Directed by: Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu || Produced by: Arnon Milchan, Steve Golin, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, David Kanter, James W. Scotchdopole, Keith Redmon
Screenplay by: Mark L. Smith, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu || Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck, Paul Anderson, Brendan Fletcher, Kristoffer Joner, Melaw Nakehk’o, Brad Carter, Lukas Haas
Music by: Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto, Bryce Dessner || Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki || Edited by: Stephen Mirrione || Country: United States || Language: English, Native American dialects
Running Time: 156 minutes
Much like the film’s actual production, the story and cerebral violence of The Revenant are brutal, uncompromising, and unapologetic. My immediate reaction watching the movie in a crowded theatre on Sunday was that this picture was way too classy (in cinematic terms) for a big-budget, wide-release Hollywood feature. I’m sure its stars’ names, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, and perhaps even recent Academy Award winning Birdman (2015) director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, got the dimwitted masses in the door, but I’m also betting that the film itself was far more than most bargained for.
That’s good for me, because The Revenant is exactly what I bargained for. You got frontiersmen and Arikara natives shooting each other in the face with muskets and arrows, Leonardo DiCaprio graphically mauled by a grizzly bear, a French trader rapist who has his balls sliced off by his rape-victim, numerous scalpings, DiCaprio sleeping inside a horse carcass, and finally DiCaprio and Hardy fighting to the death. Sounds about right! Isn’t it nice when a film delivers so spectacularly on the content and tone advertised by its trailers?
It’s strange for two massive, critically acclaimed Hollywood westerns to release almost back-to-back in this day and age, but that’s what we got in The Hateful Eight (TH8; 2015) and this film. Thankfully, both films couldn’t be more different despite both being in the same genre and hitting the standard western tropes. Where as TH8 was full of dark humor, limited to nearly a single location, and structured as a non-linear narrative, The Revenant is a straightforward revenge tale with little comic relief or emotional respite of any kind. Both films are brutally violent, but The Revenant manages to outdo even Quentin Tarantino’s level of graphic intensity. It is an epic western to be reckoned with.
That being said, the standout feature of this film is neither DiCaprio’s strong, silent lead nor Hardy’s memorable, mumbling antagonist, nor even its well choreographed, well edited cinematic violence. The true star of The Revenant is two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, whose dedication to sweeping landscape shots and natural lighting have turned this movie into the best-looking piece of cinema of 2015. As sad as I am to predict fellow phenom cinematographer Roger Deakins’ 13th Oscar nomination (and empty-handed return), I am even more satisfied with the visual prowess of The Revenant. It looks phenomenal. I’m not sure if the plethora of great-looking films this year, including but not limited to Deakins’ work on Sicario (2015) and Lubezki’s here in The Revenant are due to the increasing dynamic range of modern HD cameras, or if filmmakers are simply becoming more inventive. Either way, The Revenant’s glorious cinematography combined with Iñárritu’s insistence on location-shooting makes for one of the finest western landscapes in cinema.
To quote Inarritu: “If we ended up in greenscreen with coffee and everybody having a good time, everybody will be happy, but most likely the film would be a piece of shit.” Now that’s personal sacrifice for the greatness of cinema.
In any case, The Revenant’s high-profile cast, from DiCaprio to Hardy to recent breakout Domhnall Gleeson, are all very good. I could watch Hardy mumble for days in whatever accent he chooses, and Gleeson demonstrates his increasing versatility as a sympathetic leader in this film (in contrast to his Heinrich Himmler impression in The Force Awakens ). DiCaprio gives one of his better performances of his career, though I’d still nominate his role in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) over this one. I applaud him for bracing such brutal filmming conditions, getting down and dirty for his role, as well as performing much of his dialogue in Native American languages. With that on the table, I’m not drooling over his performance like most other critics, nor do I believe he’s the most deserving unappreciated actor when it comes to the Academy Awards — Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt, anyone?
My only significant criticism of The Revenant is — surprise, surprise — its length. I have no qualms with gazing at hours worth of Lubezki’s beautiful visuals nor hearing Hardy’s inane rambles, like I said, but at some point the number of times Leo makes camp, gets ambushed, runs away, and then has to perform some sort of grisly survival technique grows repetitive. The first and final acts of the film are spectacular, but scenes in the middle blur together. It’s not a huge complaint, but it’s worth acknowledging.
Altogether, though, The Revenant is a standout western and one of the better films of a standout year. As I’ll point out more in my End-of-the-Year recap, 2015 has been the year of old-school franchises, genres, and filmmaking trends of decades past surging back with a vengeance. I assume the public’s interest in roaming gunslingers remains limited, but if westerns do ever make an official comeback, Alejandro Iñárritu’s Revenant is as fine a benchmark as any for the 21st century. You guys didn’t freeze your asses off for nothing. To those brave souls, I say cheers.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Lubezki’s cinematography and Iñárritu’s choice of locations transform every frame of The Revenant into a gorgeous work of art. Whether the film shows a transition shot, a pulse-pounding action scene, a pan across a frigid landscape, or the opening title sequence, every frame is a painting. DiCaprio, Hardy, and Gleeson give great performances and showcase admirable action-physicality. It’s nice to see yet another $100 million+ R-rated production. I like this film because I’m a history buff and a fan of violence!
— However… these 2.5 hour productions need to end. This film could have been a thoroughbred stallion if Iñárritu was committed to smart editing. Too much of The Revenant’s middle act replays the same scenario. Some of the dream sequences are cheesy or unnecessary.
? You came all this way for your revenge? Well, you go ahead and enjoy it, Glass; it ain’t gonna bring your boy back.