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Monday, September 20, 2021

The Revenant, a triumph of filmmaking

TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX
TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s violent vision of the American West

Academy Award-winning director Alejandro González Iñárritu pares the violent history of the American West down to its essence in The Revenant. The film stars a bedraggled Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass, an American frontiersman left for dead by his men after being severely mauled by a grizzly bear. It’s this act of bloodshed among many that defines Iñárritu’s expertly restrained story of revenge and survival.

This work puts on full display Iñárritu’s understanding of how violence begets more violence. From the first battle — an ambush on Glass’ hunting party by Akira Indians — there is no instance of fighting, against humans or otherwise, that doesn’t cast a long shadow.

Glass’ trappers are a motley crew, but well-cast for their roles. Domhnall Gleeson gives a smart portrayal of Captain Andrew Henry, a man constantly faced with difficult moral questions. Henry finds himself leading a team that is smaller and more prone to internal conflict after the Akira Indian attack. John Fitzgerald, played by Tom Hardy, fans the flames the most, advocating for the team to abandon an injured Glass. After a botched murder attempt on Glass’ life, Fitzgerald ultimately abandons him, leaving him at the hands of Indians, Frenchmen and nature alike. It’s a largely silent, humorless struggle against these forces, as Glass crawls and fights his way from one scanty shelter to the next. Companionship, where it exists, is short-lived: the film is a classic Western in its affirmation of the individual’s spirit.

The Revenant, which was adapted from Michael Punke’s 2002 novel, makes full use of the ambiguities surrounding the historical Hugh Glass. Picking up on one widely spread, but contested belief, Iñárritu makes his Glass the father of Hawk, an adolescent Pawnee boy. By involving Hawk in the story, Iñárritu tasks his leading man with the job of negotiating the emotional strains of two worlds. DiCaprio occupies both convincingly. As a man seeking revenge, he is seething, literally foaming at the mouth. It’s this stony persona that allows him to endure two hundred miles of unforgiving terrain as he pursues Fitzgerald.

But it’s the frantic way DiCaprio portrays Glass’ love for his son that earns him sympathy. His acute awareness that as a Pawnee, Hawk will be viewed as a savage, and not as a person, redeems him more than any brutal act of revenge. We can forgive him for being a cutthroat in his struggle to guide his son through a world that is increasingly inhospitable to all Indians.

These questions of identity are the most timely issues raised by the film, though Iñárritu does not make them his main focus.

That rests instead in Glass’ single-minded pursuit of Fitzgerald. Questions about who gets to enact revenge (Men or ‘the Creator’) are purposively left unanswered. But it’s clear that if left to men, any vengeance will involve bloodletting.

Iñárritu knows how to walk the fine between necessary and gratuitous violence. It’s an important ability, considering how inherent fighting is to this story. The camera doesn’t revel in the most gruesome moments as much as it just goes along with them. The long tracking shot of the first battle depicts scalped heads, pierced throats and impaled animals, but they enter and exit the frame in a smooth, objective way. It’s a kind of hyper-documentary style that watches like an extremely polished stream of consciousness. Set to a low-key, beating score, it’s a visual experience hard to forget.

Thanks to the sure-footed guidance of Emmanuel Lubezki, Iñárritu’s Academy Award-winning cinematographer, The Revenant is as mesmerizing as it is violent.

Lubezki took on the immense challenge of shooting the film exclusively in natural light. That decision, along with a major absence of computer generated imagery, adds The Revenant to a genre of filmmaking primarily concerned with reproducing reality. Blue skies are washed out in light, lending to a color scheme that abounds in granite, ice-water and smoke. The remote Canadian and Argentinian wildernesses where the film was shot contributed to a grueling production process that’s drawn comparisons to the filming of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Sets were damaged. Makeup spoiled. A handful of the crew members quit or were fired. But the result on-screen is a sharp relief of some of the most beautiful scenery on film this year.

Its literary equivalent may be Heart of Darkness. Joseph Conrad’s grip on the literary medium allowed him to turn a simple adventure plot into an epic on the amoral, racist reality of nation-building. Iñárritu does the same with Glass, a man whose focus on Fitzgerald singularly defines the film and the era it’s set in. And, like Conrad’s efforts to portray the African Interior, Inarritu strips his own craft down to its essentials in order to portray how stark and dangerous the Great Plains were to its occupants.

The Revenant stumbles only when it tries to deal squarely with a sense of mythology. Flashbacks depicting Glass’ wife give him something of a backstory, but with the film already over two and a half hours, these scenes seem expendable. They’re a bit too surreal, needlessly confusing the narrative in places they appear. It’s easy to see how Iñárritu could cut them, and still preserve the grandiosity and mystery that makes this film one of the year’s best.

WRITTEN BY: Eli Flesch – arts@theaggie.org

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