Reverence for The Revenant

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Oh, how I wish I could have gone into The Revenant completely cold, knowing nothing other than it was Inarritu and DiCaprio.  Curiously the film suffers from following an amazing, shrewdly edited trailer that promised uncompromised tension as DiCaprio fights for survival across dreadfully gorgeous cinemascope-worthy mountainous winter landscapes photographed in otherworldly fashion by the king of pretty “sunlight through trees” cinematography Emmanuel Lubezki.  What if I hadn’t known that epic bear attack was coming?  What if I hadn’t known Tom Hardy was going to murder (wait, does everyone know this yet?).  What if…what if…what a shock the film would’ve been had I not already known its moves.

Bu the trailer and its subsequent building buzz hit perfectly on everything:

  • This was loosely (very loosely) based on a harrowing true tale that became a book.
  • DiCaprio gets viciously mauled by a bear (in fact, gets his throat almost ripped out and spends the rest of the film in sparse, pained speech when not completely silent or gurgling blood) and left for dead.
  • Mother Nature is both heartless and beautiful.
  • Tom Hardy (sporting his own unique growling speech and interesting accent) is gonna get his.

Despite being in awe of the craftsmanship and audacity of its scope, watching the film seemed stripped of any suspense.  You feel like you’re going through the motions even though it’s utterly captivating from a visual sense.  There was also reliance on spiritual/dream/divination stuff to get inside DiCaprio’s head (and provide his character a heart and soul) that became distracting in relation to the rest of the film’s unrelenting grittiness.  I didn’t find the notion of justice being in the hand of the divine of any comfort in the context of Man and Nature equally eager to kill you.

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Yet, is any of this the film’s fault, or is it mine…is it the baggage I bring to it?  I can’t fault Inarritu who completely reinvents himself…again…after reinventing himself with Birdman last year.  The performances (especially DiCaprio’s) are all fascinating from a craft perspective.  And there were moments in the film I absolutely loved – especially when he and Lubezki chose to show horrific things happening in the far-off distance (like wolves taking down a buffalo, or an avalanche) that cause our protagonist to stop and watch while trekking through the wilderness only to move on when realizing the danger won’t touch him (at least not this time).  The sound design was amazing (especially in the aforementioned scenes), and the little bits of back-story added to peripheral characters (like the marauding Pawnee chief motivated by finding his kidnapped daughter) added color to the tale.  But man, what a little bit of dark humor could’ve done to break the monotony.

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Even more successful than the film’s marketing push before release has been its carefully crafted awards’ push after.  The night after I watched it, the director, star, and film all took home Golden Globes.  It might now be the frontrunner for the Oscar for Best Picture, and for the first time in Inarritu’s career, he has a box office hit (proving that the right star power can power an art film to mainstream acceptance).  Inarritu is experiencing an embarrassment of riches and success, and hell, the guy deserves it.  I wouldn’t begrudge him.  But it’s not his best, although it’s arguably his most dangerous and daring…from the size of the budget to the scope of the production.

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The Revenant is unmerciful.  It’s haunting.  Bleak.  Beautiful.  But it’s ultimately a film to admire and revere more than enjoy.  As such, it left me oddly cold.  But dang, guys, c’mon…give Leo that Oscar…he’s back-scratching, throat-ripping great in this!  And here’s hoping Inarritu continues to reinvent himself.

Written by David H. Schleicher


  1. How would rank Inarritu’s canon? Here’s The Spin:

    21 Grams – 10/10
    Amores Perros – 9/10
    Biutiful – 9/10 (this one wavers with each view, sometimes this is a 9.5)
    The Revenant – 8/10 (this is exactly the type of film that might mature in my mind upon subsequent viewings with some distance, but for now…)
    Birdman – 7.5/10
    Babel – 6/10

  2. Believe it or not, I went in blank (well, if you can discount the teaser) for The Revenant. I did not know the bear attack was coming or Tom Hardy’s moves. I knew this was based on a book but had no clue this was loosely based on a real event. Call it luck or ignorance, I was busy with other things and missed up reading on this flick. It worked in my favor 🙂

    The Revenant sure did shock the hell outta me. I was almost thinking of a different story in my mind, given the film’s title, but somewhere mid-way knew where this might be heading. I was even expecting Di Caprio to die a gruesome death but doesn’t happen either.

    I too was put-off by the pseudo-mysticism (or should I call it shamanism) the film tries to evoke à la Terence Malick style. It took away from the Man v/s Nature, Man v/s Man-the-beast grittiness of the movie; it stripped away the cold layers and the conflicts (both internal and external) by relying a bit too much on the consciousness of Di Caprio. But that’s just a small grouse in an otherwise extremely savage yet humane-at-its-core movie I’ve seen in years.

    Being from India I’m a bad judge of American accents and yet was put off by Tom Hardy’s heavy accent but loved his performance nonetheless.

    For me, this is almost Inarritu’s Best. Like you rightly point out, he seems to have found that perfect balance between the seemingly opposite twains of art house and mainstream, which is what makes me revere him even more now 🙂

    My ratings:

    21 Grams – 10/10
    The Revenant – 9.5/10
    Biutiful – 9/10
    Birdman – 9/10
    Babel – 6/10
    Amores Perros – 6/10 (I loved it when I first saw it but subsequent viewings and Inarritu’s cinematic evolution make me feel it wasn’t his best, relatively speaking).

    • I would still argue, though it is heavily flawed and doesn’t hold up as well as I would like it to in subsequent views, Biutiful is this director’s most layered, complex and challenging work.

      21 Grams is just a stone cold masterpiece.

      Interesting notes about Amores Perros – I haven’t seen it in years and wonder what I would think of it today.

      I wonder what Inarritu will do next?

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