Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s riveting The Revenant proves worthwhile
There are discussions to be had about the nature of film. As a visual art form, does the filmmaker have a responsibility to tell a cohesive, impactful story? Or should film exist on its own, as a celebration of visual style, giving preference to a mastery of the cinematography over narrative structure? Does a film really need to do either? While the answer might rest solely with the goal and vision of the filmmaker, when it comes to a major Hollywood release, the audience must be considered.
Of course, most films will have an audience somewhere, but in a year when films have become excessive in their length (three out of eight Best Picture nominees clock in at around two and a half hours and only one is less than two hours), it’s easy to wonder if filmmakers are over-indulging in the more aggrandized parts of their artistic natures. As with most things, it comes down to personal preference.
I prefer strong, tight narratives to drawn out meandering, but I can understand the appeal of the latter. Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant leans more towards meandering, with slow scenes of misery in the Great White North. However, the beauty on display in each scene is breathtaking in both scope and craft.
It is a film to be seen on large, crisp screens in the darkest theater you can find, but it doesn’t quite reach the depths of character from last year’s Birdman. Then again, these films are only really comparable in that they happen to have the same director.
The Revenant is inspired by the true story of American frontiersman Hugh Glass, which is a fancy way of saying that the characters share some of the same names and both involve a bear attack. It is an adaptation of a novel, which was a fictionalization of some real events, but don’t be fooled: much of what happens is an invention of screenwriters.
The film’s version of Glass is a quiet, reserved widower with an affinity for Native American culture that stems from intermarriage into a Pawnee family. He is on a trapping excursion with his half Pawnee son and a company of rugged mountain men. The film begins as they are set upon by another Indian tribe, looking for the white men who kidnapped the chief’s daughter. The opening scenes are the most exciting part of the film, but what follows is an incredibly beautiful trek across the frozen American wilderness.
The film is mostly a survival story—for both the characters and the actors that played them. Iñárritu relied heavily on practical effects and natural lighting, meaning that the actors were very much in the thick of some very stark, difficult situations.
The performances in the film are all exceptional. Tom Hardy in particular, who has an ear for accents, is convincing as a pragmatic Southerner living at the far end of societal acceptance. For all the hype surrounding the performance by Leonardo DiCaprio, he is effective in the lead, but not overwhelming or surprising. His job is to look miserable but determined, angry but methodical, all of which may come across through the simple filmmaking experience alone.
In other words, acting cold is easier when it is 10 below zero on the set. This isn’t to say DiCaprio isn’t deserving of an Oscar nomination. The mere difficulty in making the film is likely enough to warrant it.
Despite the incredible beauty on display in the film, there is a frustrating desire in films showcasing the American frontier to deify Native Americans by having a white character venerate their mystery. It is less on the nose in The Revenant but visions and magical realism are presented in several crucial scenes.
It’s almost as if these cultures must be validated in some way by having a white character experience them. It’s a trend that can be found in film after film, one that isn’t necessarily a cultural appropriation but also not entirely necessary to the telling of the story. It seems that even the best directors can’t resist the call of the stereotypical vision quest.
That said, The Revenant is still an exceptional achievement in film. The dangerous beauty found in the wild places of North America still exist. It shines through in a film that pushes through the underbrush of easy Hollywood fare.