by Patrick Bromley
Bone Tomahawk the most brutal movie of the year. I may have to take that back.
As someone who has yet to really embrace anything I've seen from Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu, I had my doubts about The Revenant. I have found his movies to be skillfully made but bloated and pretentious, collapsing under the weight of their own sense of self-importance. His latest effort is certainly guilty of these things as well, but it's to a lesser extent and all but neutralized by everything that is beautiful and haunting about the film. And The Revenant is both haunting and beautiful. This is a savage tale of survival and revenge set against the American frontier. It is an incredible piece of filmmaking.
Based on the 2002 historical novel by Michael Punke, The Revenant casts Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass, an explorer and part of a fur trapping expedition in early 1800s America. He and his Native American son are among the survivors of an insanely brutal attack that opens the film, a group that also includes Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), opportunistic Fitzgerald (a mumbling Tom Hardy) and frightened Bridger (Will Poulter). After Glass is mauled by a bear, he is left for dead but survives, swearing revenge on the men who left him behind and robbed him of everything that matters.
After a breathless first hour or so, the film starts to spin its wheels in hour two as Glass is put through the paces again and again. It's during these passages that Iñárritu gives in to some of his lesser instincts before resolving the story in a manner for more conventional than aggressive, eccentric technique would suggest. It's disappointing to see a movie that begins as a rumination on the totality of the early American experience and ends the way any generic action movie does. I've seen this kind of inverted structure work well before -- a movie that starts big and gets smaller and more focused instead of opening up as it goes -- but here it just feels like Iñárritu is to preoccupied with the specificity of the narrative and loses sight of the brilliance of its first hour.
Birdman) that was extremely positively received both critically and commercially and used that currency to make a movie that is lunatic in its daring and danger. There are countless moments in The Revenant that feel positively irresponsible, but they have resulted in some of the most breathtaking sequences in a movie this year. Iñárritu's filmmaking is as poetic as ever, but where The Revenant achieves its greatness is not in its poetry but in its depiction of the harsh realities of early American life. The movie shows us things we've never seen before in a way we've never seen them. Goddammit it's something.
It's impossible to credit Iñárritu with everything that's good about the movie; almost as much credit belongs to the cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, who shot Birdman for Iñárritu as well as Gravity and Children of Men for Alfonso Cuaron and the last four Terrence Malick films. His work here is not only impossibly beautiful -- photographed in all natural light primarily in the wilderness of British Columbia -- but also innovative. There are shots here that seem as though they shouldn't exist, achieved through a mix of practical creativity and digital trickery. Iñárritu once again demonstrates his love for the long take, but here it lacks the self-satisfied showiness of Birdman. Instead, it has the effect of totally immersing us in the miserable conditions and dangerous landscape. Where once his technique pushed us outside the film by trying to impress us, now we are lost within it.