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In Cormac McCarthy’s western novel Blood Meridian, the protagonist – only known as The Kid – and a group of American soldiers are ambushed by Native American’s. Set in the 1840’s, America was attempting to remove Native American’s from their land in Texas, and this leads to a brutal war of attrition. When I thought about the book, I remembered this first ambush taking up about ten pages. Rereading though, it only lasts a page and a half. The reason for this lapse in memory is probably down to how shocking the sequence is. It occurs about sixty pages into the narrative, and up to this point the book had been completely free of violence. All of a sudden Native Americans are “passing their blades about the skulls of the living and the dead alike snatching aloft the bloody wigs and hacking and cutting the bodies naked, ripping of limbs, heads, gutting the strange white torso’s, and holding up handfuls of viscera, genitals, some so slathered in gore they might have rolled in it like dogs”.
Alejandro G. Inarittu’s new film The Revenant begins with a scene of similar, breathtaking intensity. In a sequence where McCarthy’s novel meets Saving Private Ryan‘s opening set piece, a group of American fur trappers are forced to abandon their expedition when ambushed by hostile Arikara. We see arrows pierce skin, bullets tear and ripple across the screen, scalps torn from heads and dying men plunge into icy water. On the long trek home Hugh Glass (Leonardo Di Caprio) is mauled by a bear. Unwilling to kill him, the groups leader Andrew Henry (Domnhall Gleeson) offers a bonus to anyone willing to stay behind with Glass and his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) agree. Before long, Fitzgerald opts to murder Hawk and abandon Glass. An enraged Glass wills himself to live, and begins a dogged attempt to hunt down Fitzgerald and Bridger.
In a step completely removed from the magical realism and the whimsy of Birdman, Inarrittu’s latest effort is deadly serious. Inarrittu’s insistence that they only film using natural light, which forced the entire production to move to continents (to find snow), saw the budget balloon by about 35 million dollars and added months of work in sub zero, hellish conditions. If serious artists are supposed to suffer for their art, then this is a very serious film indeed. Inarrittu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeziki deliver yet another visually stunning film. Where Birdman was full of clever tricks and visual clues, The Revenant is just plainly beautiful. Again, a comparison can be found with McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. McCarthy will often describe a landscape in beautifully minimal prose for pages before turning his unflinching eye to the violent men who populate it. Similarly, in The Revenant we see beautiful, desolate landscapes stained by violence; An orange sunset is blocked by black smoke, pristine white snow is stained with blood and a peaceful forest is littered with mutilated bodies. Inarrittuo and Lubeziki’s desire to keep the shoot as realistic as possible creates a completely immersive experience. A chill ran down my spine for most of film, because somehow they’ve managed to make the film actually look cold. At one point Di Caprio shelters from a snowstorm inside his dead horse, and the cinema actually felt sticky and clammy for a few moments. However this effect is spoiled slightly by some seriously poor CGI, the bear scene being one of them. This should be one of the films highlights, but instead its a moment where you actually take a step back and start to see the strings.
In spite of The Revenant’s visual triumphs it’s a much less well rounded film than Birdman. The film is almost entirely dependant of visual spectacle. There’s nothing wrong with this; cinema after all is the best medium for pure visual thrill. Where The Revenant fall’s down though is its seriously underdeveloped characters and themes. There are a number of attempts at taking on Malick-esque existential themes, told via flashbacks and dream sequences and for the most part they just come across as incredible clunky. It’s almost as though Inarritu felt he had to, being an Oscar winning film-maker and all, legitimise his film by including these themes so it wasn’t just pure spectacle. The film is worth paying to see in a cinema for the visuals, but it’s Inarritu’s mishandling of theme and story that prevent it from being a great film.
As was the case with his last leading performance, Leonardo Di Caprio is the most well rounded thing in the film. A performance in every sense of the word, he completely immerses himself in the role. Literally ever inch of the man is plunged into the film. Di Caprio is alleged to have actually eaten raw bison lever and slept in animal carcass, and that makes it very hard to question his commitment to the role. In what’s an unbelievably physical performance, he shivers, limps and even seems to shrink on screen. Elsewhere Tom Hardy and Domhnall Gleeson each cap a similarly amazing year with powerful performances. Hardy is especially magnetic as the psychotic John Fitzgerald. Unlike the suave Kray Twins, Fitzgerald gives Hardy a chance to play somebody completely unhinged. Far from going over the top, he brings twitchy, gurning reserve to Fitzgerald, though yet again he speaks in an accent that drifts into becoming borderline intelligible.
The Revenant is a film that deserves to be experienced on a big screen. At its best it’s just that – an experience, delivered by film-makers at the absolute top of their game. On a massive screen it’s evident how much care and effort went into making the film, and the cracks become much harder to spot.
The Revenant is in cinemas now. Check out the trailer below.
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