“It was like if an Independent filmmaker was given a hollywood budget” – My friend, who saw the film with me.
Right, I was scheduled to see The Hateful Eight, but due to timing I went to see this instead…Did I make the right choice?
Directed by Birdman and Babel’s Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Revenant is a semi-biographical movie set in 1823 in both Montana and South Dakota, USA, and focuses primarily on a group of hunters and fur-trappers who were scavenging for pelts to sell (and, obviously, make a bit of money). Our group consists primarily of Captain Andrew Henry (played by Domhnall Gleeson), crazy-eyed veteran John Fitzgerald (played by Tom Hardy), the best tracker and scout among them, Hugh Glass (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), Hugh’s Native-American son, Hawk (played by Forest Goodluck), and a young Jim Bridger (played by Will Poulter). Despite the order I mentioned these names, we already know who the stars are. At the beginning of the film, we see a variety of things, such as Hugh Glass’ dreams, as well as the ongoing war between the whites and native americans, as guns are fired and arrows are shot, leaving 75% of the hunting squad with their eyes shut forever. The remaining hunters and fur-trappers start heading back home (a big fort), when Hugh Glass gets attacked by a mother grizzly bear impulsively protecting her cubs, leading to 1 of the most memorable parts of the film. He is eventually ‘killed’ by Fitzgerald, and left to die while Fitzgerald and a lied-to Jim Bridger, who were meant to keep an eye on him until proper medical help arrived, go back to camp, claim that Glass succumbed to his wounds and was respectfully buried, and then receive the compensation they were guaranteed for staying behind – leading to Hugh Glass travelling (literally) hundreds of miles, while nearly dead, back to camp.
In terms of acting, 1 thing is clear – this is Oscar bait for Leonardo DiCaprio, who is still chasing his first Oscar as of January 2016, and has the potential of winning it this February. I say potential, because he might not win it…but he definitely deserves it. The film’s shoot was evidently brutal. It’s 1 thing him spending 5 hours putting on make-up, it’s another that he was swept away by a river (in winter), eating a real, raw, Bison’s liver (Leo’s vegetarian), and a few other scenes that would shock you if you knew the truth. DiCaprio has put on some of the best acting performances in Hollywood over the last 10 years, and this 1 is definitely in his top 3, along with Shutter Island and The Wolf Of Wall Street. Tom Hardy’s performance as John Fitzgerald is also excellent, while at the same time quite confusing. I like Tom, and to prove that he did a great job, I didn’t like Fitzgerald (You know an actor is good if the villain they play makes you overlook your liking of the actor). Due to him being English, I find it interesting when I hear him do American accents, and his accent in this is very much inspired. He said he borrowed it from Tom Berenger’s performance as Sergeant Barnes in the movie Platoon. Which is a pretty good choice for a southern accent.
The Characters don’t go into huge details about themselves, as the film’s focus is much more based on Hugh’s Journey than us finding out what John Fitzgerald’s favourite black metal band was. As far as a journey for a character is concerned, and the roles that the other characters played to either bring Glass up or tear him down, was fantastic. At the same time, every character had their motives, along with survival: As the Captain, Andrew Henry’s concern was the survival of everybody (especially good, skilled men) and the distain of traitors in the name of honour. John Fitzgerald is basically guided by his fears of being killed, to the point that he becomes selfish, and incredibly antagonising. Hugh Glass only has 1 treasure left in life, his son Hawk, and he is willing to keep him alive, like any loving father. Hawk wants to help, and be a man, even if he’s only a teenager. Jim Bridger’s only following orders, and wants to be a good man, even when he gets dragged into the mud by Fitzgerald. And then there are the Native Americans, including Elk Dog (played by Duane Howard), the Arikara Chief in search of his daughter Powaqa, who was kidnapped by whites. She was kidnapped by a French Trading Party, but he doesn’t distinguish them from Glass’ Hunting Party…making it an even more perilous journey for Glass.
The story of The Revenant is an incredibly well disguised “Overcoming The Monster” story, and it takes a number of liberties that didn’t happen in real life, but do tell a more entertaining tale. What is the monster in this film? Well, it comes in layers. Your top layer, the most obvious 1, is the harsh winter environment that Glass has to crawl, limp and sleep through, all while remaining untreated for his wounds. Then we have the Native Americans, who in first impressions could treat him like any other white man with no exceptions, and the last 1, which is the final boss, comes in the form of John Fitzgerald, who is effectively the main villain in our story, even though his motives are based on selfishness, personal gain and survival, rather than a dislike for Glass. One thing that makes this story stand out, is how unromantic many things are presented. The war between the white man and the Native American isn’t exactly the games that the Lost Boys like to play with the Native Americans in Neverland. They were brutal, gritty, bloodbaths, full of death, pain, loss and destruction, with both sides feeling the impact. You can really feel the hatred in the visuals. It could even be suggested that war should never be glorified or justified – but in this instance, neither side was in a position to live in peace with each other. It can also be noted that the film does a lot of “show, don’t tell”, which I thought really adds to the experience. Nothing is spelled out.
The music was primarily composed by Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto (Whose best known song, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, was from a David Bowie film of the same name, and remains a staple in Japan at Christmas time…look it up on youtube, it’s great), with some other music by Bryce Dessner (Guitarist of indie rock band ‘The National’) and German electronic musician Alva Noto…Wonderful! Absolutely wonderful! It’s so unbelievably ambient and beautiful! It submerges you into its world and makes you forget the present day. Along with the natural scenery and presentation through cinematography, in itself, it becomes quite an unforgettable cinematic experience. Some of the string usage reminds me a little of Joe Hisaishi (Studio Ghibli’s main composer), primarily his work on Princess Mononoke. Other times the music reminds me of what Jeremy Soule did for the Guild Wars games. This has officially become 1 of my favourite orchestrated soundtracks ever. I would give it 6-stars if I could!
The cinematography was done by Emmanuel Lubezki, who also worked on the likes of Meet Joe Black and Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, but has developed a particularly strong reputation since 2011 for films like Tree Of Life, Gravity and Birdman…wow…beautiful…absolutely beautiful…Some of the best looking photography I have ever seen in cinema. It’s legendary…I would place it up there with John Carpenter’s The Thing and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. It possibly doesn’t get better than this. It’s also very different in style to Birdman, which focused on being 1 continuous take. I wouldn’t be surprised if Lubezki’s stock goes way up again after this film. He’s becoming a legend as we speak.
(above) To a landscape photographer, and fans of Ansel Adams, this film is practically porn, and cannot be done best with green screen. Sometimes you just need the time and the money to go and capture the real thing, which this film had…or, at least, the money. It sounds like they had to be really smart with their time.
When you read about the problems in shooting this film’s locations, it could be said that how they accomplished it was quite literally a miracle. They could only shoot for several hours a day, and when the snow began to melt, they moved the entire shoot from Montana, USA/Southern Canada to Argentina, where Winter was entering full swing. The locations are beautiful, and the natural beauty of the land in winter became an enormous contrast to the brutality of the men living, working and fighting there.
The CGI was quite evident in some parts, such as the presentation of the Bison herds. But other than that, I didn’t have a problem with it, as I know that animal-rights activists could have been all over this film if any animals were (properly) killed on screen (they weren’t, don’t worry). Also, the way the bison moved on screen would have been difficult to capture (American Bison can’t be fenced in and used whenever needed, they’re too strong). But 1 thing is certain, the physical special effects were amazing, and real-looking enough that you would be properly grossed out in some scenes.
Would I recommend The Revenant? Yes! But it’s not for everybody. This film takes a wilderness survival story, strips it of its romanticism, and includes a violent brutality that could rival Mel Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ. Some scenes are not at all for the faint of heart, but if you can bear with it (see what I did there), you’re not only treated to 1 of the best and realistic survival stories, but also, visually, a masterpiece. This is the type of cinematography that makes David Attenborough’s nature programs so marvellous to look at (let alone listen to). These are the type of visuals that literally make you feel completely and utterly alone and/or at 1 with nature. The combination of cinematography and visual presentation actually provided the highs and the fears of being in a land full of both bounty and danger. The movie is a fantastic piece of art, and a really good big-budget movie on top of it. May I look back on it with fondness for decades to come.
Location choices: *****
Physical Special Effects: *****