Friday, December 4, 2015

The Revenant

Breathtaking, fierce, and truly awe-inspiring, The Revenant is a colossal cinematic achievement. Featuring riveting lead performances, numerous jaw-dropping moments, and some of the most gorgeous cinematography of all time, this is a revenge thriller that's intense, immersive, and absolutely one of a kind.

The Revenant
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter

In the 1820s, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) leads a group of fur trappers, including his half-Native American son, through the American wilderness under the command of William Ashley (Domhnall Gleeson). After a long season of trapping, they're ambushed by a local tribe and forced to flee their camp, with only a handful of men surviving the skirmish. As the survivors rest, Glass scouts ahead and stumbles across a couple of bear cubs — and their mother attacks him. He manages to kill the bear, but he's mutilated and broken to the point where he's a liability to the remaining men. They can't carry him across severe enemy terrain, so Ashley leaves three men behind to stay with him until he dies to give him a proper burial — Glass's son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), the young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), and the hot-headed John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). In a series of events I won't spoil, Glass ends up being buried alive and left for dead, and spends the rest of the film trying to claw his way back to life to get revenge. 

It's easy to see why this was a notoriously troubled production. These characters (and the crew filming them) are out in some harsh elements, deep in territory that looks as if it's never been traversed by man as long as the planet has existed. That makes a huge difference, too — you really feel that they're out on location and not safe on a sound stage on a studio backlot. The logistics of how director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and his team pulled this off seem like a nightmare, and I'm hoping someone releases a detailed tell-all book or documentary about it one day because I'd love to hear a blow-by-blow account of exactly how this movie was accomplished.

As someone who didn't suffer for this project at all, I'm comfortable saying their struggles were worth it.

The cinematography by two-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezski would be legendary in its own right based solely on his decision to shoot only using natural light (something else that made the production a nightmare), but it also happens to be the most impressive work he's ever done, resulting in so many magnificent shots that I lost count a few minutes in. Lubezski flirts with the sun throughout the film, with bright rays peeking through groups of swaying trees (there's a tree motif that's thematically important to the story) and some of the most beautiful landscape shots you'll ever see.

Inarritu's last film, Birdman, was made to look as if it was filmed in one long continuous shot, but that mostly took place in a Broadway theater; while this entire movie isn't one long shot, the oners that are on display are some of the best ever. The bear attack is all done in a long take (that entire scene is brutal and beautifully done), as is the initial ambush, with the camera tracking from one person to the next as they dodge arrows, fend off enemies, battle on horseback (!), and finally make their escape. I have absolutely no clue how they managed to pull off these camera moves, but the result is tremendous. And those are just two examples — there are seemingly dozens in this movie. We've seen a bunch of astounding oners over the past few years (the first season of True Detective, Creed, Gravity, etc.), but these are next level.

Inarritu seems like a filmmaker who's very much up his own ass, so I was expecting half of this movie to consist of dream sequences and overbearing, obnoxious symbolism. There is some of that in here, and your mileage may vary on how these moments are handled. I can see how some might be bothered by them because the movie slingshots from being incredibly intense to deeply introspective, often without DiCaprio delivering any dialogue. But because they made up a drastically smaller percentage of the film than I expected going in, they mostly worked for me.

DiCaprio is extraordinary as Glass, imbuing this man with ferocity and determination and putting everything he has into this role. You can sense him going for broke here as Glass spews spittle while incapacitated, desperately trying to stay alive, and this may be the movie that wins him the Best Actor Oscar he's been chasing for years. The movie itself is an interesting metaphor for Leo's Oscar quest: beaten down by multiple losses over the years, he steadfastly refuses to give up and digs his way back with a relentless pursuit of greatness. Hardy adopts another strange vocal affection, but otherwise he's a great foil, an intense villain with just enough of a backstory to see where he's coming from.

There's a lot to dig into with this film, and I may end up writing more about it later on. But in the meantime I'll leave you with this: The Revenant is Inarritu's best movie, an uncompromising vision that won't be soon forgotten.

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