Update late 2018: Man did buyer’s remorse set in on this one? What once convinced me as a genuine earth-shaker, a torrent of pure, sensor cinema, now seems too slickly manufactured to register much beyond its sheer, arbitrary, self-congratulatory awareness of its own sensory immediacy and hugeness. The Revenant is too solemn, too heavy, too satisfied with the weight of its own importance, to work either as a gut-punch of a thriller or, more evocatively, as a metaphysical portrait of cinematic exploration. The film exhibits no will to explore its own periphery, to peruse its uncertainties, to look anywhere beyond the course it has set for itself. Some compared it to Malick (even I hesitantly suggested the same), but Malick’s cosmic visions, their metaphysical gravity aside, move gracefully, poetically, and above all lightly. In their search for sublimity and spiritual ascendence, they recall GK Chesterton’s old comment that “the reason angels can fly is because they take themselves lightly”.
Which means they, unlike The Revenant, are aware of their own permanent incompleteness, and they use this incompleteness to question any essential truths, to lift their consciousnesses slightly above the ground and float and fluctuate, to think actively, to expose themselves to new states of being and revise their own minds, their own beings, to learn from the ephemeral beauty of nature and come to terms with the necessity of fluidity and spontaneity in life. Malick’s Tree of Life, for instance, is tinged with the whims of pure consciousness; its grace stems from its search for spiritual connection in the world, its camera’s hesitant leaps of faith and desire to establish associative connections between images, senses, sounds, ideas, and beings without ever claiming that any one connection is set-in-stone, permanent, or complete. It exists evaporatively, permanently ready for a sublime that entails not single-minded transcendence but a constant push-pull between nature and consciousness, between being and becoming, between the course one has set for oneself and the peripheries which arise in the margins, desiring to materialize and catalyze new relations. The beauty of Malick’s cinema is that it is always searching.
Comparatively, The Revenant doesn’t, and can’t, search for anything; it seems to know from the beginning. It’s hell-bent on wowing us, punishing us, and brutalizing us, which means brutalizing its own consciousness, resisting hints of alternativeness or periphery glances, denying, for instance, the capacity of Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera to rhyme with the earth and think-through its relationship to that earth. Oh, the film moves, certainly, but always to a predetermined end, to completion, always with the grimly premeditated security of its own convictions. Every shot begins, peaks, and ends, as though fulfilling its own clear, perfect three-act story, climaxing to fulfill us and keep us going, to induce catharsis rather than curiosity. The film’s assurance of its own path robs it of any real internal beauty, any affect beneath the surface.
This becomes an even dicier contrast when the political mediations of each film are put into conversation. Just compare The Revenant to a film it shares a cinematographer, as well as a subject matter but certainly not an ethos with: Terrence Malick’s The New World. Malick and Lubezki filmed The New World with a kind of dawning awareness of incompleteness, a desire to move the camera spontaneously in hopes of locating flickers of a new way of life beset by but learning from the old, mimicing its ostensible protagonist’s European consciousness hesitantly confronting a new way of life he cannot ever truly master.
Comparatively, Inarritu and Lubezki’s The Revenant seems uninterested in either learning from nature (or Native Americans) or questioning their ability to do so but merely to replay a self-flagellating fantasia of solitude. It’s as if they are testing their ability to repeat the settler life of so many white men in the past, to both lionize and criticize their hero, and themselves, for besting nature, to escape from civilization and to punish themselves for wanting to ultimately come back around and prove that they, like protagonist Hugh Glass, and like star Leonardo DiCaprio, can do it. Lubezki’s camera under Malick is questioning, boundary-confronting, self-exposing; it moves in order to learn, to think, to be, and to, at the risk of its very soul, to become something new. Lubezki’s camera under Inarritu never wants to become anything it hasn’t already set its mind to: a punishing fantasy of escape and return, a faux-humbling effort which chastizes America for raping the land and then ultimately argues that the real Americans will earn this rape anyway.
At times, it seems to court American Transcendentalism, the thought of Emerson and Thoreau, but their ultimate moral principle was wandering, a wandering, errant consciousness untethered to certainty. The Revenant, comparatively, seems certain that Emerson and Thoreau are merely deluded white men for wanting to experience nature. And then, paradoxically, that they would be heroes if only they were American men of action who could throw themselves into the heart of darkness that is nature and then escape it. As a moral principle, it elevates masculine catharsis, nature as a testing ground for the male being, rather than a playground of the mind not to master but to experience and absorb. In doing so, the film nominally revokes old Americana mythologies of the lone wanderer and bootstrap individualism, but it doesn’t actually question them so much as expose how much work it takes to fulfill them, and how anyone but the best will die, reifying the very exceptionalist narratives it seems to defy.
And as for the moments of stillness, the intimations of transcendence, the affective beauty of the thing, it’s all hollow, all drawing attention to only its excess, its grandeur, its stylistic bravado, all of which it plays not as joys in and of themselves, but pretentiouosly, as though it has solved the riddle of the Sphinx and discovered the answer to a truer being. Every shot in a Malick film radiates an inchoate awareness of the cosmos around it, the camera swaying with the breath of the earth and intimating a sense of nature’s totality that exists, crucially, outside its own purview. His humbling aesthetic is never heroic or brutally nihilistic. Rather than giving up or merely materially learning how to survive in nature, Malick exposes the capacity of nature to bestow a new, more pliable, more poetic form of consciousness, a yielding mind which rethinks itself, exposes itself to the world hesitantly, in leaps of faith. This entails the good grace to evaporate, to move liquidly, to search for the heavens with a constant readiness for the unexpected and the beyond. It entails bearing the shadow of past moments while dancing with a seriousness that is also playful, light, and graceful. Malick always searches for ephemeral forms of connection and togetherness, a poetics of relation with the world (to cop from Eduoard Glissant) which is beautiful and poetic because it exists in the moment, because of the ephemerality of its transcendence. A truth which is partial in the moment and which might be reconsidered the next.
The Revenant only has one truth: it is hard, it is great, and greatness is hard. Its camera discovers nothing, nor does it play around in the liminal space between discovery and uncertainty, never intimating possibilities it can’t prove (which is the space where Malick thrives). No, The Revenant’s camera is obviously planned to within an inch of its life, wearing the burden of its presentation and the significance of its own existence in every pain-staking trudge through the snow and pirouette in the air, as though the camera is showing off what it can do, rather than why it can do it. Whereas Tree of Life always seems to be searching for what significance might mean in the first place, contesting the grounds on which we might imagine beauty, one gets the sense that The Revenant would consider any searching as an aesthetic collapse, a reminder that it hadn’t perfectly planned out its world, that its authoritarian vision of personal relationship with nature, both for Hugo and the film crew, is fallacious, that it cannot master the nature around it.
All this superficiality, in theory, is also totally fine. A great, brutal, piquant, Fuller-esque gut-punch of a film, a tried-and-true B-picture, can be just as frictive and spontaneous as a Malickian search for the sublime, and possibly just as important. But rather than fulfilling a Hobbesian vision of cinema – a life most “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” – The Revenant is clearly on the hunt to prove its own worth, to ensure its monumental monolithic-ness, to draw in all viewers and other films with the gravitational pull of its poetry-shattering respectability. In this case, importance breeds impotence.
The Revenant, Alejandro González Inárritu’s maximalist storm of brazen and turbulent pure cinema, isn’t the sharpest nail in the bunch, but it makes up for its somewhat dulled self-congratulatory aura with the primacy of its phlegmatic vitriol. Coursing through its veins are strains of meditative Terrence Malickian sublimity, maddened and almost Germanic psychosis, and the relatively disheveled, cross-grained likes of the traditional American revenge epic. Each of these interests sometimes bites back at the others, leading to a film with an impressive array of frayed knots and wooly, worn, unshorn edges, all of which don’t always cohere or bristle with the ruffled energy of the film’s individual parts. The Revenant is ultimately a little too blunt, a little too predetermined in its Capital-A Angst, to feel as freewheeling as it so clearly wishes to. But tangled within its loins are some of the most intoxicating and incandescent sequences of cinematic prose to have graced the screen in years.
As with Birdman, In>árritu’s most piercing paintbrush remains cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Going for a trifecta of Best Cinematography Oscars in the same number of years, Lubezki doesn’t marry his perilous, vertiginous, tricksy long takes to his characters’ inner turmoil quite as feverishly as he did in last year’s Birdman. In that film, the unchained camerawork was as much a technical showpiece as a visual externalization of the rattling discombobulation of main man Riggan Thomson’s fractured inner self and his roving, unquiet internal self. The failures of the camerawork to dissect the film’s characters in The Revenant are not Lubezki’s fault, though, so much as they are the necessity of a film that is definitionally externalized to begin with. The Revenant isn’t a work about main character Hugh Glass so much as a work about how much can be done to him, and Lubezki’s camera is never once absent from the pummeling.
From the beginning, the prowling camera works double time not only to control and connect space but to reject its physical geometry and institute its own more savage, wraithlike plane of existence. It is telling that the film’s opening perches an arrow entering a man’s throat not as shock but respite from the mounting, crawling dread of the unknown. In a sequence where the phantom-like Arikara Native Americans encircle a mostly white expedition party, the most singular threat is the spectral wilderness exerting a hypnotic pull from its swamp-like ground-level dirges to its upper-levels where domineering, almost dictatorial trees threaten to reach the heavens. In doing so, of course, the trees mock the pitiful white humans underneath for ever thinking they could best this untamed land, in what amounts to a Herzogian touch that borders on study-of-madness as the film progresses
Eventually, the cartographer of this expedition, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), is left for dead by the few survivors of his expedition party, most notably the venomously chill John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy mumbling like McCabe in an Altman film). Much later in the film, when he eventually makes his presence known to the white men who abandoned him, the sequence is lit with only enough natural light to afford the scene a beyond-the-grave air that suffocates not only Glass but everyone on the screen; it’s as if the forest itself is conspiring to keep the characters from reaching one another, externalizing the ghostly nature of their forlorn souls. The impressionistically hazy visuals give the lie to Glass’ return, suggesting that his survival is only nominal and exterior, but not interior.
Throughout Glass’ attempt to seek revenge on Fitzgerald, the camera is not only reactive observant to the carnage but an instigator of it. It does not merely excavate the crevices and cracks of the brutal, buried netherworld of early 19th century America but almost dares the characters to do the same with its tactile pull. Lon Bender’s sound design manages even more treachery and deceit, especially when operating in harmony with Ryuichi Sakamoto’s fractured glass mirror of a score or when it is breaking the diegesis of the movie by huffing and puffing with DiCaprio’s breath right into the fogged-over swamp of the camera lens. The Revenant’s bolder, more human aims toward exploration of man’s inhumanity toward man are sometimes narratively stunted, But in the fitfully gruesome, flesh-craving bear attack that mauls Glass not only physically but emotionally, the sound design insidiously intermixes the bear’s grunts with DiCaprio’s and proves the film’s most discordant, satisfying examination of the nature of man and beast as one in the same (the film’s secret, and arguably best, weapon is its stunning sound mix, and how often do you get to say that about a motion picture?)
The film’s other anchor besides Lubezki is DiCaprio, ferociously spelunking headfirst into the film’s often toxic cloud of uncharted territory. His man-on-a-mission status extends far beyond sane territory; the ghost of Klaus Kinski in Aguirre trying to best the untamed wilderness of the Amazon is never far from the film’s mind. Nor is the spirit of Werner Herzog, not only Aguirre’s chronicler but his kindred spirit, directing that 1972 film almost as if to prove to other filmmakers that he could do it. Watching The Revenant, we wonder if the animating object of DiCaprio’s revenge-quest is similarly not really Hardy’s Fitzgerald but the real world Academy voters who have denied him the Best Actor Oscar time and time again.
Speaking of Hardy, he’s a more disconcerting, mysterious presence, all the more so for his icy silence in contrast to DiCaprio’s fire-and-brimstone determination. His audio is often the most perplexing, down-tuned facet of the film’s fascinating, beguiling sound mixing, constructing an unintelligible villain out of parts unknown. Working together to depict Fitzgerald as a man who lost his mind long ago, Hardy and the sound mixing reject our sense of finality and catharsis upon his comeuppance. If any aspect of the film is truly pulling its weight to experiment with the revenge quest form, and even to engage in self-critique, the murky anxiety-attack inducing sound is it.
Certainly, the sound is on surer footing than the film’s curious and back-peddling flashbacks to Glass’ Native American wife, now dead, and his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), killed by Fitzgerald. Both characters exist for no reason other than to spur Glass onwards, and Hawk especially arrives into the film like a totem to unearned racial complication all the more trivial for how elsewhere uninterested the script by Mark L. Smith and Inárritu is in expanding upon the tribalism and racial jagged edges of life in the early 19th century. Said flashbacks eventually circle around from accruing empathy toward Glass to instead exposing the fallacy of his revenge quest, but the shift feels like too little, too late for a film that has already firmly sequestered itself into the revenge-thriller tradition. The Revenant’s attempts to depict the Native Americans as victims of white imperialism are noble, sound drives, but they are half-heartedly interjected in a film that is not fully willing to engage with these impulses, nor with its occasional glimpses that Glass’ revenge may be Pyrrhic in nature.
Elsewhere, The Revenant often trades any sense of judicious self-modulation for the over-powering sledgehammer of its formal adventurousness. The pinnacle of Malick’s mountain of almost spiritual transcendence is denied the film time and time again by its insistence on applying coarser, blunter instruments than Malick’s usual directorial scalpel. Still, as an experience, Inárritu’s bruised beauty is hard to deny. Its lack of nuance doesn’t excise its primal eloquence and raw, untreated terror, even if it lacks the madcap, lunactic-fringe edge of something like Mad Max: Fury Road. The Revenant is a more fulfilling concrete slab than it is a movie, but who am I to argue with a good concrete slab?