If there’s one thing Alejandro González Iñárritu’s recent films do not lack, it’s vitality. Whereas “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”’s (2014) relentless pulse propelled the film to success at last year’s Academy Awards, González Iñárritu’s latest release, “The Revenant,”(2015) instead draws energy from the sound and rhythm of breath. It’s the first noise the audience hears sitting in the darkness of the opening sequence. “As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight, you breathe … keep breathing,” an unknown voice commands. They are good words to keep in mind as the turmoil of the film unfolds.
Released on Dec. 25 2015, the survival epic is based on the true story of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), an 18th century American fur trapper who, after being mauled by a grizzly bear, crawled more than 200 miles through the wilderness to return to civilization and find those of his companions who left him for dead. Doubly haunted by the death of his wife and the murder of his son, Glass literally drags himself out of the grave, propelled by his thirst for vengeance.
Though “The Revenant” leads its Oscar competition with 12 nominations, including a nod for Best Picture, the movie is neither easy to recommend nor necessarily enjoyable. The film’s rise-and-fall rhythm is characterized by frequent bursts of brutal violence — many of which make the bear attack look tame in comparison. The fact that González Iñárritu’s stark portrait of human nature is endurable at all is a credit to the artistry of the filmmaking.
What makes “The Revenant” so taxing to watch is not so much the excessive gore but the intimacy of the violence — a product of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s skill with a camera. Lubezki’s characteristically claustrophobic shots (see “Birdman” and “Gravity”(2013)) preclude distanced observation. The blood and spit is real and close — so close, in fact, that DiCaprio’s breath fogs the camera. If the director’s goal was to make his audience suffer alongside Glass, he certainly succeeded. What’s not certain is whether the film’s conclusion is so profound that it warrants more than two and a half hours of numbness and fatigue.
Completely at odds with its tight shots (at least for the audience) are the film’s dreamy panoramas of the wilderness where the movie was made. Having chosen to shoot the film entirely with natural light, González Iñárritu and his team endured months of harsh winter conditions and short filming windows. The decision brought the film way over budget and led one crew member to describe the experience as “a living hell.” Luckily for the crew, their labor paid off; the film’s beauty alone justifies paying the extra bucks to see it in a theater.
It would be disingenuous to praise the film’s triumphs without mentioning DiCaprio and his co-star, Tom Hardy, who plays the film’s antagonist. Ever hopeful for an Oscar, DiCaprio in particular rose to prove his ability to fill a demanding role with little dialogue.
Less impressive is the film’s depiction of racism against native peoples — an unfortunate fact considering the movie’s apparent focus on societal commentary. Despite the filmmakers’ attempts to portray native peoples in a sympathetic and historically-conscious way, reviewers — notably Gyasi Ross for the Indian Country Today Media Network — have pointed out how little “The Revenant” deviates from “white savior” tropes. “The only time we’re not helpless in [Hollywood] movies is when we’re dead and a white man is learning a lesson from beyond our graves,” Ross writes. Indeed, very few of the native characters who aid Glass on his journey live unscathed to see the end of the movie.
Sadly, the fates of many of the characters are bound to be tragic in this realist vision of humans, as the characters are separated from the control of peaceful society. “We did what we had to do” Glass’ betrayer says, untroubled by his own willingness to sacrifice another man’s safety for his own. This theme is further complicated by the film’s tendency to blur political and bodily boundaries between animal and human, between wilderness and civilization. Glass is just as beastly as the bear whose fur he wears and the horse whose carcass shields him from hypothermia. It’s no surprise that, by the end of the movie, Glass demonstrates as much skill trapping people as he did trapping moose.
As brutal as the film may be, its conclusion is not necessarily bleak; there may just be a sliver of hope for justice and human strength as the screen finally goes black, again to the sound of steady breathing. For those willing to put themselves through the pain, “The Revenant” may be worth the journey.