The grueling nature of the making of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s latest film has been reported ad nauseum and I’m sitting here reviewing it in shorts in my warm house while eating pretzels and drinking beer. So there’s that. As brutal to watch as it apparently was to make, The Revenant tells the story of Hugh Glass (perennial Academy Award Loser Leonardo DiCaprio), a frontiersman who, after breaking the cardinal rule of never getting between a mama bear and her cubs, is left for dead by his fellow trappers (including stunning performances by Domhnall Gleeson and Tom Hardy) but survives and seeks revenge.
This fairly standard revenge plot belies the true power of The Revenant: you would get just as much out of this movie if there was no dialogue at all. It is that rare film where the visuals not only tell the whole story, but reflect the depths of the film’s characters in a way that words never could. It’s as if Inarritu and co-screenwriter Mark L. Smith (whose other credits include a handful of horror movies you’d be ashamed to even sleep through on an airplane) dug up any old story that would allow Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (whose other credits include too many excellent movies to list) to accomplish what they wanted to, visually. The most ambitious part of this vision by far is the fact that the film was shot with all natural lighting, and is littered with intensely beautiful compositions that utilize the light to transform several scenes, especially the dream sequences, into kind-of moving Impressionistic paintings.
Outside of these dream sequences, however, is a bitterly cold reality. A man is isolated against a brutal wilderness, where the natural lighting instead functions to expose him to us as he is exposed to the elements. Nothing is hidden in shadow, and Lubezki and Inarritu brilliantly mix wide shots and close-ups that ensure nothing is hidden beyond the frame as well. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the battle sequence early on where Glass and his crew are set upon by a group of Native Americans. The battle reminds one of the chaos of Saving Private Ryan or The Thin Red Line (the latter of which was also shot by Lubezki). It is a fairly strange but incredibly interesting bit of filmmaking as the camera seems to be just as caught up in the pandemonium as the characters are; it focuses generally on DiCaprio’s character but many times its attention swings to something else, as an arrow flies across the frame or a horse sprints by. Often (and this is true outside the battle sequences as well), the camera cares less about the main character than what is going on around him.
Expect a repeat for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu as Best Director. Expect an unprecedented three-peat for Emmanuel Lubezki as Best Cinematographer. After its Golden Globes win, expect The Revenant to be a frontrunner even for Best Picture. It might have a forgettable story and be hard to stomach in its violence at times, but expect to get sick of hearing about The Revenant when The Oscars roll around this year. And you better believe it deserves every single one of those awards. In a film landscape that seems to measure a movie’s worth in Explosions and/or Plot Twists per Minute, we need The Revenant and its ilk now more than ever to remind people that the medium was built on using visuals to tell a story.
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Domhnall Gleeson, Tom Hardy