Academy of Punishment
A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
The words “civilization” and “savagery” have a relationship whose connotations would seemingly dictate a dichotomy, a division of antagonism. These two words are often tenants most ardently espoused by those lacking the fundamental understanding of what that very verbiage means. Within that lack of understanding there lies an exhibition of undiluted irony embodying an absolutist belief in its misguided truth. There’s a delusion that those ideals of civilization are the ones upon which society ought to operate upon, a superiority complex resting upon a social hierarchy constructed on the mixing of race and religion. That delusion in practice is terrifying and those constructions of superiority remain entrenched today, despite all of the progress that has been made. The Revenant, at its brutal, barely-beating heart, is a Western about survival but it’s also about unpacking the ideals of civilization that have permeated so heavily throughout Western cultures for centuries. It doesn’t always execute those ideas perfectly, but that understanding buoys what essentially boils down to a revenge tale set in a frigid, eerily enchanting landscape. It’s also unfortunately the aspect of the film that isn’t going to garner the greatest amount of recognition, either, on the virtue alone of this being a film that above everything else has become famed for the amount of pain that Leonardo DiCaprio goes through to garner the Academy Award for Best Actor. To be fair, that alone is worthy of the price of admission, but as famed as that aspect of the film has become, that tendency to drown its protagonist in the lakes of masochism tends to drown out the depth within them.
The Revenant is bleak. From the opening frames to the final one that gives Leo his best moment of acting through his eyes, there’s an unrelenting despair that colors everything. The degree to how much one likes Revenant is inherently going to be tied to one’s perception of how much of that darkness is deep and how much of it is simply overkill (pun intended). The running time of two hours and thirty-six minute does the film little favor, inevitably offering the audience extra time to come to terms with how they viewed the latest event in what is truly a series of unfortunate, life-threatening events (to put it mildly). The first sequence of the camp raid is thrilling, with some nifty camerawork and perspective changes that add dimensions of chaos without relying on the shaky cam that is repugnant to me. The bear sequence (more on that below) is terrifying and the moment where Glass is thrown into a ditch to die is nerve-wracking. Up until that point, Alejandro G. Iñárritu keeps the balance between the bleak and the beautiful in relative check, but it is perhaps a point of irony that the most vital fulcrum of the film also leads a window into the director’s worst instincts. Having come off a Best Director win for Birman (Or, the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Iñárritu reverts back to the tendencies that marked all of his films from beforehand, much like Tom Hooper with Les Misérables. In films like Biutiful, Iñárritu pummels the audience with dourness to the point where the audience feels like it can’t breath, where the shroud of darkness is so suffocating that the film itself is losing sense of the actual story for the sake of atmosphere. This happens to a lesser degree in Revenant, but there’s a knowing sense that a tighter, more restrained film that didn’t indulge Iñárritu’s tendencies to overindulge moment after moment after moment (especially in the second half) would have resulted in the perfection the film is so clearly reaching for.
The Revenant’s overindulgences don’t necessarily feel so just because of the dour nature they’re imbued with. At certain junctures, they also feel repetitive, as if the script was worried the audience wouldn’t understand the symbolic moments and thematic thoroughfares so they had to be made obvious. The thematic structure of savagery is evident in the hypocrisy displayed by the actions of its characters, which is how it should be. One of the film’s most accomplished narrative streaks is the Arikara man who helps Glass recover without expecting anything in return. His humanity and attachment to the world around him are enormously compelling in a genre film whose genre is often fairly unkind and often racist in regards to Native Americans. He also is vital to the only moment of levity in the entire film, where the two men catch snowflakes on their tongue and laugh in the joy of simplicity that is bonding them together. His death is a powerful moment on paper, but it’s kept from its true power on screen by arriving at a juncture where it played out like a shock moment more than anything else. The signage over his lynched body that describes him as a savage in French is a powerful historical callback, a daunting moment that hits home. But the camera returns towards it and stays there, as if it Iñárritu couldn’t resist. On an equivalent note but one on a different plane is a sequence where Glass is running away on a horse as he’s chased by a band of Arikara tribesmen. It’s a sequence that sounds great on paper but in execution leaves much to be desired. The shaky choreography does little to help it’s the placement within the film that feels jarring and emotionally repetitive. Glass and his horse being raced off of a cliff garners little more credence than it being simply another death defying moment of despair on Glass’s arduous odyssey.
As frustrating as those elements of overindulgence are, they stick out like a sore thumb because the rest of the film is so accomplished. The Revenant is an incredibly impressive cinematic accomplishment on several levels, from the score to the production design to some of the most dynamic camerawork of the entire year. The astounding beauty of The Revenant is likely to become its dominant conversational piece outside of Leo and rightfully so. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is breathtaking in scope and depth, bringing forth some of the most iconic imagery of the year through the usage of only natural light. The results are some of the most impeccably gorgeous shots of the entire year, ranging from wide shots of a frigid mountainous landscape to a focus on a bright, fiery comet tearing apart a smoky grey sky. The thematic richness of savagery is vital to The Revenant’s vitality, tearing apart the hypocrisy of that word’s construction by men who find morality to be tied to the lightness of one’s skin, not by the actions that form one’s character. In such explorations, Iñárritu brings forth some of the most vital characterizations yet of Native American characters and the differences between tribes (notably the Pawnee and the Arikara). That this counts as such progress is a sad reality of where the world still is, but it is progress nevertheless and especially within a genre that has often demonized Native Americans as being the terrifying “other” with a bow and arrow and little else. The creme of the crop in terms of focus at least is Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as Glass and he is impeccable here. Shades of anger, grief, and fury are all displayed with absolute perfection, even if the range overall is a limited one once the desire for revenge truly kicks in. The sequence where he once more describes racism to his interracial child is a heartbreaking one, solidified by Glass’s harsh voice and Forrest Goodluck’s tormenting tears. The climax of Glass’s journey is not earned, however, oddly arriving rather quickly in a film that was more than content to take its time getting to its destination. DiCaprio’s eyes in the final shot are nevertheless sublime, their widening trenches capturing Glass’s final realization of his arduous odyssey and the tormenting consequences it left in its wake.
Title: The Revenant
MPAA Rating: R
Directed by: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Produced by: Arnon Milchan, Steve Golin, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, David Kanter, Mary Parent, James W. Skotchdopole, Keith Redmon
Screenplay by: Mark L. Smith, Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Based on: The Revenant by Michael Punke
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter
Music by: Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto, Bryce Dessner
Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Edited by: Stephen Mirrione
Production Company(s): Anonymous Content, Appian Way, M Productions, New Regency Pictures, RatPac-Dune Entertainment, Regency Enterprises
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Running Time: 156 minutes
Release Dates: December 25, 2015 (United States)
Image Courtesy: Showbiz 411