I got an unsettling feeling when I saw Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman last year. Did the director really think scenes he had devised worked? Did no one advise him? The narrative was highly imaginative if over-wrought, but I didn’t believe a word of it.
Nearly all the scenes were shot in a claustrophobic New York theatre forcing a tremendous amount of energetic camera work shifting actors from one room to another, to the theatre roof, or out in the street the camera snaking in front, to the side and the behind the characters as they walk, talk, and hallucinate, all to keep us from boredom. It still won a batch of Academy Awards.
His latest film, The Revenant, suffers none of those faults. The script is minimalist, relying instead on outside locations in the Canadian wilds and a few in Argentina, dazzling images and arresting panoramic studies. Contrast the rugged New Zealand beauty of The Fellowship of the Rings with the fakery of Star Wars. Verisimilitude is a wonderful thing. You are immersed in the film and the drama. Moreover, the screenplay is based on a novel. The result is a truly wondrous cinematic experience of real substance.
In story, a basic one we are all familiar, it reminds me of John Buchan’s last novel, Sick Heart River, the one never filmed. It also has the Canadian wilderness and winter as its backdrop. (Buchan was Governor-General of Canada.) Two men go into the wilds to abandon harsh civilisation. Only one comes out. Revenant is almost identical. That makes it an old yarn oft told. The story, based on a true account, is pretty ropey, but the execution is marvellous state of the art. It sweeps you along from one scene to the next.
John Webster the Elizabethan playwright – seen as a boy in Shakespeare in Love feeding a live mouse to a cat – would have loved the story and its depiction, all that blood and guts, men with arching ambition and envy and a rifle to enforce it. This is a revenger’s tragedy.
You’ve sat through variations on every scene in The Revenant before, but you’ve probably never believed them. We’ve seen a plethora of survival stories recently from Hollywood studios, all with state of the art effects, two set in outer space. What drives this one is hatred and racism. In Birdman you felt the actors were at the mercy of the mannered camera work, here everything coalesces in a seamless, exciting way.
Iñárritu ensures you believe every moment because of two monumental things: the characters are real flesh and blood and the backdrop is real too, not digitalised animation. In great part the honour for the cinematic accomplishment, a dazzling fluidity, must be handed to the photographer, Emmanuel Lubezki.
How he and the team put up with freezing winter’s hell for all the months of the shoot sits at the back of your mind as the spectacle passes, gallops before your eyes. You are in the freezing mountains with the actors among the snow drifts. Your face is stung by their icy breath as they puff and pant and spit out words. You leave the cinema with frostbite!
Let’s attend to that bear savaging scene first. Urban twitter feeders would have us believe DiCaprio was raped by the bear. Really? And its wrangler and crew just stood and watched? Was it not digital? No bear is that daft.
There is a rape scene but it’s carried out on the only woman DiCaprio meets. Actresses groan at the fate of the female in Hollywood. You’re either a harassed, desperate housewife, a rapacious sex maniac, or a hooker. Nevertheless, that brief moment is only one in a string of harrowing scenes.
DiCaprio’s commitment to a role is always intense. When playing older roles he’s not altogether believable. He’s not a man’s man. And if there’s any physical attraction there for women it has to be residual from their teenybopper days watching Titanic for the tenth time. In this instance DiCaprio is perfect casting. He convinces entirely that he has gone all out to get an Academy Award. He might just manage it.
His character has a dead-wife backstory; he’s the old-school hero, robbed of his family, the motivation to send him out on his vengeful journey. His performance is commanding, even when he’s on his back awaiting cold death. There’s power in his transformation from fragile trapper to ruthless killer arctic bear. The irony lies in him becoming the bear that savaged him to protect its cubs. He even wears a bear’s pelt.
Placed at the top of the movie the show-stopping mauling sets Leonardo DiCaprio’s fur trapper, John Glass, on a purgatorial cross-country survival mission through a freezing cold gamut of frontier adversities, natural and human.
The landscape is awash in blue and grey tones, with swirling clouds that finger the pine trees, and slide down mountain sides. Rivers flow but they’re icy cold. You grimace whenever DiCaprio puts a foot in the water. Transitions between scenes are given over to painterly images that any gifted landscape artist would be proud. In fact, they draw you to something spiritual.
Early on, Pawnee ambush DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass and his band of trappers; an intimate and ugly battle threads through the poplar trees, alarmed with brutal incident. In one wheeling and impossible shot, Iñárritu follows a trapper or a Pawnee, then one coming from another direction, and then another still. Death comes from all directions.
With the exception of the Pawnee dialogue, heavy with historical meaning, what’s spoken between trappers hardly matters. They bicker, shout, argue, and grunt at each other, often barely intelligible, verbal jabs we can’t quite catch. This is a minimalist movie. The action is what counts, what the main characters do is important.
The musical score belongs to Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto in collaboration with The National’s Bryce Dessner and German electronic musician Alva Noto. It’s as sparse as the dialogue, mostly a drum beat. And it works, but doesn’t linger in the memory.
Some have likened the film to the work of Terence Malick which is nonsense. That director has never convinced he has a robust vision, or can weave a story and hold tight to the plot. The Revenant is a coherent story, seething with testosterone, shot with confident vigour — there’s not a false step anywhere. The sad thing, then, is that a story garlanded with such cinematic mastery and fine acting is burdened with stereotypes.
Tom Hardy does a poor imitation of the Marlon Brando mumble. And a young actor, Will Poulter, one I took note of years ago because of his odd features, (as odd and quirky as Cumberbatch’s) plays the weak character easily led. It is they who leave Glass to die. It is they Glass hunts down.
Sets, Pawnee and French camps, a fort, are wonderfully authentic, beautifully dressed, filled with impressive detail. Scenes are shot early morning or late afternoon when the light is best, casting shadows, or illuminating a close up of a head framed against a big sky.
Iñárritu, who wrote the script with Mark L. Smith, fills that vessel to near overflowing, specifically by amplifying Glass with a vague, romantic past life with an unnamed Pawnee wife (Grace Dove) seen in elliptical flashback. Again, those images, and sleeping inside the gut of a newly dead beast for warmth, are cinematic clichés. Iñárritu makes them fresh. Thankfully, he keeps to a minimum mystical material that might clash with the brutal story. We don’t need flashes of homespun magical realism.
The film is based on a true story. Hugh Glass did exist. He was a frontiersman working in the upper Missouri river area in the early years of the 19th century. On a fur trapping expedition in 1823, he really was attacked and mauled by a grizzly bear. You can suppose, however, that as others recorded events and his journey, not him, there has been lots of embellishment.
And now to the flaws. Shame the dialogue doesn’t match the visuals. Like The Hateful Eight the film is too long, by half-an-hour, but unlike Hateful it isn’t baggy or self-indulgent. You hold your breath all two-and-a-half hours, experiencing every chilling minute. But I believe its extended length, and a lack of empathy for DiCaprio’s character, is why it’s strangely unmoving.
When you think about it, the nasty people we have all encountered at some time in our lives, those who humiliated us, or got the better of us, or altered our destiny for the worse, don’t turn into our mortal enemy and we theirs. Life isn’t one long bloody revenge. We may bite back, but we usually shrug our shoulders and move on.
The Revenant (a ghost) is a life and death drama. It’s Boy’s Own stuff elevated to high cinematic art. And the film belongs to DiCaprio.
- Star rating: Four and a half
- Directed by: Alejandro G. Iñárritu.
- Screenplay: Iñárritu, Mark L. Smith, based on the novel by Michael Punke.
- Photography: Emmanuel Lubezki
- Music: Ryuichi Sakamoto
- Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter
- Time: 156 minutes.