Over a period of 15 years, one person directed a series of complex and challenging feature films: Amores Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003), Babel (2006), Biutiful (2010) and last year’s Oscar-winning Birdman.
His newest, The Revenant, follows a more traditional narrative than director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s previous films but still has a magical realism influence. It is also the first time the director has made a big-budget Hollywood studio movie and the process was filled with challenges.
Two weeks ago the Critics Corner featured different opinions on The Hateful Eight. As the Western season continues, we present two insightful perspectives on The Revenant.
You can learn more about the making of the film in our Extras section following the reviews.
The death of the Western has been proclaimed for decades, but the genre — at one time the most popular in the world — occasionally makes a small comeback, as it did in 2015. We started early in the year with Kristian Levring’s terrific The Salvation, John Maclean’s strange Slow West, and S. Craig Zahler’s even stranger Bone Tomahawk, in addition to several direct-to-video and streaming movies (the equivalent to the old B-movie?). Now the two biggest Westerns have been saved for last: Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, which opened Christmas Day, and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant. These are what Andrew Sarris termed as “blue-ribbon” Westerns, as opposed to “bread-and-butter” Westerns.
Iñárritu won the Best Director Academy Award for Birdman earlier this year, and his follow-up is, of course, eagerly anticipated. The Revenant comes from a novel by Michael Punke, and is, basically, a revenge Western. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, an experienced explorer who was once married to a Pawnee woman and now has a half-breed son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). As we meet him, it’s the mid-1820s, the dead of winter, where he and Hawk are working for a fur-trapping outfit, led by Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson). Among the hired men are the obnoxious, cowardly, selfish John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and the inexperienced kid, Jim Bridger (Will Poulter).
The movie begins as the outfit is attacked by American Indians. As shot by the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who won Oscars for Birdman as well as Gravity a year earlier, the scene, full of long, traveling, unbroken takes, is virtually three-dimensional; the camera doesn’t appear to be simply plunked down and pointed at a scene; it’s like a character, looking all around, flabbergasted by what it sees. It’s immersive, and feels like a complete use of space and time. This attack causes the survivors to take to the hills, hide their pelts, and head back to headquarters.
Another powerful scene occurs as Glass is mauled by a bear. He tries to shoot, but the bear is quicker, and it leaps on top of him, slamming his body to the ground, breaking and scratching him. Just as it seems to be over, the wounded Glass retrieves his gun, tries another shot and takes another beating. Iñárritu and Lubezki hold all this in an astonishing single take, and it’s hard to deny that it looks absolutely real. The bear does not look smeary and gray like most CGI effects, and DiCaprio really appears to be taking an honest-to-goodness beating.
Captain Harris decides to leave three men behind to watch over the wounded Glass, who simply can’t go on. If Glass recovers enough that he can travel, fine. If he dies, the three men are in charge of giving him a decent burial. The men chosen, are, of course, Hawk, Fitzgerald and Bridger. The duplicitous Fitzgerald kills Hawk, and Glass sees it, though he is not able to speak. Fitzgerald lies to Bridger about what happened; he claims he saw more Indian warriors and that they need to pack up and go. Bridger is reluctant — we see him performing acts of kindness and righteousness throughout — but goes along, leaving Glass to die.
The rest of the movie shows Glass in a mighty struggle to get himself back on his feet, find food, stay warm, stay away from more attackers, and eventually find and kill Fitzgerald. During this time, he is shot at, gets wet, eats some raw fish and buffalo, falls off a cliff, spends the night inside a dead horse, and much more. It’s an absolutely punishing performance on the part of DiCaprio, a demonstration of an actor dedicating himself to his craft, body and soul — but mostly body.
But for what? When he finally gets his moment, the movie backs off and relies on the usual Hollywood rule that a good guy is not allowed to kill a bad guy in cold blood for fear of losing audience sympathy; it is OK, however, to let the bad guy die under other circumstances. It’s a weak ending, but by the time it arrives, the movie has already fallen apart. Iñárritu has taken a fairly thin, not untypical, story and stretched it into a 156-minute movie, inflating it to appear more important than it really is. During all this extra time, it becomes painfully apparent that not much is going on here, and that, indeed, many of the story turns are the stuff of creaky clichés.
In the end, like any of a dozen disposable Summer blockbusters, it’s clear that the most memorable sequences are the two big attacks, shown off with impressive technical artistry, but with little feeling for what the actual point of it all is, or why this project was chosen.
Jeffrey M. Anderson has written about movies professionally since 1997. He writes regularly for the San Francisco Examiner and Common Sense Media. His work as a freelance film critic has appeared in The Oakland Tribune, The Metro (Silicon Valley’s Weekly Newspaper), the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the Las Vegas Weekly, FlickNation.net, MacWorld’s online blog TechHive.com, Cinematical.com, Movies.com, Greencine.com, and BayInsider.com. In addition, he maintains his own movie review website, CombustibleCelluloid.com. He holds a master’s degree in cinema, is the co-creator of a movie-matching site and has appeared as an expert on film festival panels, television, and radio. He is also a founding member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He even worked in a video store.
Iñárritu’s Wilderness Adventure
by Jim Kitses
What have we here? Is The Revenant an attempt to resurrect a dormant genre with a masterpiece in revenge on those who have been killing it forever? Such fanciful melodrama aside, it must be acknowledged that Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has pulled off quite the elegant pivot from the indoor stage action of Birdman to the wilderness adventure of The Revenant.
It has been called a biographical epic to describe the film’s attempt, only partially successful in my view, to strike a balance between the interior journey of its damaged hero, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), and the agonizing odyssey he makes over an early savage America. Nevertheless, it is a unique and major accomplishment, a strange and compelling Western. Rarely has the genre been stretched in such a sustained and innovative fashion. In fact, while it certainly has a good amount of classic genre action – it is, after all, a revenge Western – The Revenant is not a completely comfortable fit with the populist traditions of the form. Ang Lee’s remark on rejecting the term ‘gay cowboy movie’ for his Brokeback Mountain comes to mind – that it was not to be “a fictional Western.” The Revenant’s goal is nothing if not an authenticity that represents a challenge and all-out attack on the conventional characters and behaviors, the attitudes and rhythms, of the genre. Indeed, speaking of the film striking a balance: the scenes of physical action are captured with characteristic dynamism by Inarritu’s resident cinematographer, Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Birdman); on the other hand, in numerous dreams and transitions, the film leans perilously toward the nuance, contemplation and complexity associated with the art film – the ilk of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, for instance.
Which is to say that from this perspective it remains an open question whether The Revenant will be the megahit needed to recoup – never mind make a substantial profit – its reported 135-million-dollar budget. As stardom goes, DiCaprio is arguably king of the hill, and few pictures come to mind that rest more squarely on one actor. DiCaprio delivers an extraordinary performance of unmatched commitment, obviously suffering the harshest abuse and violation in brutal weather and circumstances. But again, even here some may find a little of his ordeal goes a long way.
DiCaprio as Hugh Glass comes on the stage in full star mode. The film opens with a brilliantly paced, choreographed scene of Western action, an attack by Indians on Glass’ party of trappers and plainsmen. Glass is masterful, savaging an attacker, carrying someone on his back, firing his musket, declaring the party’s best route and facing off against one of his own men, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). But the audience is being set up for the revisionist capper, and the status and strength of the character are immediately destroyed by his first virtual death in an attack by a massive, terrifying bear, a prolonged vicious mauling that ends with Glass buried beneath the bear’s huge body.
It is impossible to adequately describe the stunning violence and brutal punishment of this moment, incredibly captured in a single long take. Suffice it to say that the incapacitating injuries inflicted are wholly believable, setting the stage for his party’s abandonment of Glass, leaving him half-buried in a grave. A helpless witness to his son’s murder, he crawls out of his pit enraged and begins a trek that will take him some 200 miles across the West in search of revenge. It is in that moment that he becomes a revenant.
What in Hell – or heaven, too – is a revenant? “One who returns from death or long absence,” Merriam-Webster informs us. A synonym search offers “ghost,” “phantom,” “spectre.” I dare say the majority of the film audience, like myself, had never come across the word – archaic and quasi-religious in tone. In the film’s source material, The Revenant author Michael Punke provides context by adding the subtitle A Novel of Revenge. He also has the protagonist in a fury at being left without weapon or possessions: “They had killed him. Murdered him …except he would not die.” But that is the extent to which the novel develops the idea of the revenant. The credits claim the film is “inspired by true events,” but the script by Inarritu and Mark L. Smith abandons much of the book and its historical sources in darkening the hero and his revenge.
There is a key scene that comes toward the end of the movie, after Glass has finally emerged from his ordeal in the wilderness. He insists that although still weak from injuries he must join Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), their fur company’s officer, in tracking down his nemesis, Fitzgerald, who had left him to die. “I ain’t afraid to die anymore,” Glass says, “I’d done it already.”
The moment is off-putting, distancing; it makes the character strange, an other. He is not Hugh Glass – he is the revenant. This distance is replicated elsewhere in the film, as when extreme close-ups of Glass appear to befog the camera’s lens. I see these similarly off-putting moments as signs of the failed intimacy of the film. For all the narrow focus on Glass, and the attempt to sketch an interior world of feelings and family, we never feel close to or inside the character. His extreme suffering actually functions to emphasize his otherness.
Glass’ first monstrous symbolic quietus by the paws and maw of the grizzly will be followed by a series of tests and ordeals that punctuate the character’s progress toward survival even as they keep him at death’s door. Laying in a grave at the outset, he will play dead at the end to gain advantage against his foe. That combat will culminate in the two dark figures interchangeably clutching each other as they try to cut and stab.
This pattern of death and resurrection provides a structure that establishes and insists on the credentials of the character as a mythic figure, embodying an archetype. The journey, the quest, the tests and challenges, the antagonists and helper figures, the symbolic death of the savior figure, the defeat of savagery – these rites of passage have underpinned the countless Westerns. Their heroes, like Glass, are kin to the hero of a thousand faces in Joseph Campbell’s structural analysis of myth. The Revenant’s special feature is its repetition and insistence in foregrounding these normally displaced elements to arrive at a very pure and focused version of the hero. The journey and revenge are of course commonplace properties of the classic Western. By promoting the hero to the status of a quasi-god whose suffering is profoundly purgatorial, The Revenant reclaims these structures and makes them transformative, radically raising the levels of intolerable suffering and violence that civilizing a savage America required.
Assisting in this accomplishment is the film’s relatively rare setting in the early 19th century. Hollywood’s West has been traditionally from 1865 to 1890 or so, but set in 1823, our film describes a much earlier and more brutal West, an uncivilized world traversed by mountain men and plainsmen, Native American tribes, trappers and trackers. The men the film follows are employees of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, but they are a rough, unstable and macho bunch, mercenary and competitive. The only women, apart from dream figures, are Native American, one of whom is abducted and raped. The film does redeem the Western’s Indians, the Native Americans seen as having dignity and honor, and recognizing a common victim in Glass whom they help on his way.
The starkness and savagery of the film’s natural world is enhanced by being photographed only in natural lighting. This decision was one factor in the picture’s extended shooting schedule that stretched over nine months. The relatively brief available time for photography, given the short days of the Canadian winter and the early stoppage of snow, necessitated moving the whole production to Argentina and accounted for much of the budget overage. Still, the results on the screen are impressive. Combining with the blood and gore of Glass’s encounters with the pre-civilized frontier, the images of a frigid and brutal natural world assist in removing the romance and triumph from the Western genre.
Despite all of this quite extraordinary film’s stunning action, epic sweep and majestic, daunting landscape, I suspect The Revenant will not be to everyone’s taste. However, it represents a distinguished contribution not only to the Western but to American and international cinema as well. It is one of a kind and must be seen by anyone passionate about film.
Jim Kitses has taught film in England, Canada and the US, and is the author of Horizons West: Directing the Western from John Ford to Clint Eastwood, a study of the noir classic film Gun Crazy, and co-editor of The Western Reader.
Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, screenwriter Mark L. Smith, and producer Mary Parent discussed The Revenant at a special screening presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and The Hollywood Reporter. Moderated by Kent Jones (director of Hitchcock/Truffaut).
The movies of director Alejandro González Iñárritu can found here.
Director Iñárritu discusses choosing Leonardo DiCaprio to star in The Revenant a the director’s round table with The Hollywood Reporter.
The entire uncut one hour Roundtable discussion with several of the year’s top directors can be viewed here.
In addition to working with Iñárritu award-wining cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki has been Director of Photography on six movies with Alfonso Cuarón and other major directors including Mike Nichols, Tim Burton, Michael Mann, Terrence Malick, Martin Scorsese, Alfonso Aráu and the Coen Brothers.
A selection of portraits Lubezki took on the set of The Revenant. He calls them “Faces of R.”
A 4:25 minute video homage to the work of Emmanuel Lubezki.
Two-time Oscar winning cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki chats with Gold Derby editor Zach Laws about his work on Alejandro González Iñárritu’s new film, The Revenant. (turn up the volume because of low recording level)
Anne Thompson talks with Tom Hardy about “Why Shooting The Revenant was so bloody hard.” (turn up the volume as Hardy was not on a mic)
Jake Hamilton interviews Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter.
The Revenant is based on The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge by Michael Punke.
A previous movie, The Man in the Wilderness starring Richard Harris and John Huston was also inspired by this book.
Robert Redford visited similar territory in Sydney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson.