What, precisely, is a revenant? The word calls to mind both the half-rhyme “remnant,” and the notion of revenge. As it happens, it’s an extraordinarily apt title for the new film by Alejandro G. Iñárritu (the director of last year’s Best Picture winner, Birdman), which shows us Leonardo DiCaprio playing an experienced hunter and tracker whose frame, for much of the film, carries around only the tattered remains of a formerly strong body, bent on retribution. The literal meaning of “revenant” is a person returned from the dead, either as a ghost or an animated corpse, making it triply suitable for the story of the film.
DiCaprio’s trapper, named Hugh Glass, has been hired by a company of hunters to guide them through the unsettled wilderness of what later became Montana and North and South Dakota, in the winter of 1823. He is accompanied by his son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), and haunted by the spectre of his dead wife, a Pawnee Native American, who was killed by a white officer. The company is made up of a few dozens of men – including the leader, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), the shifty-eyed and hard-muzzled John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), little more than a boy – but their numbers are cut brutally short when the native Arikara ambush their camp. The survivors, whose final tally is a mere ten, hurry away down the river on their shabby log boat.
For those who loved and admired Iñárritu’s Birdman, this sequence at the start of the film will be the best part. Like a few other scenes later in the film, the ambush is given in one long take, with the camera watching one hunter until he’s shot down by an Arikara arrow, then turning immediately to face the archer who loosed it, until he is felled by a white axeman, to whom the camera next turns its gaze. And so on, until the hunters are drifting off down the river, and their camp is overrun with the Arikara and with flame. The mode of performance, as Michael Keaton and the rest of the Birdman cast provided last year, is theatrical in the flashiest way, with Iñárritu making a show of the tiringly complex and elaborate stagings which, despite the intense realism he aches to offer up, smack of the strenuous rehearsal and choreography that went into them.
The next gruelling long take is of Glass, off on a stroll through the forest after setting up camp downriver. He surprises a mother grizzly bear and her cubs, and is ferociously mauled before he can reach for his rifle. The rest of his party find him close to death, with his back and throat slashed open and various other muscles and limbs in shreds. They carry him along on a stretcher for a short while, but Henry soon decides to move on without him, leaving behind Hawk, Bridger, and Fitzgerald to look after him. The arrangement soon fails, however, when Fitzgerald sees that his payment is at risk, and he attempts to kill Glass. Hawk manages to stop him, but dies defending his father, and Fitzgerald soon clears off, leaving Glass – who can hardly move or breathe – for dead. What follows is a frontier Odyssey, with Glass dragging himself across snowy plains and through icy rivers to find Fitzgerald and take vengeance for his son’s murder.
What Iñárritu further repeats from his last film is the ostentatious camera style of his director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki (who also found Oscar success with his labours on Birdman). Between the dramatic action, filmed either in long continuous takes or in ostensibly evocative close ups at unusual angles, Iñárritu punctuates the film with vast vista shots of the sun over the snow-capped mountains, or the unbroken white pine forests and icy blue rivers, or other such natural panoramas. These tableaux, with their ingenious use of natural light and solemn focus on the phenomena of nature; as well as scenes of activity, in which the camera loops and whirls about the action, may well put viewers in mind of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which was also photographed by Lubezki. But where, in Malick’s film, the camera often subordinated the drama to the image – where the image itself and its built-in ideas, moods, and experiences were the focal point – in The Revenant it stays fixed on the characters and their doings. The majority of critics have called Iñárritu’s images here “beautiful,” and they certainly are striking. “Picturesque” may be another appropriate description of them, as well as “impressive,” or even “virtuosic,” but to be called “beautiful” more is required than what is given here; images are beautiful when the grandeur of their vision matches the splendour of their spectacle, when they are imbued by the director with meaning, with ideas, or with true wonder.
Impressed reports reached moviegoers of what Iñárritu’s castand crew underwent during the making of The Revenant, and that has contributed (in no small way, I suspect) to the film’s trumpeted acclaim. Iñárritu wanted not only to illustrate the harsh troubles of survival in the wilderness; he made his actors endure them themselves. According to some, DiCaprio wasn’t often far from hypothermia; and the raw liver he’s seen devouring in one scene really was a raw liver eaten by the actor. Many crew members implored the director to film parts of the film on green screen and digitally add the natural surroundings later, and he acknowledged that it would have made the production easier on everyone, but he refused. He staunchly believed, and still does, that anything other than the real physical exertions of his actors would greatly undermine the artistic and spiritual authenticity of the film. Unfortunately, the opposite of his intended effect is achieved, and much of the hardships Glass endures seem absurd and draw laughs from some corners of the audience. It evokes not what Iñárritu supposes is the nobility of suffering, but the behind-the-scenes devices designed to heighten effect.
Iñárritu is at his best when least literal: the flying and action-movie explosions were the worthiest moments in Birdman, and the surreal moments in The Revenant are also its finest. At moments of great tension, stress, pain, or some other forceful experience, Glass sees his lamented wife before him in all her ethereal and ephemeral beauty. Sometimes she stands before a glimmering forest, sometimes her body hangs above his, lying on the ground. At some of these moments, he has Hawk with him as they’re travelling through the wilderness. These scenes, in their dreamlike otherness from the bleak, harsh, and all-too-real world outside of Glass’s mind, reminded me immediately of a few early passages in Cormac McCarthy’s great novel The Road. The strangeness of the fantasy, and the artifice that expresses the only subjectivity in the entire film, render all the rest of it even more disappointing. For we realise that, apart from his grief and his implacable resolve to survive, Glass is nothing but a badly hewn bag of bones and flesh; and art exists precisely for the opposite purpose. Our earthbound skeletons are meant to be exalted to higher planes than our mere suffering, not degraded to graceless figures of aches and anguish.