Alejandro González Iñárritu is one of the most singular mainstream filmmakers working today. His latest, the much-lauded Leonardo DiCaprio-led The Revenant is no exception. But, has he made any improvements from the pretentious codswallop of last year’s Birdman?
The Revenant tells the story of real-life frontiersman Hugh Glass after a vicious bear attack leaves him fatally wounded. In the aftermath of that attack, he is left for dead by his ruthless comrade, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Glass is then driven to survive by his desire to wreak vengeance upon the man who did him wrong.
What ensues is real endurance test: both for DiCaprio and for the audience. Not only is Iñárritu’s film consistently brutal, it’s also an inflamed 156 minutes long. While the film starts with a frenetic siege sequence as Domhnall Gleeson’s Captain Andrew Henry leads his men (Glass and Fitzgerald, included) scrambling away from flying Native arrows, things soon slow down. And, with a significant portion of the audience (I would presume) knowing the ursine mauling is on its way, I found myself just waiting out until the bear attack. But, even beyond that, the film still struggles to find it groove.
It’s a long while until things really start to click and as a result the opening sections are stagnant and rather dull. Despite the technical brilliance on show, that savage opening sequence ends up being disorienting, overwhelming and taxing.
It pains me to condemn a filmmaking team – ‘team’, because, let’s be honest, what is modern Iñárritu without his superstar cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki? – for trying to push the envelope, but they seem to be going about it the wrong way. What Iñárritu lacks is a strong appreciation of his audience. The most successful progressive filmmakers – Christopher Nolan or even James Cameron, for heaven’s sake – never lose sight of the fact that they are making films to be viewed by an audience, and that the audience always comes first. That’s what Iñárritu seems to have lost track of.
He and Lubezki push the technical-side further than pretty much any of their peers, yet by being so fixated with the process and the mechanics of it all, their filmmaking comes across as self-absorbed. I’m sure that opening sequence is miraculous, but it shouldn’t take me multiple viewings to come to that conclusion myself.
They also don’t keep a firm enough grip on cinematic syntax. They could learn a thing or ten from George Miller, who achieved an unparalleled technical mastery with Mad Max: Fury Road, but who chose to tweak cinematic language rather than confound it completely. In a way, it’s a good job The Revenant is so damn long because, had it been 90 minutes, I would have been well into the second act before I actually got a handle on how this story was being told.
It’s a shame because, when everything does click into place, it’s possible to become so enamoured that all the issues drift away and you almost convince yourself that all the heartache was worth it. But, then it turns out it wasn’t and you’re back to square one.
Similar to Birdman, individual elements of The Revenant are exquisitely wonderful. First up, there’s DiCaprio, who looks set to pick up his much pined after first Oscar next month, and he certainly puts the legwork in. His work here is primarily physical, like so much of the film, and he offers frothy gurns and bulging eyeballs in lieu of eloquent monologues.
Arguably even better is Tom Hardy, who’s finally found a role to match his infamous feral brusque. Fitzgerald, as portrayed by Hardy, is all twitching eyes and grunts, and there aren’t many actors that can compete with his ocular ferocity. Will Poulter is also impressive and Domhnall Gleeson adds yet another critical (and commercial) hit to his feathered topper.
As mentioned before, Lubezki’s work here is undoubtedly miraculous. And, while he rarely manages to satisfactorily blend his Brechtian techniques into the surrounding filmmaking – ‘invisibility’ seemingly didn’t make it onto Iñárritu’s mood board – he sure knows how to shoot the living daylights out of a movie. Some of his long takes (digitally stitched together or otherwise) are immense and the sheer logistics of these shots boggle the mind. Single take fight scenes leave blood splattered on the snow and body parts strewn across the landscape in terrifying fashion.
Which ties into the excellent costuming and production design. The 1820s American wilderness is recreated in all its filthy details, and stained teeth and barren haircuts add a rotten cherry to the top of this frozen cake.
Also, brilliant, and quite possible the most consistently effective aspect of the film, is Ryuichi Sakamoto, Bryce Dessner and Alva Noto’s score. Their sparse compositions are integrated seamlessly with the ferocious sound design. Haunting strings bleed into the frame as driving winds charge across the awe-inspiring scenery and batter the characters into submission.
I realise I’ve left you with a significant number of successes to weigh up. But the trouble is that these individual achievements don’t have a rigorous enough director to draw them together into something truly cohesive. I’ll leave you with this…
Films requiring repeat viewings are all well and good… if the movie has engrossed you enough to want to come back for seconds. And, The Revenant just didn’t achieve that. I’d take this over Birdman, but I’m starting to feel like Iñárritu and I just don’t get along.