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The Revenant (2016)
Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio; Tom Hardy; Domhnall Gleeson; Forrest Goodluck; Will Poulter.
Plot: A frontiersman on a fur trading expedition in the 1820s fights for survival after being mauled by a bear and left for dead by members of his own hunting team.
The latest movie from Birdman (2014) director Alejandro G. Iñárritu is making the rounds as an awards season favourite having already won 3 Golden Globes and having been nominated for 12 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. With a star-studded cast and perhaps the most successful cinematographer of this decade, Emmanuel Lubezki, working the camera, The Revenant had all of the pieces in place to create what has become a technical masterpiece and award winning production but may ultimately fail with audiences courtesy of its overly long run-time and slowly developing screenplay.
The Revenant opens with a series of Malick-esque flashbacks and cut scenes, offering a taste of the visual and narrative spectacle that is to come, before transcending into one of the most intense and co-ordinated battle sequences I can ever remember being put to film. Perched in a small area of wooded land between a ridge and the river, our protagonists (notably without DiCaprio for the time being) are bombarded with a flurry of shots from Native American archers as the camera twists and turns to fully demonstrate the carnage and horror of the moment in such a way that it is comparable to Saving Private Ryan’s ‘storm the beach’ scene. DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass then rushes into and through the scene, taking us beyond the woods and into the water, fur in hand. The savage and brutal nature of this opening sequence can best be described by a moment of action that sees a Native American attempting to drown a boy before being shot at point-blank range by a desperate member of Glass’s associates, with everything being shown in close-up with the up-most brutality. But, the intelligent thing about this scene and, indeed, the rest of the film, is that it doesn’t paint a picture of Native Americans being evil or bad, it instead paints the picture that everyone can be bad or do bad things when pushed hard enough; a theme that is ever-present in the film. In this particular sequence, the camera follows a number of Glass’s White associates but also a number of Native Americans, for example, and while the focus may clearly be on the White Americans for the majority of the picture, it is clear that this is by no means trying to capitalise on America’s historical race issues nor is it trying to arc back to the Westerns of an era long since passed where Native Americans were so often represented as ‘the other’; a figure of the American sub-conscious that was scary through its mysterious nature. Instead, Iñárritu and company push the boundaries of what is acceptable to offer a glimpse into the reaches of both the good and evil that the human spirit can go to and-or endure. In order for this to be successful, the film must present a protagonist that is both recognisable, identifiable and ultimately easy to follow and support. In Leonardo DiCaprio, they got just that.
DiCaprio’s performance as the battle-scarred and mentally wounded Hugh Glass is very good and the actor clearly took himself to all kinds of emotional extremes in order to put together such a well respected and Oscar nominated portrayal but, even in 2016 where calls for an Oscar to finally land in DiCaprio’s hands are louder than ever, the actor simply wasn’t quite as remarkable as the vast majority seem to believe. At moments in the story where his character is supposed to be so incredibly malnourished he’s on the border of death, he simply doesn’t look like he’s at that point physically. Perhaps more importantly, despite his character’s tribulations, DiCaprio still has that now typical glint in his eye that simultaneously makes him more likable but also less convincing in such a role, which is a real shame. In this instance, DiCaprio isn’t reaching the same levels I believe he did in Blood Diamond (2006) or even What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), which could prove to be ironic if he finally lands the Oscar his fans have been waiting so long for him to get a hold of. Tom Hardy, in comparison, is sensational as the almost irredeemable antagonist John Fitzgerald. His manic and unforgiving attitude is beautifully supplemented by his dream to return to Texas and hike the hills of his home town, and Hardy plays the role with such great detail – such as keeping his eyes wide open with little to no blinking (a trait of psychopathy, something his character is clearly dealing with courtesy of his inhumane actions) – that he is an undeniable force within the movie from the moment he first appears. Domhnall Gleeson, too, excels in his supportive role that sees him transition from a borderline coward to an emotionally strong and brave character that is vital to the conclusion of the story, which is very pleasing to see as a follow up to his impressive performances in Ex Machina and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
From a sound stand-point, The Revenant succeeds incredibly well in engrossing you in the action and the efforts of its characters by mixing breathing, the sound of footsteps and so on in such a way that encourages you to almost feel the action, but the score itself is not so remarkable. In fact, the score is almost a non-entity for the vast majority of the movie, which makes the somewhat ethereal score chosen less important, but its use and positioning leave a lot to be desired, especially in comparison to the heavier sounds of the action and the overall quality of the sound mixing.
The CGI, however, was sensationally put together and almost entirely seamless. The most obvious use of computer animation in this movie is a Bear attack that ultimately leaves DiCaprio’s character all but dead, and it is clearly produced with the up-most care and consideration in order to fit with the otherwise entirely natural landscape of the movie. Though it is clear, at times, that what you are watching is not really happening, these moments are brief at best and if you do take a step back to truly analyse the scene, it is evident that everything has been considered in such immense detail and that the ravaging of DiCaprio’s body is nothing less than stunning in all of its gruesomeness.
The biggest issue The Revenant has is undoubtedly its run-time that stretches an incredible 2 hours and 36 minutes. Though this is not the longest movie ever released, and even though the narrative called for such a slow building and prolonged telling of its tale (the screenplay is so tightly knit that I can’t criticise it in any way), the movie did come across like more of a task to watch than it otherwise could have done courtesy of its demand on its audience to exert themselves almost constantly throughout its intense 2 and a half hours. Even so, credit has to fall in the laps of screenwriter Mark L. Smith and director Alejandro G. Iñárritu for maintaining such a level of investment and attention for such a prolonged period of time that the movie felt more like a marathon than a sprint, as can so often be the case with movie releases in the modern age.
As was the case with Iñárritu’s offering of Birdman at the 2015 Academy Awards, The Revenant is this year’s choice for those among us who want to see film as art; and, overall, The Revenant is a visceral and almost other-worldly experience that is sure to ask questions of both a spiritual and moral standing, while remaining tense and gripping for the majority of its overly long run-time.