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Josh Reviews The Revenant

After falling head over heels in love with Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) last year, I was delighted to discover that he had another film coming out just a year later.  The Revenant stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass, a fur trapper helping guide an expedition for pelts in the early 1800’s.  So after the movie opens, their expedition is attacked by a group of Arikara Native Americans.  Glass and several others survive and attempt to head back to their outpost on foot.  But Glass is mauled by a bear and almost killed.  Fearful of further Indian attack, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) wants to leave Glass behind, and eventually does so, killing Glass’ half Native American son Hawk.  But Glass does not die.  Instead, he drags himself out of his half-buried grave and begins a long trek through the wilderness in pursuit of Fitzgerald.

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As I wrote when compiling my Best Movies of 2015 list, The Revenant didn’t open around me until January, 2016.  So I wasn’t able to see it before finishing my list, but it was top-priority for me to try to see it as soon as I could, and on as big a screen as possible.  I was able to see it last week.

My head is still spinning.

There is no question that The Revenant is exceptionally well-made.  Mr. Inarritu and his collaborators have managed to create a staggeringly powerful, visceral experience, putting the viewer right in the middle of the events unfolding on-screen.  You can’t watch this film at a remove — instead, you are sucked right into the middle of what’s happening.  But while this demonstrates an incredible mastery of filmmaking, the result is an unpleasant, punishing experience as the viewer is pulled inside horror and torment for two and a half hours.  When the credits finally rolled, I was left asking myself, why was this story being told?  Why had I put myself through the unpleasant experience of watching this movie?

When I describe watching The Revenant as observing a mastery of filmmaking, I am not exaggerating.  The skill on display in every single gorgeous frame of this film is absolutely astounding.  From the movie’s very first scenes, it was clear to me that I was not watching an ordinary film.  The Native American attack sequence that kicks off the film is staggeringly brutal and extraordinarily immersive.  This sequence would be the highlight of most films, but for Mr. Inarritu it is just the opening gambit.  As Mr. Inarritu’s camera glides through the scenes, panning in 360 degrees and weaving in and around all of the characters and the crazy action that was unfolding, I was engrossed.  I can’t think of another filmmaker who is as able to make the audience feel like the action of the film is happening all around them in the way that Mr. Inarritu can.  It felt like I was watching one of those old Disneyland 360-degree panorama films, when you’d go into a circular room and look up and see the video footage unfolding all around you, in all directions.  The filmmaking in The Revenant is absolutely amazing, an incredible technical achievement.

The entire film is gorgeous.  Mr. Inarritu is able to capture the incredible majesty and beauty of the American landscape.  These images are extraordinary.  The beauty of the landscape contrasts powerfully with the terrible human cruelty on display for much of the film’s run-time.  These incredible landscapes and imagery also serve to impress upon an audience the incredible technical achievement that the film represents, as Mr. Inarritu and his team were somehow able to go to these places and film this movie, despite what I can only imagine were enormous physical and logistical challenges.  (There have been a lot of articles published that tell of the physical hardships Mr. Inarritu’s cast suffered as they labored in these remote, forbidding landscapes for months over the course of the project’s filming.  Click here and here for more details.)  There were moments in the film that I couldn’t believe what I was seeing on screen.  There are shots in the film that I have no idea how Mr. Inarritu achieved.  This is technical proficiency of the highest caliber.

And the scene in which DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass gets mauled by a bear?  It’s every bit as incredible as you might have heard.  The scene is one hundred percent convincing.  I have no idea what is real and what is CGI.  It all works flawlessly.  The scene feels completely real, and it is both thrilling and horrifying to watch.

Both Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy turn in incredible performances.  Watching Mr. DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass suffer extraordinary punishment throughout the film, I was reminded of Jim Caviezel’s work in The Passion of the Christ.  (That’s a movie I strongly disliked, but I did have to recognize the strength of Mr. Caviezel’s performance.)  It’s not fun to watch, but boy does Mr. DiCaprio sell the reality of every inch of the pain and torment that Hugh Glass suffers throughout the film.  He accomplishes this without a lot of dialogue.  Mr. DiCaprio shows us what Hugh Glass is thinking and feeling mostly through his face, and through his eyes.  It’s incredible.

Tom Hardy, meanwhile, creates a figure of extraordinary menace while also keeping Fitzgerald completely human.  This isn’t a moustache-twirling monstrous villain.  Fitzgerald might not be a shining example of humanity, but his actions are understandable at least, even as we disapprove.  I love how Tom Hardy is able to create such completely different characters in his films.  His Fitzgerald is completely different from the role he played in Mad Max: Fury Road, completely different from the role he played in The Drop, completely different from the role he played in Inception.  (The one similarity I can draw is that here again is a Tom Hardy character who tends to mutter!)  This is great work, and an iconic character.

But while I have enormous praise for the technical accomplishments of The Revenant, as I noted at the beginning, I found the film to be hugely unpleasant to sit through.  Mr. Inarritu and his team were able to so successfully immerse me, as an audience member, in the pain and horror of Hugh Glass’ experiences, that the experience of watching the film became, for me, something of an ordeal.  It’s hard for me to recommend this film, because sitting through it was so unpleasant.  Unlike Birdman, which was a film I was desperate to see again the moment the credits rolled, The Revenant is a film I have no desire to see again, ever.  (Or, at least, not for a good long while.)

I’m glad to have seen The Revenant, and I have nothing but praise for the technical and artistic achievements of Mr. Inarritu, Mr. DiCaprio, Mr. Hardy, and all the other men and women involved with the making of the film.  But boy, was I glad when the film was over.

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