Film Review: The Revenant (dir. Alejandro González Iñarritu)

I’ll say right off the bat that I liked this a lot more than Birdman, and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that Birdman felt like I was watching someone tell me how clever they are, whereas this feels less like a virtuosic display of fancy tricks and more like crawling around in the mud with your skin torn off. It’s a very raw and intense film, the camera is scarcely withdrawn, you’re always right there in the thick of the action, which could be a Sioux raid on a trapper camp or it could be a man near freezing to death as he disembowels a horse and prepares to crawl inside to catch what glimpse of sleep he might. The cinematography helps, too, showcasing the harsh beauty of the landscape in beautifully composed shots, and with a decided emphasis on the harsh part, taking the staple vistas of the now classic exemplars of the revisionist western and subverting them into desolate visions that are as much of the mind as they are of the physical world. It feels tactile in a way, textural, where Birdman felt synthetic. I won’t lie, there is still a little of that synthetic feeling here, which for me comes from the soundtrack and, I think, may ultimately be the result of Iñárritu and myself not seeing eye to eye on everything, but the primary mode is of flesh and blood and grit and visceral sensation.

DiCaprio is of course getting all the talk right now, and indeed his performance as Hugh Glass is commendable, as I did really feel like I was watching a man come back from at least very, very near death, if not a full blown resurrection. Being unable to speak and/or having no one to speak to for long stretches of the film gives an added physicality to his performance, his entire body must do the talking more so than any dialogue. Make up effects of course enhance the experience, as wounds are portrayed with what I guess I would call a visceral accuracy ─ like so much in this film, it’s there and it really feels like it is. Even the bear, which is CGI, has a weight to it, and I could believe even as I sat there in the cinema that Hugh Glass was really fighting for his life. Aside from that obvious bravura performance, one of the best performances for me is that of Will Poulter, whose character is young and green and clearly out of his depth amongst the trail-hardened men that predominate both in main and supporting roles; he could have easily been forgotten amongst the intense physicality of DiCaprio and the thickly-accented Tom Hardy, whose accent work has gotten a lot better since Mad Max: Fury Road, but he remains, a symbol of innocence or near-innocence seemingly now just being born into the reality of a violent and cruel world.

The soundtrack is, for me, the major weakness of the film. It is the main source of the synthetic feeling that maybe characterises about 10% of the overall experience for me, certainly not enough to ruin my enjoyment of it, the film is overall too strong for that, but it does take the edge off of some scenes because, as I find typical of Sakamoto, it is simply too soft. There are no hard edges, no angles, the dissonances are soft and resolution is always forthcoming, and it feels like a warm and comfy intrusive blanket made out of almost nothing but triads. There is something to be said for its Spartan harmonic density as a reflection of the nakedness of existence portrayed in the film, but this quality is negated for me by the friendliness of the harmonies that are there. Aside from this, the bizarre choice to include a minor snippet of Messiaen’s Fête des belles eaux in one scene seems to tip a little too far back towards Birdman, as not only does its inclusion seem synthetic, it is no less than a composition for an ensemble of electronic instruments; some people are pointing to this as being, along with the rest of the score, a sonic embodiment of the psychological/spiritual realm which Glass visits throughout his bitter journey, but I just find it unpleasant, and not in an appropriate way. At the moment I can’t decide if I would have preferred a different score or no score at all, but suffice it to say the score that is there does not work for me.

I’ve been using the words “felt,” “feeling,” and “feels” a lot in this review, and I think this is mostly subconscious on my part, I haven’t intended to rely on such limited vocabulary but there simply isn’t another word which I could use so reflexively to talk about this film. Although there were plenty of moments in which I was very much aware that I was watching a film, at other times, and comprising a substantial amount of the film’s duration, I was feeling it more than anything. The cinema was pretty warm, so I didn’t feel the cold that some others have talked about in watching this, but the feeling of snow underfoot, of being swept downstream by rushing waters, of intense uphill climbs with heavy loads to bear, of sleeping on the fallen bark chippings of thousands of dead trees and clad only in a few furs, that was all very much present and there were times when the level of immersion, save for the ineluctable artifice of film, really was enough to take me out of the screening room and into that world.

Thus conclude my thoughts on The Revenant. I didn’t like everything in it, but I was certainly very much into it while I was watching it and, upon collecting my thoughts here in the early morning of the day after watching it, I find that I still I am very much into it. I don’t think it’s the most amazing thing ever, and there are films yet to come this year which I am too hyped for to not be super biased towards, notably Anomalisa and High Rise, but I would be lying if I said I’m not keen to see what Iñárritu does next, because if his progression from Birdman to The Revenant is anything to go by, he’s moving on to something really great in the next ten years or so. It’s a very good film and I recommend seeing it.

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