Dec 28, 2015
This might be the film I like best by Alejandro González Iñárritu. It's a visceral and fantastic western that looks like a fevered dream thanks to Emmanuel Lubezki's spectacular cinematography. The action sequences are framed in medium shots and close ups, getting us right in the middle of it. The camera gets fogged up by human breathing, and smeared with blood, it does not attempt to hide the reflection of the sun on the lens. Sequences of carnage are relieved by floating vistas of awe inspiring nature. It is an exciting movie and a visual feast.
For once, Iñárritu's boundless enthusiasm for raw feeling, which tends to be overbearing and borderline kitschy in most of his films, suits the story and the surroundings. Based on the novel of the same name and on real characters, it takes place in the breathtaking wilderness of Montana in 1823, where bands of American and French trappers fight over pelts, while they endure flying arrows and scalping from the Native American tribes whose land they have stolen and tarnished.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays captain Hugh Glass, a man who is travelling with his teenage son (by a Native American woman) with a group of trappers as they are attacked by a tribe. Glass is then seriously injured in an astounding mano a mano with a grizzly bear and left for dead by Fitzgerald (the excellent Tom Hardy) an insubordinate, conniving member of the party.
It is a story of survival and rebirth fuelled by revenge, with some magical realist elements, thankfully kept in check by the director. Like any classic western it is a story of morality. When survival is at stake, decency is hard to come by. The stakes in this movie are truly life or death, and the operating ethos is lawlessness, but there is always a moral compass in the love of a father and son, and in the precarious ethical behavior of a couple of men. Ethical behavior strikes humans randomly. Some men have it in them, some don't. The ubiquitous and excellent Domnhall Gleeson plays captain Andrew Henry, in charge of the expedition, who has to make a Solomonic decision about Glass' fate when he becomes a burden to the group. Between the upstanding (Glass), and the amoral (Fitzgerald), Henry represents half measures, the majority of us, who fall as short of heroism as we do of villainy. He's an interesting character: a bad manager who does the right thing halfway, going through the motions of authority while washing his hands of real responsibility.
As Glass painfully recuperates, trying to survive in the rough with almost superhuman effort, the humans persecute each other, forging vendettas and partnerships across a landscape almost as cruel as they are.
The Revenant provides a glimpse into the foundational myth that shows how brutally this country was born. The elements for violence and strife are there from the beginning. In the pristine forests and majestic mountains blood is spilled for pelts and money, Native American villages are burned and pillaged, racism is as natural as the landscape, people endure untold misery, men seem only a step removed from beasts.
It's literally the wild west, where the greatest motivation is lucre and, when violence intervenes, revenge. It's easy to dismiss revenge as futile and barbaric, but it is one of those basic human feelings that boil up despite our every attempt at civilization. Revenge is informed by a sense of justice, but is it moral? Is it useful? All westerns are about the tension between the vigilantism of revenge and the civilizing, yet precarious influence of the law. In The Revenant, in the middle of the vast forest, revenge is the only law.
Iñárritu stages thrilling action sequences and he is a good director of dramatic action. DiCaprio rises to the occasion in a virtually wordless performance of heroic stature, but as the icily calculating, swaggering Fitzgerald, it is Tom Hardy who absconds with the picture. An impressive Will Poulter plays the young Bridger, a kid with a conscience who gets pummeled by Fitzgerald's cunning.
Even if it is pointless, revenge is a powerful, visceral motivation. We root for the good guy and we still thirst for him to set things right. Intellectually, we may look down upon revenge as brutal and uncivilized, but we gorge on it emotionally, until we ask: to what end?