him an Oscar, depending on the pool of noms he’ll be swimming in, but boy howdy, if he doesn’t receive recognition for this – being mauled by a bear, riding off a cliff, and sleeping INSIDE a horse carcass (among other horrors) – while speaking mostly in Pawneean dialect (that’s guesswork, I can’t find details about the language anywhere), he simply never will.
Will Poulter, Tom Hardy and Domhnall Gleeson are also in top form as supports, though Hardy continues his fucking infuriating habit of doing roles with accents you can barely make out. Seriously, I only have two major beefs with this film, and Tom Hardy’s enunciation is one of them. I give him huge points for the accuracy of the mid-Atlantic drawl, but shiiiiiiiiiiit dude, the audience needs to actually hear what you’re saying sometimes. It’s sort of key to keeping up with the story????
Speaking of accents, poor beautiful Irish-brogue-Gleeson does not quite convincingly pull his generic-American off 😦
I do also want to acknowledge newcomer Forrest Goodluck as Glass’ half-Pawneean son, Hawk. While not in the film for more than 20 minutes, his broody teenage anger and his connection with DiCaprio was A+ stuff. There is also a moment after Hawk’s death when Hugh crawls to him that is just so fucking heartbreaking, and it is the mark of DiCaprio’s skills as an actor that a single movement can cause so much sorrow.
(I could talk all day about Leonardo DiCaprio’s shithot repertoire and near-flawless abilities, but you’ve heard all of that before. Chalk this one up on the board of his best work, alongside The Departed, Django Unchained, The Wolf of Wall Street – I hated that movie but he was SUBLIME as Jordan Dickhead Belfort – and Catch Me If You Can.)
The friend I saw this with commented that she thought the film dragged its feet in places. I think I see where she’s coming from, looking back, but I really enjoyed the slow burn and the build up of tension. I missed what was apparently a particularly harrowing scene involving gunpowder, fire and open wounds, but it was supposed to have included a bit of a stretch of Hugh’s recovery from the bear attack. Perhaps I just took a bathroom break at the right time…
But the thing I absolutely agreed with her on was the unfortunate way the rape scene was shot (yeah there’s one of those). There is a major moment in Hugh Glass’ journey for revenge that sees him stumble across a bunch of asshole French guys with super useful horses, and a Pawneean girl (Powaqa) being raped against a tree. Now, I understand the inclusion of the plot point, because historical accuracy, but what nobody wanted or even needed to see was a full view of her clinging to a tree as her rapist forced himself onto and into her. It’s not that I find that confronting (which I fucking should because it RAPE), but it’s because these scenes – scenes of brutal violation – can become sexualised by being more frequently and less horrifically portrayed in mainstream media. And sexualising anything, let alone such a traumatic experience, detracts from the significance of its occurrence in real life. Let’s say it loud and clear so we’re all on the same page: rape is not sexy, nor is it EVER okay.
Anyway, I have no doubt it was not Iñárritu’s intention to be a bit shit about sexual assault, but he just needed to lose that one shot from front on, and it would have been… well, not okay, but it would have been better. Slight bummer there, but it’s not an overly long or lingering scene, AND the girl gets her sweet, brutal revenge so at least there’s that.
I also found it quite a shame that one of the pivotal scenes of the film was included in the trailer, because remembering that snippet just before you see it on screen is super deflating. It’s like hearing a spoiler as you walk into a cinema. That was a pretty minor grievance though, and I wanna talk about the best part already!
Something I’ve seen time and time again in interviews and articles about The Revenant is Emmanuel Lubezki’s (cinematographer) choice to shoot using only natural light. I’ve read that this choice (plus general freezing conditions) made it one of the more difficult projects the actors had worked on, and also dictated some of the angles scenes were shot from, restricting directorial choices too. Despite this – and as I mentioned already – this film is one of the most visually glorious I’ve seen, probably ever. The light work is in of itself a cinematic marvel, and my favourite element of this devastating film.
There are three particular scenes that stuck out for me: the opening scene panning up a river and the roots of ancient trees, the search party by firelight, and a shot looking to the stars through gangly tree branches and the tips of a fire crackling at the sky (though Lubezki did admit this was the only scene that used assistance from bulbs.) In any case, every shot was utter magic for the eyes.
There’s not much more I can talk about without getting hugely spoilery, but if you have any mind for intense, visceral and exquisitely filmed cinema, The Revenant is an excellent way to sate your craving. I dearly hope this film is recognised in as many categories as possible come Academy Awards time, but will settle for Cinematography and Best Picture.