A heart-wrenching story of survival, transformation and ultimate redemption
Review by Daniel Dercksen
Last year Alejandro G. Iñárritu blew our minds with Birdman. Your heart will bleed watching his latest masterwork, The Revenant, a spiritual odyssey into humanity and a man’s soul, and a brutal story of survival that will drain everything out of you emotionally.
With Birdman, Iñárritu took us on an extreme physical excursion into the mindscape of an impassioned actor, now our senses implode with this heart-wrenching story of survival, transformation and ultimate redemption on the American frontier in the 1800s.
‘’Revenge is in God’s hands,” says legendary explorer Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man coming into touch with his own mortality on his expedition into the uncharted wilderness, where he becomes ‘The Revenant’ who undertakes a 200-mile odyssey through the vast and untamed West on the trail of the man who betrayed him.
What begins as a relentless quest for revenge becomes a heroic saga against all odds towards home and redemption.
That emotionally charged confrontation with mortality also becomes entwined with an unusual father-son love story: that of a man who in his moment of loss becomes more devoted to life than ever. Without revealing too much of the story, there are moments between Glass and his son that will break your heart.
The Revenant is poetry in motion, an epic story in which visual imagery is selected for its beauty, sound and power to express feelings.
It’s a perfect union of sound and image that speaks a serene and emotionally charged language that results in a musical beat created through rhythm, rhyme and repetition imperiously perfected by Iñárritu’s long-time cinematographer, Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, sound designer Lon Bender, editor Stephen Mirrione , composers Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto, production designer Jack Fisk, Visual Effects Supervisor Rich Mcbride, and picture-perfect composition by Iñárritu that burns into your memory.
When we fade in at the beginning of the film we follow water flowing upstream and with the first of several long, fluid, continuous shots that have become Iñárritu and Lubezki’s signature, we venture into the uncharted wilderness as the water ripples through a forest landscape, until Glass and his son step into the frame, armed with rifles, hunting deer.
This hushed and tranquil serenity soon erupts into hell when the Arikara, a band of tribesmen already settled along the banks of the Missouri River, savagely attack Captain Henry’s fur trapping expedition; this explosion of violence is a raw and relentless assault that erupts in the splendour of nature, a magnificent dance between existence and death.
At the end of the film, the water rapidly streams towards us, bringing the stream of consciousness to a breathtaking conclusion.
These images are underscored emotionally by the constant, crisp sound of flowing water, reminding us that this is what life ultimately depends on to survive in a world of peril where nature persistently challenges the endurance of the human spirit.
It’s this continuous and lulling sound of water and nature that reminds us how precious life is, and when Iñárritu takes us on an intimate and surreal introspective journey reflecting Glass’ haunted mindscape where he desperately tries to unite his broken family, we fully understand the value of life.
There is dignity in death in The Revenant, death is poetic and revered: the carcass of a horse protects a man from freezing to death when a woman dies staring up into the heavens a tiny bird escapes from her dress and flutters away, when Glass experiences loss, it’s a religious out-of-body experience.
The scene where Glass redeems his humanness and loss in the ruins of a cathedral is profound with its surreal and abstract spirituality, where the emotional and the physical connections in a heightened reality shows the immense impact of Iñárritu’s visual sensibility and artistry.
The imagery and sounds are so fresh that you can almost feel yourself walking through the forest and snow landscapes, smelling the air.
When Iñárritu lingers on a close-up of snow-covered leaves or icicles, its breathtaking, the wild ferocity of confrontations with nature, humans and animals offers an epic intimacy, set against the magnificent splendour of God’s wilderness.
It’s this textured contrast of visual imagery that gives The Revenant a mystical spirituality where the beauty of man and nature have to find a way to survive the overwhelming hardships.
This heightened realism awakens our senses and places us on edge, we become alert, and fully aware of the danger that lurks behind the splendour and threatens life as the characters are.
The tension is palpable and when danger strikes there are scenes that will definitely rip your guts out. “
The action on the screen and the reaction in your mind are united as one. Film is taking place.
This ‘communication’ began with Iñárritu, who co-wrote the screenplay with Mark L. Smith, based in part on Michael Punke’s The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge, and created the idea for the film, using film as the medium for communicating and expressing the idea.
Iñárritu wanted to explore the lives of trappers who grew spiritually even as they suffered immensely physically, and though much of Glass’s story is apocryphal, Iñárritu and Smith tried to stay very faithful to what these men went through in these undeveloped territories by subjecting themselves to the difficult physical and technical conditions to squeeze every honest emotion out of this incredible adventure.
Iñárritu was fascinated by how stark peril strips us down and allows us a glimpse into what sustains us; how it can unearth things that might have remained hidden if that door to mortality had never been opened.
Iñárritu always envisioned the look of The Revenant as a chiaroscuro painting, full of light and shade, come to visceral life and as Birdman was inspired by music, The Revenant was inspired by painting, with Lubezki playing an incredible role in creating this film as a visual work of art.
Iñárritu and Lubezki made several key decisions early on that set the rules for the production and resulted in a cinematic experience you will never forget.
They decided to shoot the film chronologically, to maintain the natural flow of Glass’s journey, and committed to shooting the film relying on on only the sun and firelight, bringing in no artificial lighting from later centuries, and working with the light of nature in creative ways. Finally, they wanted to explore the long, fluid, continuous shots they’ve become known for to a very different kind of effect than in Birdman.
Shooting outdoors in Canada and Argentina, in snow, wind and often at high altitudes, the cast and crew of The Revenant faced remnants of the same dangers and conditions that people living in the South Dakota region of 1823 would have faced.
This was by design to further inspire an authentic wellspring of storytelling and to put audiences into the very centre of a wilderness, which is not a park but a zone of mortal peril where survival is not guaranteed.
“Today, we’ve really lost touch, or we’ve lost the intimate kind of contact with the natural world that these trappers had then,” says Iñárritu ‘’Yet the wilderness is always a part of us — we are clouds, we are rivers, we are formed by the same elements. I think when you see these places, there is a connection there that reminds you where you come from and where you are going. One of the blessings of the film was being able to bring environments that do that to the screen,” says.
It was a daunting task finding landscapes and weather raw enough to replicate the American West of 1823 was daunting, and it took Iñárritu and his team five years to get it right.
“I was very interested in the film presenting locations that hadn’t been touched by human beings so we searched for locations that would be almost that pristine. There was something pure and poetic about them.”
What further contributes to the authenticity of The Revenant’s fictional reality is Fisk’s production design – Iñárritu sent Fisk a copy of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev to give him a sense of the roughhewn design he had in mind – costume designer Jacqueline West wanted to go beyond the clichés and drew her influences from a broad range of artists, including paintings and sketches by two renowned artists of the period: Alfred Jacob Miller, who headed to the Rocky Mountains in the mid-19th Century and was one of the few to capture life there as it unfolded; and Karl Bodmer, a Swiss painter known for his portraits of Native Americans, especially the Mandan tribe of South Dakota.
Then there’s the incredible make-up design by Sian Grigg, who has been collaborating with Leonardo DiCaprio for 20 years since they first worked together on Titanic. The Revenant required the most intensive make-up DiCaprio has ever undergone.
“Everything Glass endures had to show on screen,” says Grigg. “But the advantages of shooting in chronological order were tremendous for our work. It meant we could do really subtle make-up changes every day to reflect Glass’s physical state.”
Leonardi DiCapprio delivers the performance of his career as Glass, an incredibly difficult and arduous role as he has to perform some of the most memorable and heartbreaking moments in the film in utter silence, and only through expression. The quiet intensity he delivers is unequivocal, laced with profound wisdom and deep sadness.
The dark mirror of Hugh Glass’s journey of survival is John Fitzgerald’s journey into paranoia, recrimination and haunted bitterness. To portray Fitzgerald, who both betrays Glass and becomes his spark for enduring, Tom Hardy delivers another riveting performance, giving us a glimpse of his monstrous soul.
Equally excellent is Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson as Captain Andrew Henry, a real-life historical figure who was one of the founders of the Rocky Mountain Trading Company and a leader of the expedition up the Missouri River; rising English actor Will Poulter (The Maze Runner) stars as Jim Bridger who went on to become one of the West’s most legendary guides; sixteen-year-old Forrest Goodluck, who makes his impressive big screen debut as Hawk, Hugh Glass’s fictionalized son by a Native woman, is a member of the Diné, Mandan, Hidatsa and Tsimshian Native American tribes who lives in New Mexico; and the powerful Arikara warrior Elk Dog, who is in search of his captured daughter, Powaqa, is portrayed by Duane Howard, a First Nations actor who hails from Vancouver Island, Canada.
A resonant character amid the tapestry of The Revenant is Hikuc, a solitary soul encountered on the plains who becomes Hugh Glass’s unexpected saviour. He is played by Arthur Redcloud, a Navajo.
You will never forget the scene between Glass and Hikuc when they are sitting in the snow and lapse up the falling snow with their tongues; it’s a powerful scene that reveals the fragile humanity of two characters from disparate worlds.
If you are looking for a film that showcases the art of filmmaking and the power of storytelling, commanding performances and an emotional experience that will live in your heart forever, The Revenant offers a meaningful and rewarding cinematic tour de force.
It is films like The Revenant that make one fully appreciate the power of film, and its ability to uplift the human spirit, shining a hopeful light on humanity during its darkest hour.
To quote the film: ‘’The wind cannot defeat a tree with strong roots. When there is a storm and you stand in front of a tree, and you look up at its branches, you see its fragility. But when you see its trunk, you see stability. “