With last year’s Best Picture winner Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), director Alejandro González Iñárritu crafted a movie that was technically gorgeous but perhaps not extremely accessible for the average theatergoer in terms of its content and themes.
This year, you can pencil in another Best Picture and Best Director award for The Revenant, a movie that is just as technically beautiful as Birdman (if not moreso) but contains plot elements far more relatable and engaging to most viewers.
Right off the bat, Iñárritu gives you a taste of just how brutal and intense this movie will be. The opening scene is extremely reminiscent of the “storming of Normandy” opening of Saving Private Ryan, except with bows and hatchets, frontiersmen and natives. We get an up-close-and-personal look at a Native American attack on a group of fur trappers, and it’s about as visceral and heart-pounding as film gets.
But aside from this opening scene and a few other standout moments, including Hugh Glass’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) struggle with the grizzly bear, Glass’s invasion of a French camp and the final confrontation between Glass and Richardson (Tom Hardy), this is a movie that excels in quiet and solitude. With a beautiful minimalist score and an outstanding use of silence throughout the film, combined with plenty of sweeping, distant shots of the landscape, Iñárritu makes sure the viewer feels just as alone and isolated as the characters trudging through the rugged frontier.
This is about as beautifully shot a movie as you’ll find, not just in terms of the techniques used, but the environments chosen.
There are so many filmmakers who make the mistake of thinking they need to put a grungy overlay over everything to accentuate just how “gritty” of an atmosphere their movie has. Instead of doing this, Iñárritu shows the American wilderness in all its beauty with some absolutely breathtaking shots. These images are a stark contrast to ugliness (physical and emotional) of the characters and the filth, grime and blood in which they are mired. As a result, we appreciate the struggles of the frontiersmen, especially Glass, even more, because it gives us a more realistic view of how they have been shaped (and occasionally broken) by the harsh environment they’re living in.
Of course, cinematography alone doesn’t make a movie a runaway Best Picture candidate. The acting in this movie is superb.
First and foremost is Leonardo DiCaprio, who should finally get his elusive Best Actor award. DiCaprio, of course, doesn’t need an Oscar to validate his acting skills. At this point, he’s one of only two actors in the world I feel have a legitimate argument for the title of “Greatest Living Actor” taking their current abilities into account (the other being Daniel Day-Lewis).
He has another performance for the ages in The Revenant. This is by far the most physically demanding performance of his career. There is relatively little dialogue in the movie, so he needs to make the moments of silence and isolation work. With how much of the time he spends alone on screen in this movie, much of the movie’s quality depends on his ability to carry scenes with body language, facial expressions and noise (after his throat injury in the bear fight).
To say he succeeds is an understatement. A common criticism of DiCaprio is that he often has difficulty disappearing into roles, but he does so here in a way he quite possibly never has before in his career.
Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald, the movie’s antagonist, also disappears completely into his role. His interactions with Bridger (played by Will Poulter) and Glass’s son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) help him transition from “irascible prick” to full-blown villain.
What’s particularly great about Fitzgerald’s character is that you can see how he would justify his actions. Leaving Glass behind would seem to be the right (although difficult) choice from his point of view. He’s able to justify killing Hawk out of pure hatred and racism as being a way to protect himself from natives who could be waiting in the area. He believes himself to be in the right… at least until confronted by Captain Henry, at which point he attempts to run.
Domhnall Gleason, who plays Henry, seems to be building momentum as a rising star. His relatable and occasionally heartbreaking turn as the fur trapping expedition’s captain is excellent and provides some positive glimpses of humanity in a movie that is mostly about man’s ugliness. Though some could characterize him as a coward or poor leader, there’s no denying he cares deeply about the men in his charge and would lay his own life down for them.
Overall, there is nothing particularly new about the story The Revenant tells. It is a simple revenge story. Man leaves protagonist for dead. Man kills protagonist’s son. Protagonist wills his way to vengeance.
But Iñárritu is able to frame a story that’s been told again and again in a way that is so visceral, beautiful and jarring that it sticks with the viewer long after watching.
One of my favorite sequences of the movie was one of Glass’s dream sequences. Several times he dreams of tragic memories of his past, and of seeing a mound of dead bison skulls. But after pulling himself away from death, after catching a fish and finally being able to stand again, he wakes up from this dream only to see a gigantic herd of bison heading toward him. This contrast of death and life in dreams and reality right at the center of the movie is a smart, beautiful transition into Glass’s “rebirth.”
Despite some slow moments in the middle of the movie, the gorgeous shots, outstanding acting and artistry in directing make this a must-see movie and, so far, my best of 2015 out of the surefire Best Picture nominees.
Rating: 94/100 (Outstanding)