The Revenant by Alejandro González Iñárritu, director of Birdman, chronicles the saga of a nineteenth century frontiersman played by Leonardo DiCaprio who struggles against the elements in his quest for revenge. The majority of the film deals with the unforgiving brutality and violence inside the world these characters inhabit, justified by its focus on survival within the harshness of the time period and context. But, even though this brutality brings considerable weight to the themes of the film, it is by no means what is most appealing about it.
Throughout the film, the plot develops two key themes: the self-interest of the white men as they attempt to make the most profit through their travels, and the native tribes’ relationship with nature. As DiCaprio’s character journeys through the snowy landscapes in a single-minded drive for revenge, he is torn between the way of men (whose company he had kept for years) and the way of nature (as he has started a family within one of the native villages). Set against the stunning cinematography, remarkable for its utilisation of almost entirely natural light, and a sprawling landscape, this personal struggle becomes an epic and immersive journey. The challenges and trials presented to the characters, as well as the ”never by the books” camera work, capturing the natural surroundings in a perfect balance of cinematic intention and lack of self-consciousness, helps prevent the film’s two and a half hour run time from becoming a test of endurance in itself. This is particularly surprising as there are long sections with very little or no dialogue.
All of these elements come together to create a perfectly enjoyable film. The Revenant is not, despite its technical achievements, a unique piece of art. It is an adventure, one that has been seen in many Westerns before now, but one that will engage the viewer intellectually and emotionally in equal measures. I have always been skeptical about Iñárritu’s previous film, Birdman, which seemed more like an essay on his issues with mainstream cinema as opposed to a story in which the viewer can become genuinely invested. He criticized the industry for being too hacky and formulaic, without being able to provide a cinematic experience that achieves his own standard. Birdman is an enjoyable film, but I always feel that it arrogantly judges other types of films without having enough evidence to back up its own standard of cinematic purity.
However, The Revenant is that evidence. Iñárritu can make good, entertaining and gripping films without appealing to the cheapest cheats in the system. Like Nolan, he can make something with depth and quality as well as popular appeal. If this sounds like killing the film with faint praise, it is because the film is not a masterpiece. Though experiencing it makes up an enjoyable trip to the cinema (probably the best context in which to watch it), in the days following I didn’t find myself mentally dissecting the film as I did with so many others over the last year.
The Revenant is not, by far, the best film of the year, and though the brutality portrayed in the film and faced by the actors makes it an interesting and suspenseful experience (which will likely earn DiCaprio his first Oscar), it does not make the film unique or especially worthy of recognition. Min-sik Choi ate a full live octopus in Oldboy, so if this is the standard for how recognized a film should be in award season, Choi should get an Oscar. Every year.
The Revenant is a great watch and a weirdly appropriate companion to Birdman. However, beautiful and aesthetically intricate as it is, the experience of watching it might be made better if you are expecting a Western, and not an art film.