Some movies allow viewers to escape from the troubles of their everyday lives. They present idealized visions of pretty people who always know the exact perfect thing to say and for whom everything will work out fine in the end. Or they could present fantastic worlds with larger than life characters whose deeds (and at times consequences for those deeds) are far greater than any normal human could ever accomplish. The Revenant is the exact opposite of such escapist films. In fact, if there is any comfort to be found in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s brutal revenge drama, it’s in the knowledge that we live in a time where such struggles for survival are our entertainment rather than our routine. Mostly.
As a follow-up to last year’s brilliant Birdman, director Iñárritu casts off such abstract luxuries as art, art criticism, love, and even sanity and replaces them with the most base needs of food, water, shelter, and a reason to continue struggling. It’s entirely possible that Iñárritu used his deserved Oscar prestige as leverage to allegedly subject his cast and crew a punishing shooting style. The result is film stunning in both inspiring and horrifying ways.
The very start of the film, beginning with a hint at Hugh Glass’s backstory and continuing through an opening sequence that feels like Saving Private Ryan‘s D-Day sequence in reverse, treats the viewer to the natural world exactly as it is: cold, stark, vast, uncaring, and absolutely gorgeous in its indifference to the lives happening within it. The light filtering between trees which seemed to stretch to the very sky doesn’t care when arrows shred the poachers it shines upon. The running water doesn’t notice the men scrambling against its current toward their boat for escape or the blood and bodies dumped within its form. The water carries on and takes anything within its power along. Perhaps more than any other film in recent memory, The Revenant is a reminder that no matter how much we may try to control it, overpower it, or separate ourselves from it, humankind is still subject to nature. We may have built walls to keep the weather out, we may have built machines to overcome our deficiencies compared to those of other animals, but we are still a small part of a much larger world which, be it through the cold and rot of a frontier winter or through the fossil-fueled hubris of climate change, can easily destroy us.
While this point is most obvious in the already iconic bear attack scene, several other moments in The Revenant remind us that violence is not a trait limited to humans. In fact, the film’s most memorable images consist of Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) looking on as other things happen: a herd of bison stampedes with one slain by a pack of wolves, an avalanche cascades down a distant mountain, an unspoiled vista unfolds into forever. Yet, just as brutality is inherent to all creatures, so is the care for those closest to us. Glass seeks revenge for his son, the Pawnee chief wants to recover his missing daughter, the wolves hunt food for their pack, and even the bear is only interested in protecting its cubs. The world surging around our protagonist reminds us that while we may be watching this particularly drama, this one man’s macabre mission, he is a tiny part of a much, much larger world that could not care any less whether he is successful or not. It will continue on, in all its violence and beauty, without him.
Beyond its opening sequence, there are elements of The Revenant which feel like those in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. The stark imagery and naturalistic light of course but beyond that is a sense of relentlessness. Despite a few moments of respite, The Revenant becomes a sort of endurance test which never approaches to that thrust upon its characters but is still far greater than most filmmakers would be comfortable submitting their audience to. The aforementioned bear attack is long, brutal, appears realistic in way that hopefully most people will never have the chance to authenticate, and is one of the tensest sequences in the entire year of film. The bear is obviously computer-generated, but it sure doesn’t appear fake in its fur and how it movies and strikes and pounces or in the way DiCaprio is slammed on the ground and slashed open while we, as viewers, do nothing but watch, exactly as the trees and wind and mountains do. We’re all mere observers in this greater world. And, as one sign in the film reminds us, we are all savages.
Of course, this being a movie, there is artifice to everything we see, but Iñárritu, his cast and crew, do everything possible to erase any semblance of such unreal elements from most of the film. The director, as usual, finds the most striking angles and images possible, focusing on tiny details like the shine off a knife or the water dripping through a throat wound. DiCaprio, speaking mostly in grunts, demonstrates his level of commitment to his role by disappearing into a wealth of prosthetic injuries, animal pelts and a mangy beard accumulating blood, spit, and other types of once living matter. An even greater disappearing act is pulled off by Tom Hardy, whose gnarled speech is so gruff it’s almost incomprehensible, reminiscent of Coen Brother “Westerns” True Grit and No Country for Old Men. Yet, as with those films, there’s surprising pathos in a speech about his father “finding God.” It’s in the film’s most obvious attempts at artifice, the magical realism of Glass’s flashbacks to his wife, that it feels most false. The images are striking, but the material feels empty and unfulfilled, like trying to find meaning in an arbitrary, uncaring world.
The Revenant is not an easy movie to watch. Not in the abstract, layered way of Birdman or the ambiguously interconnected way of Babel but in just dealing with the sheer harshness of what we see, even as we’re entranced by the beauty which contains it. There are long stretches where little happens, on screen at least, but nonetheless contribute to the overly impact. If Hugh Glass can survive a bear attack and continue to crawl across the wilderness, then surely we can watch his experience unfold before us without the danger of claws, arrows, cold, and without even having to move, much like the trees and mountains around him. We should take comfort in that.