González Iñárritu taps into an exploration of nature as chaos that would be familiar to fans of Werner Herzog.
A quiet beauty lurks in the gory depths of The Revenant, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s visceral take on the legend of Hugh Glass, the fur trapper who was left for dead by his comrades and then dragged himself miles to exact his revenge. González Iñárritu is not a director known for subtlety. His morose Biutiful and ham-fisted Birdman were pretentious slogs, and even his better, earlier films such as Amores Perros and Babel suffered from self-importance.
The Revenant is certainly as morose as anything in the Mexican director’s filmography, but its magnificence transcends its violent nature. Beginning with an intense Indian attack on Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his fellow fur trappers, The Revenant sets the stage early with its unrelenting gruesomeness. This is no Romanticized Old West here. The woods are a place filled with danger and death.
DiCaprio has been on a run lately with great performances, including one of his best in The Wolf of Wall Street a few years ago where the actor proved he could even do physical comedy. However, nothing compares to the physicality required of DiCaprio for his role here. Mauled by a bear, buried alive and left in the freezing wilderness, DiCaprio is forced to survive as he makes his way back to civilization, battling not only the elements, but rival French trappers and a pissed off band of Indians.
Hugh Glass’ tale is filled with the three great themes of storytelling: man vs. nature, man vs. man and man vs. himself. Keeping Glass alive is his single-minded desire for revenge on John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), the man who left him for dead. González Iñárritu and co-writer Mark L. Smith have upped the stakes here, embellishing Glass’ story by giving him a half-Native American son, which shades the story with even more emotional resonance.
The Revenant is at its best when it remains grounded in the corporeal. González Iñárritu indulges in dream sequences that play not unlike some of the more abstract moments of Biutiful. They are gorgeous but really don’t add much to the film. But that doesn’t really matter since González Iñárritu tapped Emmanuel Lubezki as his DP. Quentin Tarantino may have resurrected 70mm for his Roadshow version of The Hateful Eight, but if any film deserves the glory of the big screen, it’s The Revenant. Shot mostly outdoors and using only natural light, this is easily one of the most beautiful films in recent memory.
González Iñárritu taps into an exploration of nature as chaos that would be familiar to fans of Werner Herzog. The majesty of the mountains is a cruel place where humans dare not (and should not) go, and those who do will reap the awful rewards of their folly. It is foolish for man to believe he can tame the elements and hack back the tendrils of Mother Nature. But we still try.
Why would you want to endure two-plus hours of DiCaprio bleeding and gasping? What separates The Revenant from torture porn? Although he often overreaches, González Iñárritu does have a vision, albeit a dark one. Even when his films fail, they are still interesting. By pairing with one of the best working actors (something González Iñárritu has done in prior films with Javier Bardem and Sean Penn), the director is able to pull off his loftier notions this time.
In the opening moments of Kill Bill, Tarantino cites that age-old Klingon proverb about revenge being a dish best served cold. Nothing is more apt than that maxim when it comes to The Revenant. We want to see Hugh Glass scuttle his way back and execute the man who did him wrong. It’s a classic storytelling convention, one that has been employed since the dawn of moviemaking, that slaking of vengeance. It’s just that González Iñárritu finds a way to make it look so beautiful.