The Revenant (2015)
Written by Mark L. Smith and Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu
If you could combine the pantheistic mysticism of Terence Malick with the primal brutality of Cormac McCarthy, you would have The Revenant. Set in the year pre-American Westward Expansion, The Revenant follows Hugh Glass, a white scout guiding a fur trapping crew into the dangerous Shawnee territory. Glass mostly keeps to himself and fraternizes only with his half-Native son Hawk. It doesn’t take long for the trapping operations to come under attack and those men who survive the assault head down river to find a route back to the safety of Fort Kiowa. The full brute force of nature is on display as the planned escape doesn’t go, and Glass finds himself coming to the borders of life and death.
The first striking aspect of Revenant (and this should be no surprise to fans of director Alejandro G. Iñárritu) is the cinematography. Iñárritu continues his working relationship with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki after their first collaboration Birdman, and it is a sage choice. Lubezki is one of those god-tier cameramen, having worked on projects like Tree of Life, Gravity, The New World, and that is just naming a few. The reason why The Revenant feels so much like a Malick movie can be attributed to Lubezki who has helmed the camera in every 21st-century film of Malick’s.
For most of The Revenant’s two and a half hour runtime, it is wordless, not a silent film but one where the sounds of the environment dominate the soundtrack. There’s one moment where the trappers are forced to shout over the glacial torrent of a mountain top’s melting ice, a reminder that humanity is forced to change its behavior in this place. Iñárritu does an excellent job of eschewing Native mystic cliche and instead paints an agnostically spiritual view of nature. There is not guiding cosmic force there is simply the influence of every part of the environment on the world, from the rain to the wind to a passing grizzly bear and Glass himself. These elements act upon each other, some times in tandem and others in conflict, but the overarching tone is one of neutrality. Everything is trying to survive in a space that makes survival near impossible.
I was struck with how this didn’t feel like a “pioneer” movie or “wild west” flick; I was reminded more of movies like The Quest for Fire, where the environment is the focus and where quiet moments of contemplation on nature feel like sacred spaces. The fights between the Natives and the trappers and all the challenges Glass encounters feel primeval and raw. Guns are slow to load and are used most often as bludgeons, knives seem to be the preferred method of attack and defense, a Native arrow can sink into your vitals in the blink of an eye, and when all else fails fights end up mired in the cold mud as men claw the life out of each other.
The Revenant is one of those movies that you cannot believe saw a wide release because it is not intended to please the crowd. This is a film that is saying many things about ideas and themes that are core to the human experience. Revenge is at the center of the story, but it also touches on grief and survival. The audience feels every horror that befalls Glass, Iñárritu doesn’t shy from showing us human flesh split, limbs, and digits cleaved away, and life extinguished faster than one can truly perceive. The landscapes feel almost alien and overwhelming in moments. The sense of loneliness is profound, even amongst your fellow humans; there is no brotherhood or camaraderie, despite what leaders from the Atlantic Coast are trying to bring. The Natives understand the land, but this doesn’t mean they live in a utopian state, they have come to terms with the mortality nature will bring. The white man can’t seem to let go of his desire to tame and break the land, and that is where his suffering comes from.