Contains mild spoilers.
If you like cinema, go see The Revenant, and while you have the chance, go see it on the big screen. Set in 1820s Missouri, in the guts of the fur-trapping trade, it is a film about revenge and survival. More specifically, it’s about how in extreme and extraordinary circumstances, a desire for the former can help ensure the latter. It’s also like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
In reality, of course, revenge is a hateful, morally redundant and utterly pointless endeavour, perhaps the lowest of all human motivations. However, it’s also one of the most natural human instincts – someone wrongs us or destroys something or someone we love and we are consumed with the desire to get even, to see the person who has caused us so much pain suffer in turn.
As well as acting upon this desire, we’ve chosen to base entire judicial systems upon its execution. We’re still killing people or locking them away because of the bad things they do. We’re still waging war or bombing innocent people because of the bad things they – or people who may or may not live in the same town – do. Revenge is what we do when we’re too small-minded or lazy to think of another solution, when we allow our pain and our anger to overwhelm us. Revenge is stupid. But being so central to our dumb human instincts, it makes for great drama.
The Count of Monte Cristo springs to mind, a novel it’s impossible to read without willing its wronged protagonist onward, urging him to make his malefactors pay for destroying his life. And yet, Edmond himself recognises that it is ‘human hatred and not divine vengeance’ that propels him ever forward in his quest for payback. And human hatred is not something to be commended.
In terms of actual filmmaking, The Revenant is a breathtaking achievement that will have you puzzling over how on earth such dizzying levels of authenticity were achieved. Alejandro González Iñárritu – favourite to win the Best Director Oscar, making it two in a row – has made a film that looks and feels like no other. There are long, achingly long, Birdmanesque takes – even in battle – that baffle. Watching it a second time, I tried to figure out where scenes were stitched together, but I remained baffled, and astonished.
The Revenant has the kind of immersive quality that 3D boasts of achieving but almost always fails to achieve because it ends up looking video game-like and fake. Nothing about this film looks fake. Even when the camera gets so involved that it’s spattered with blood and snow or steamed up by the breath of Leonardo di Caprio’s dogged fur-trapper Hugh Glass, or the bear that mauls him in the first half hour, the film still manages to feel utterly authentic. The 65mm lens pulls you into the action, feeling almost like it’s the lens of your own glasses being steamed up and splashed.
Breath as a central and indeed peerless symbol of survival recurs throughout the movie. It creeps across the camera and into the sparse voiceover, spoken by Glass in the Native American tongue of Pawnee: ‘As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe. Keep breathing.’ It’s central to the attempt by Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) to hasten Glass’s demise, post-mauling, and it’s there in the final shot of the film, imposing itself.
Another important theme is man’s bestial nature. In this land before all but the most basic technology – musket rifles and pocket watches – man is intrinsically no more evolved than any other beast. Whether it’s Glass protecting his young like the bear that undoes him, or Glass and the Pawnee tribesman who protects him, both tucking into raw bison guts, the line between man and animal is blurred into non-existence. Ultimately, it is only man’s self-serving cruelty and greed – exemplified by Fitzgerald and the pelt trade in general – that separates him from the blameless simplicity of nature.
At one stage, above the body of a hanged man there is a plaque that reads, in French, ‘We are all savages.’ It is chillingly appropriate. The Revenant inhabits a wholly savage world, where kidnappers are scalped, rapists castrated and revenge is a driving force.
From the first insane sprawling battle scene to the staggering, drawn-out denouement, The Revenant is a film that almost demands that reviewers use the word ‘visceral’ at least once. It is, undeniably, an astonishingly visceral film, never more so than when Glass re-enacts the tauntaun scene from The Empire Strikes Back.
Di Caprio is generally considered a shoo-in for the Best Actor Oscar, but Tom Hardy is equally good playing Fitzgerald, an utterly convincing shit of a man. Not only is he instrumental in all of Glass’s woes, he’s also consistently acquisitive and wholly mercenary. He even has the gold-plated gall, on finding a watch in a ransacked Indian encampment, to utter the line, ‘They always stealin’ our shit.’
More than revenge, The Revenant is about man’s relationship with his environment. Set at a time in history when capitalism was only just beginning to take root, it foreshadows the wilful destruction of nature in pursuit of wealth that today threatens our entire existence. Naturally then, the environment is the real star of the film. In an interview with Anne Thompson for Indiewire, Iñárritu talks about people’s reaction to shooting the film entirely on location, entirely in natural light.
‘People have been doing things in the pixel world so much, they suddenly have forgot that the reality is still available for us and it’s much more interesting and complex than the pixel world we have created. People are surprised, in shock. “You shot real locations, with natural light?” They can’t believe. They’re used to going to the supermarket, where the big red apples look incredible but when you buy them they’re tasteless. When you get an apple that is real, it looks more suspicious and not as perfect but then we taste it – it’s incredible! It’s a really real apple!’
Although at two-and-a-half hours, The Revenant never seems overlong, one or two of the dream sequences do seem a little unnecessary. (Even then, they’re still kind of fascinating, one of them featuring what appears to be a tantalising detail of a little-known fresco from fifteenth century Italy, Giovanni da Modena’s L’Inferno.)
Despite this minor quibble, in a world of predominantly insipid and tawdry cinema, The Revenant stands out as a work of art, a labour of love and yes, a really real apple.
If you haven’t done so already, do yourself a favour: go see it at the cinema.
By the way, it makes The Hateful Eight look like an episode of Bonanza.