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?