Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu is one of those rare talents who is able to fuse art and entertaining cinemas together and come up with films that are highly satisfying as a movie watching experience and likewise can be behold as pieces of masterfully crafted art. Babel was my first Iñárritu film and I still have it fresh in my memory. The fact that I watched it almost 5-6 years back and still remember it scene for scene clearly underlines the director’s success in telling a story. Last year’s Birdman was another revelation and turned out to be a kind of film that could be enjoyed and interpreted at varied levels. With The Revenant, he is making a foray into the done to death revenge genre and I was particularly interested to see what new he could possibly bring to this genre.
The story is loosely based on the life of a frontiersman Hugh Glass, who while on an expedition to trap fur was abandoned by his mates and left for dead after he was brutally attacked by a grizzly bear. Glass survived and made his way back to his company and was almost on the verge of extracting revenge but didn’t do so just so that he could live in peace with his son and not have to bear the punishment that comes with killing men. In his film, Iñárritu dramatizes this story to a great extent by showing us that Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is not only abandoned by his team member Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Bridger but Fitzgerald also goes to the extent of killing Glass’ son when he tries to save his father from being murdered by him. Glass watches helplessly as the only thing he cherishes in the world is taken away from him in a matter of moments.
Thus a story which was essentially about survival is turned on its head and becomes one of revenge. Glass’ return from the dead is not so much about his desire to live but about his desire to live for extracting revenge on the men who destroyed his life for no reason. During the course of the story, Glass meets an Indian who is also looking for his missing daughter and unknowingly helps him to get his daughter back. This is a key development in the story as right from the beginning the film shows a blood feud between the fur trappers and the Indians. But by showing them both equally vulnerable when their children are at stake, the director masterfully draws a line drawing a parallel between the two.
The Revenant doesn’t have much in terms of story but I believe that serves the film well. It is a deeply affecting experience as the film toggles between realism and surreal. The film starts off with one of the most sensational action sequences of recent times when the fur trappers are attacked by the Indians and they are forced to flee into the wilderness. This sequence is sensational in more ways than I can possibly explain. The natural lights, the cinematography and the action choreography have to be seen to be believed. There are no quick edits to unsettle your senses, the camera lurks on particular entities long enough giving you close-ups, wide shots and medium shots of the men so as to convey their emotions. The way the camera sways is another think to revel at.
Once the men escape and land up in the forest, we are set up for the much talked about bear sequence. I will not spoil it by speaking a word about it, but I have to say that it is one of the scariest and one of the most gruesome animal attack sequences I have ever seen. The amount of realism and grit that went into it was phenomenal. Again the cinematography enhances the sequences by taking close-ups and filling the frames with the animal as well as close-ups of DiCaprio’s face as he is being picked apart. He somehow survives the attack but then he has to face off against Fitzgerald, a man who along with Bridger and Glass’ son is left behind by the company to see Glass till his end. Fitzgerald is too impatient to wait and keeps urging Glass to let him euthanize him. But when Glass’ son intervenes, he swiftly kills him and scares Bridger into leaving Glass and escaping.
The film then alternates between a “surrealistic” and “struggle for existence” mode as Glass miraculously starts gaining his health back. He is aided by an Indian who heals him to an extent after which he can actually stand up. He constantly keeps seeing his dead wife and sons as visions pulling him up at critical junctures when his moral or willingness to go along sags. Fitzgerald and Bridger on the other hand struggle on their own but reach a fort where they collect their rewards for watching over Glass, who they tell the captain, is dead. There are moments when I just hated Tom Hardy. His act as the ruthless Fitzgerald is not only believable but deeply affecting. You just want him to get caught and made to suffer. Therein lies Hardy’s greatest triumph as his act extracts emotions.
DiCaprio is consistently brilliant. He doesn’t speak much for most of the film after the bear attack and yet his act is so immersive and captivating that you will find it difficult to take your eyes off him. He not only emotes through his eyes and expressions but makes you care for his character. He was married to an Indian and has a son who is half breed. He tries to blend in with the rest and be invisible and still is horribly wronged by Fitzgerald after saving the whole company from the bear. These things contribute into making his character endearing and makes the audience want him to get his revenge. Will Poulter plays Bridger with conviction. He is deeply conflicted man torn between his goodness and his inability to hold his own in front of men with greater physical prowess.
Iñárritu interweaves a number of subplots namely one involving an Indian leader searching for his daughter, a Frenchman trading with the Indians in weapons and horses and another Indian who is travelling to avenge his fallen comrades. All these people cross path with Glass in his epic journey to find revenge. The film’s cinematography is probably the best that I have seen all this year. Each and every frame is a piece of art. Emmanuel Lubezki turns the screenplay into a visual poetry with his sensitive understanding of the material. He uses angles, movement, close-ups, pull backs and tracking shots to provide a lucid and organic movement of the viewpoint through which the film is seen. The action sequences are electric. The surreal sequences are stunning and even the lesser shots involving as much as men talking are handled in a manner which is visually enthralling.
The editing of the film is in strong keeping with the material. There are plenty of long takes wherein the shot continues from one standpoint and ends up in another without any cuts. One example of this is the scene where Glass is resting and is suddenly attacked by the Indians. He is shown getting up from the ground, climbing his horse and riding away and then falling into a huge ditch. This sequence unfolds in all but two cuts thereby allowing the viewer to experience the intensity of the first hand viewing experience. It’s shot almost as though from the POV of a rider moving along with Glass. I was particularly floored by the way the action sequences were edited in this film. Having said that, the rest is just as amazing as the action sequences in itself.
The sound design is exquisite. The bear sequence is an example of how authentic they have been able to keep the sound design. The distress of the bear is depicted with its heavy breathing which I came to know was taken from the labored breathing of a horse and replaced with that of the bear. When you hear it, you wouldn’t doubt it for a second. The way the film is shot allows the sound department to bring in those nuances which is generally lost under the influence of a jarring background score. The film has a great and haunting background score too but it is used sparingly and almost always to heighten the feel of the emotions of the character. The feel and design of the film is so authentic that I couldn’t put my finger on a single prop that felt out of place. Ditto can be said about the costumes.
Overall, The Revenant is a piece of art. Iñárritu makes one film a year and makes it so well that it sweeps the academy and the audiences off their feet. This year looks no different. I have a strong feeling that this will be another clean sweep at the Oscars. Leonardo DiCaprio might just win that elusive best actor Oscar this year. The Revenant is one of my most favorite films of 2015 for the entertainment value and the sheer beauty it brings to the table. Every viewer will find his or her own reason to fall in love with this film and that’s what makes it so great.