Friday, February 12, 2016

New Release! The Revenant (2015)

This movie poster offers a sample of the breathtaking solitude
that is as much a part of this movie as any character or
plot point. 
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

It lives up to the hype, but don't expect any kind of feel-good adventure tale with The Revenant.

What you have in this movie is a rather basic tale of survival for the sake of revenge. Like most great stories, though, it is less about the basic plot and more about how it is told. In the case of The Revenant, the strengths lie in the stunningly beautiful, terrifying, and isolated landscapes; the world-class acting; and the brilliant cinematography and overall direction.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a scout for a band of fur traders in the Montana/South Dakota regions of the U.S. in the 1820s. After a brutal surprise attack by a native American tribe, Glass and a handful of others, including his half-breed son Hawk, narrowly escape and begin a log trek back to the safety of the nearest Army outpost. Along the way, Glass is attacked and severely wounded by a grizzly bear. He is eventually left for dead by another member of the survivors, the cunning and ruthless John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who also murders Glass's son in front of his eyes. Glass spends several brutal weeks recovering from his grave injuries, avoiding hostile natives and other hunters, and slowly making his way back to the outpost, where he hopes to catch up to Fitzgerald.

The film is, as you might guess, incredibly brutal. My lasting impression is of Leonardo DiCaprio wincing and grunting in pain for much of the movie. You feel every ounce of his struggle through the camera's eye, and this is exactly as director Inarritu wanted it. Similar to movies like The Grey or basically anything by Werner Herzog, a major theme is the simultaneous beauty and pitilessness of nature. Humans like Glass can be honorable and unbelievably tough, but the natural world, including people given to their most animalistic instincts, have no sympathy. It is hardly a heart-warming message, though one well worth considering now and then. It is especially worth considering when framed in such an expertly-constructed movie.

A scene towards the end of the camp raid. Apparently, this
sequence was so complex that it required a month of
rehearsal before they could actually film it. 
Director Inarritu had his great break-out last year with the singular movie Birdman. While The Revenant is a vastly different movie in many ways, there is a vitality and mastery that it shares with Inarritu's other films. In Birdman, the director showed his skill with using extremely long, unbroken takes. He employs the same technique to one of the opening scenes, in which the fur traders are attacked by a regional tribe. It is one of the most intense and amazing sequences I've ever seen. It was a combination of the opening chaos and ferocity of Saving Private Ryan with a dark version of Dances With Wolves, only producing something which is somehow more stunning than either one of those predecessors. This was just one of the earliest and most striking sequences through the movie.

Lest you think that the movie is a dull sequence of pain and misery, it should be clear that it far transcends the physical travails of its main characters. A few of the encounters and nearly all of the landscapes take on a dreamlike (sometimes nightmare) quality that can have a near-hallucinatory effect. There are times when a viewer is likely to completely forget about Glass's mission of vengeance and become rapt in the majesty of his surroundings. If one is in the right frame of mind, this movie can provide an experience that only the most artistic and well-executed movies can offer.

The Revenant is not for everyone, as this review might imply. It's message (if you can call it that) is a dark one, and the violence is brutal and unflinching. However, the visuals are some of the absolute best you will ever see in film. I don't feel the need to see it again any time soon, but I can foresee a cold, wintry night on which no movie but The Revenant will satisfy me.