The Revenant: Locating Realism

rev·e·nant
noun
a person who has returned, especially supposedly from the dead.

Many directors focus on conflict but Alejandro G. Iñárritu makes another form of that art. He’s like Tarkovsky: he makes his films entirely about struggle. He made Birdman about the struggle of a starving artist and focused more on hunger than on art. His movies are as about the struggle to survive as Kubrick’s were about intellect. The Revenant is his 2001: A Space Odyssey, a struggle to survive extrapolated into a whole fable. He favors long takes, long enough to seem like they have no cuts; here’s a movie-length version of one. His filming must be a form of how he sees the world. If The Revenant is evidence, he must think that there’s only one cut in real life, at the very end.

Like Tarkovsky, he assembles people out of images, many of them dreams. He knows that a desolate piece of architecture in a field is more barren than a landscape by itself. As Ivan wandered the bombed-out homes on the windy Russian plains, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) dreams of broken churches with Bosch’s fire-licking demons eating sinners on the walls, whose cracks snake all the way up to one lonely bell continuously ringing in its broken tower. He’s greeted there by his dead son (Forrest Goodluck) and wife (Grace Dove). These are the kinds of images that have become easy to dismiss for a modern audience; they deride Iñárritu’s inability to take anything lightly. They say his intentions are grander than the result, and they phrase it this way: “What am I supposed to get out of all this?”

Glass’s struggle to survive may be a parable; he may be the basic will for any of us to keep living turned into a single human. The reason I think Iñárritu gets relatively little credit for creating such a being is that instead of having many themes crisscrossing over the film, he instead takes one and pushes it to its limits. His extreme vision creates something as pitiless as child abuse (like Kubrick, Iñárritu seems to think of his cast and crew as his creations, with which he can do as he pleases). His brutality is tenacious, so much that it bleeds off the script into real life. The Revenant is so about struggle that it required it of its creators, almost as much as of its subjects.

Iñárritu pushes cinema by avoiding its conveniences; his work becomes as tortured as the people who make it with him. By demanding The Revenant to be made exclusively in natural light, he gave himself and his crew about 90 minutes a day to film in the tiny window of daylight in these locations. The camera crew turnover was reportedly very high; I believe that Emmanuel Lebezki helming the cinematography is all that kept the pieces of Iñárritu’s vision in place. Despite enduring real cold, risking real hypothermia, and learning the accent of an 1820s fur trapper, DiCaprio (a real vegan) also had to eat a buffalo heart with bloody lips and stony eyes. He gags in the movie, a reaction so out of character for a hungry man of that time that it must be real.

What would have happened if he had broken his contract and left? To understand The Revenant and its direction, you have to realize that it wouldn’t have changed the movie, because giving up would have made DiCaprio retroactively unfit for the part. It would have nullified the whole ambition. As Iñárritu said of the huge crew turnover, firmly placing himself among Kubrick and Hitchcock in terms of how they treated their actors on set, “As a director, if I identify a violin that is out of tune, I have to take that from the orchestra.” DiCaprio was not fit to endure it – he was fit, because he endured it.

So he gets full points for durability. But is DiCaprio effective? He’s definitely more tenacious than versatile, going after that accent with the tone of someone who has it down in their head but who lacks the nuance in real life. He dirties and bloodies himself, at one point snarling through spit and pain, face reddened, nearly paralyzed from a brutal injury; his eyes act better than the rest of him in this movie. The problem isn’t a lack of effort (he’s never earned that criticism in his entire career), but that you won’t ever lose sight of DiCaprio inside this part: he always seems like a movie star, on the verge of losing his accent, like Jay Gatsby studying for a part he hopes will be his big break.

I don’t underestimate his task: the movie just makes it hard on him by putting him beside Tom Hardy, who is a fur trapper from that era rather than an actor playacting as one. He has the grit of the part in him, the disgruntled monologuing and barely audible loathing that makes him elemental, a part of the world created by snow and blood and grey sunshine. He decodes the entire era for us by having no movie character within him. Even as Glass fights against the whole universe to get his revenge, Fitzgerald (Hardy) just does what he has to do. “I ain’t go no life,” he says, “I just got ta live.” The movie makes us wonder if Glass’s big finish, his self-serving resolution, really makes that much of a difference. He spent a lot of time and energy on pretending to have a goal in life and Fitzgerald ends up being right about it: no matter what he does, he still has to figure out how to live after it’s over.

The Revenant goes a little far communicating what I just said, almost like it’s uncomfortable with the meaning that it aspired to not have. Lines like “Revenge is in the creator’s hands,” repeated for dramatic effect, are the sign of a script a bit unsure of itself. Iñárritu perhaps guessed that people wouldn’t know what to get out of the journey. Occasionally, his script tells us flat out. That’s when the movie is least faithful to itself (the CGI animals don't help either: they seem like a necessary but unfortunate survival tactic for this kind of movie; we all know Iñárritu would beaten a real bear to get a better shot. It's uglier with cartoons but probably better for our conscience).

It’s most faithful is in its eternal, quiet moments. The Revenant is dredged in natural tension, with dreams slipped in as quietly as anything really happening. Glass sees pyramids of bison skulls, a cultural prophecy, and Jodorowsky’s birds fly out of his wife’s bullet wounds, as Dali’s ants carry their family’s corpses up snowy hills. All of this is emblematic of Iñárritu’s human struggle, which Glass reenacts around a little fire, trudging through dead trees, scavenging bones for marrow. I only noticed two hiccups in the movie’s tightly wound survival science. One was a matter of fact: Glass uses a river to escape hunters and I waited quite a while for any mention of frostbite (I expected some toes to come off). Maybe I don’t know what causes that. The other moment was more of an oversight: after enduring an eviscerating beating, crawling across the ground out of his own grave after days of not moving, we catch up with Glass hobbling towards the rest of the movie. But we don’t see him stand up! From Iñárritu of all people, I would expect a searing minutes-long eternity of crawling, scrabbling, heaving, falling, retching, lurching, and at last, standing; standing would have been his signpost to the entire human condition. I’m not saying that a missing brick makes the wall unstable, just that it’s hard not to notice the hole where you expect it to be.

The realness created not by dirty cameras and first-time actors, as realness has often been made, but by forcibly naturalistic filmmaking makes The Revenant intoxicating. Hardy is its muse: was anyone more prophetically named? He’s so hearty he makes misery seem noble (or at least, the nearest to noble it can seem, which is a kind of dignity inching closer and closer to turning into regret). He’s absolutely vile with no villainy in him; he explains his terrible actions and you begin to understand them. They are solutions to his blunt struggle to exist, which some of the characters in his world don’t acknowledge as consciously as he does, and even wish they could. This is essential to The Revenant working: he’s not so villainous that he accidentally makes it seem like the era would be fine without men like him (remember when Matt Damon became a murderous bad guy in Interstellar, like we travelled across space and time to find out that it was the lighthouse keeper all along?). No: Fitzgerald encapsulates the era itself. He’s wrong about being a good guy, but not wrong about how to survive his own life. Domhnall Gleeson, who seems almost tragically destined to be the footnotes of bigger reviews, like Hardy gets absorbed into this period. His name in the movie is Andrew Henry, and you can imagine his dear mother naming him something that sounded patriotic, his boyhood ambitions turning to survival; he has innocent eyes and matted hair. He's nice enough to be the scapegoat of an entire era.

Behind the abuse and the cold, the hard earth and the gore that makes Cast Away look like City Slickers, The Revenant is like a painting in the way that few movies are. A scene where Native Americans obliterate the main cast from horseback is continuous and panoramic: in dramatic effect, it blows the Normandy landing in Saving Private Ryan clear off the beach. It feels real in the way that paintings do even in comparison to photographs, where a device like a brushstroke creates more meaning from an artist’s viewpoint than a lens simply taking a picture of something real. Movies can be more comparable to the painting than the photo, and Iñárritu proves it through his struggle, revealing the devices that hide those devices in a normal movie (people breath fog directly onto the lens), like an artist believing that his painting will be more evocative if he leaves in the brushstrokes. DiCaprio is like the human version of that strategy: reminding us of DiCaprio to remind us of his real struggle to become Hugh Glass. He’s a brushstroke; he’s Iñárritu’s obsessiveness in canon. It’s why he’s even more important to The Revenant than Hardy or Gleeson, who successfully hide the filmmaking devices as well as any actor’s method has ever done. It’s why DiCaprio gets to be the revenant in this story. You may not believe him, but Iñárritu probably imagines that he’s doing that to filmmaking. He’s bringing it back from the dead.

***

Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Alejandro G. Iñárritu

Mark L. Smith

Alejandro G. Iñárritu

Michael Punke (book)

Hugh Glass Leonardo DiCaprio
John Fitzgerald Tom Hardy
Andrew Henry Domhnall Gleeson
Jim Bridger Will Poulter

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