Under good hands the ordinary can seem extraordinary. In film, it has the power to make a story that is entirely set in one car surprisingly engaging (Locke). At the same time, it has the power to take something like a giant serpent, and its army wrecking Los Angeles boring (Dragon Wars). Thanks to medium like films, they have the power to share those kinds of experience that otherwise probably never would have experienced by viewers in their life. In some cases, making you feel like as if you’re right in the story. The Revenant is such a film achieving an immersive experience that makes up for it shortcomings that come up from the writing.
The Revenant follows frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) on a fur trading expedition in the 1820’s fighting for his survival. There is a narrative thread woven from Hugh Glass desire to seek revenge, but a cat, and mouse game the film is not. Choosing to focus instead on Glass struggle with nature the film is written in a way to emphasize visceral, visual experience. Dialogue heavy scenes are few in between, and the focus is hardly removed from a wounded Hugh Glass ongoing battle against nature, and to a certain extent his fellow men. Spending around a third of the film with Hugh Glass alone without monologuing on anything associated with himself. Opting to show Hugh Glass as much possible with his wounded body to carry on forward. Only hearing the sounds of the environment (the cold wind blowing, waterfalls) to create a sense of desolate. Expressing his pain in a series of grunts, and screams. Hugh Glass is a man of very few words throughout the film. Whenever he does speak Glass dialogue is written to get across the broadest idea in the least amount of words. This same notion also applies to the era where the film takes place in. It never explicitly states where, nor when the story takes place in, but just gives the minimal amount of information. As a whole the film takes itself seriously, though does offer a couple sparsely spread out brief comedic moments. These bits of humor are a rarity serving their purpose to lighten things up. However, the tone is not trying to balance itself making it serious business at all time.
In the writing department developed characters are not in full focus. Hugh Glass is not developed beyond his standard traits introduce in the beginning of the film. He’s a loving father who cares for his son, and a tough individual who can withstand what nature throws at him. There are trinkets of dialogue where characters do talk about Glass past, but never a full scene dedicated to showing it. You will get brief glimpses into the past of Hugh Glass, though the significance of them underwhelms since it never leads to anything. These glimpses of Glass past attempt to make him more of a definable character, though the only aspect of them that feels organic is Glass dedication. A common theme in the movie is his dedication to persevere through his injuries no matter how painful it is. Glass lives by the words “As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight”. Demonstrating this belief in his dedication to stay alive as well as becoming a motif for narrative purposes.
One important trait of the writing that fails at is creating morally grey characters. Within the film own context, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) action are attempted to be painted as an act of necessity for survival. Showing his hesitation in Hugh Glass leadership, and lack of confidence in the group chances of survival when chased by Indians. Attempting to make his action justifiable to an extent. What’s disappointing about this element is whenever the film shows more, and more of Fitzgerald he is clearly meant to come across as the film villain. Throwing out the morally grey characters it wanted to create in the film becoming a more streamline revenge story. Two moments backing up this claim is Fitzgerald dialogue in the climax is most evident of his wholly villainous turn taunting Hugh Glass. Another is Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) who in spite of his position of Captain does not order his men to search for Fitzgerald because the film wants its protagonist to learn something from his journey.
Then, there’s a moment in the climax where Fitzgerald performs an action reminiscences of an event that scarred him. What makes little sense is that it’s established in a scene that any type of reminder of that event puts Fitzgerald on edge never wanting to think about it. However, when he performs the specific action it eliminates consistency in his character, and remove what little characterization he had. Slowly transforming the morally ambiguous action of characters into good, and evil. If there were more to Fitzgerald had more to his character than the film still would have worked with the revenge story intact as well as having the intended morally ambiguous characters, but the small moments, and important details get toss aside derailing it.
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu direction while unsubtle in the tackling of the film main theme did a magnificent job in creating a visceral experience. Using breathing as a motif in his storytelling (and part of the soundtrack), and the loose visual representation of being reborn/resurrected. In the film, every time Leonardo DiCaprio character struggle through an overwhelming ordeal Alejandro Gonzalez focuses the lens on showing him getting stronger in his ordeal. Giving the proper direction to DiCaprio on movement to illustrate his growing strength. His usage of CGI is small, but made every usage is for great effect. In a noteworthy scene with heavy CG Leonardo DiCaprio is mauled, and tossed around by a Bear. Paying close attention since the Bear is CG Alejandro was smart in using practical effects hidden within the CG Bear make whatever the CG Bear makes contact with move. It’s especially noteworthy when considering most of the Bear attack scene was done in one take leaving little room for error. Under his determined direction the film always feel like it’s in good hands.
The opening sequence of the film is a technical accomplishment that should be noted. Opening up with an Indians attacking a group of hunters doesn’t sound complicated on paper, but when you make it on a big scale it does. However, the scope of the Indian attack on the hunters isn’t the reason it’s an accomplishment for the film. Rather it’s the fact that both cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and editor Stephen Mirrione created a set piece comprised mostly of a series of one shot takes. Right when the first hunter is shown falling to the floor from arrows shot on his back Lubezki continues aiming the camera at where the viewer should be focus for a seamless shot. In this one shot, a hunter is shot in the neck with an arrow showing the arrow make contact, while another hunter is struck in the back with a wooden spear, and the sound of death scares a hunter causing him to shoot a hunter in front of him without a cut. Another compliment to Emmanuel Lubezki would be the lighting. Yes it’s an entirely random aspect of filmmaking to praise when it goes largely unnoticed. The Revenant was virtually shot entirely with natural lighting which is impressive since there are filmmakers who can’t even do fabricated lighting correctly. Only one scene in the movie uses a dash of creative artificial lighting. It was for a campfire shot in which the wind was causing the fire to behave in an unpredictable and distracting way, Lubezki used some light bulbs around the fire to make what he calls a cushion of light. Making an already beautiful looking film more technically impressive.
If there’s a possible complaint to be had with the cinematography that would be the repetitive usage of wide angle shots. It becomes noticeable before reaching the hour mark that the film love to use wide angle shots by itself, or have the shot pan in either the left, or right direction. In addition, it also has a couple of wide angle shots that spin around too. While harmless for the film intentions the visual is very noticeable when viewing it.
Now if you’re going into the film with the idea to see a thrilling spectacle you’ll be disappointed. While the film few set pieces are excellent, and fantastically filmed with a visually large scope in mind. They will take a back seat to everything else that is shown in the film. Shots of DiCaprio crawling stay up longer than a set piece that requires DiCaprio escaping from a group of attacking Indians. The film focus is more on showing the punishment nature dishes out at Hugh Glass where he spends allot of time crawling, limping, and walking out of whatever get thrown his way. It shown with a series of wide angle shots of the cold wilderness, and the distance Glass has to travel. Whenever Glass is walking the camera pans out from a distance to illustrate how resilience Glass is in his environment. In total, it’s debatable there’s a total of actually four set pieces; the opening sequence, the Bear attack, DiCaprio running away from a band of Indians, and the climax. Of course, the quality of the set piece is far more important than the actual amount. Thankfully, all the ones the film offer are executed to their fullest effect. Another aspect are the set pieces emphasizes urgency than it does violence. Hugh Glass is in danger, and by not being in good shape he has to get away from danger as quickly as possible. Becoming more immersive than exciting upon viewing.
To date, this is Leonardo DiCaprio best physical performance to date. In terms of line delivery DiCaprio barely talks in the film. His co star, Tom Hardy, has more spoken dialogue than DiCaprio does. Back on point, DiCaprio vocal performance is a series of grunts, and screams of pains. What holds the performance together is DiCaprio performing difficult tasks, and hurting his body throughout the film. He expresses so much emotion in his facial expressions, and body movement. Tom Hardy also puts in a great a performance. Despite the script treatment of John Fitzgerald Tom Hardy performance humanizes the character. Making emotions surrounding him conflicting, even after taunting Leonardo DiCaprio character in the climax. The only criticism would be his accent in the beginning of the film makes some of his dialogue discernible. It’s an issue that doesn’t remain with Hardy performance. In one scene in particular he shares with Will Poulter regarding if the means were justified to survive Hardy is cold, yet understanding in the scene. Proving he’s a difficult person to read, especially when taking into account a prior scene where he shows desperation.
Supporting actors Will Poulter, Domhnall Gleeson, and Forrest Goodluck are noteworthy since they have good amount of screen time to make an impression. Will Poulter plays Jim Bridger in the film. With the scenes Poulter is given he does an excellent job in expressing deep fear, conflict, and sorrow in his character. Sharing scenes convincingly with Tom Hardy display layer relationship on the journey. Domhnall Gleeson plays Captain Andrew Henry who presence on screen varies depending depending on what act the film is in. Gleeson puts in a strong performance commanding authority that is required to pull off his character convincingly. Forrest Goodluck speaks in a different language for most of his screen time. He’s simply fine in the role since he’s not given difficult material to portray like his other costars. While fine in portraying DiCpario son it’s not much of a showcase of talent in the actor. The score creates a atmosphere that is certainly elevated by the rousing and gloomy score by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto, and The National’s Bryce Dessner. In some moments, it is Eno-esque while in others the sounds become erratic. Altogether, it’s a haunting collection of tearful strings, glazed synths, and engulfing bass that mirrors the scenery and action at hand with compelling results.
The Revenant is lacking in deep characters, but makes up for it good performances, an interesting story that emphasizes the visual experience of filmmaking, and is beautifully shot throughout. On a technical level it’s quite a marvel of a film. While the story does get streamlined in the final act preventing itself from being as complex as it could been it doesn’t deteriorate it from reaching it goals. Its simple characters work fine in a film where’s its protagonist is attempting to survive harsh condition succeeding in immersing the viewer to the very end.
Inspired By True Events
The Revenant sports the “Inspired By True Events” tagline attached to it. So how much does it stray from the actual story? Well, the filmmakers had the courtesy to use “Inspire” instead of “Based On A True Story” since the actual Hugh Glass never had a son in any sense in anything written about him. However, the confrontation with an enraged grizzly bear, the part of Glass being dumped in a shallow grave 200 miles from friendly territory and leave with all his equipment, Glass hauling his broken mess of a body out of his own grave, scraped the infection out of his wounds, set his broken leg and started crawling toward the nearest outpost, a French trapper outpost called Fort Kiowa are confirmed to be true.
All whole ordeal lasted six weeks for Hugh Glass. After successfully avoiding vengeful Arikara war parties, wolves and bears, while surviving on berries, roots, rotting carcasses, and rattlesnakes, Glass made it to the river. A Sioux hunting party came upon the living man-corpse and helped him fashion some branches into a crude raft, which he sailed to Fort Kiowa and safety. As soon as he recovered, Glass set out to hunt down Bridger and Fitzgerald. When he finally found them, he … forgave them. But only after he got his rifle back. In the case for the film while the revenge story did feel tacked on it is a good way to reward patient viewers in a film that’s over 2 hours. If the film was fateful it would ended things on a anticlimactic note, though there is more to the story.
If your interested, or just really like reading check this article by Historynet that goes into great detail on the story if you like.