Reviewed by John David Ebert
Occasionally, a dying medium is still able to produce a masterpiece. It happens. Hence, when Classical art was in its Hellenistic death throes it could still produce a Laocoon or a Cyclops Polyphemus from Sperlonga; the dying novel managed to breathe forth Gravity’s Rainbow and Blood Meridian; and the end phases of classical music has given us Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima or Ligeti’s Requiem.
And now Alejandro G. Inarritu has created a cinematic masterpiece entitled The Revenant, a film that is filled with one astonishing image after the next. Indeed, there are so many of them that one cannot quite believe what one is seeing: the ghost of a winter sun glimpsed through the gray fog of split-skin tree branches; the film’s protagonist, Hugh Glass, crawling forth from the insides of the horse carcass where he has crept to hide from a blizzard; wolves on fire with burning arrows jutting from their throats as they lie slain on the frozen ground by a hungry Pawnee who has stolen their buffalo kill from them. Image after incredible image. Images that come right out of the tradition of Jodorowsky, Terence Malick or indeed even frozen snapshot tableaux that remind one of an Andy Goldsworthy nature sculpture. Inarritu’s self-assuredness with the camera is simply breath-taking.
Inarritu chose to film the movie using a curved lens, as though one were watching an IMAX film in miniature. Cezanne was the first to paint on curved space shortly after Riemann and Lobachevsky discovered non-Euclidean geometry. Einstein then based his entire cosmology on imagining the universe as a giant curved lens. But Cezanne was there first, and now Inarritu has brought the tradition into the “post-classic” medium of our dying cinema and the effect is astonishing to behold.
The tale told, though it is based on the real life account of the survival of Hugh Glass after being left behind for dead by his company of fellow fur trappers, manages to pay homage to one of the world’s oldest stories: the little known tale of Lugalbanda, father of Gilgamesh, who, while marching with his army to conquer the city of Aratta, fell ill and was left behind by his regiment in a cave for dead. But Lugalbanda was resurrected after praying to the gods, and when he crawled forth from his cave, he recapitulated the evolution of civilization by first building a fire and then sacrificing a bull and two goats.
Glass (played by Leonardo di Caprio in an excellent performance), similarly left behind for dead, survives one incredible death-defying ordeal after the next. He dies and is resurrected on at least three separate occasions, just like the ancient dying and reviving moon gods of the dusty desert world of mud-brick built Mesopotamia. Glass, after his son is murdered by John Fitzgerald (skillfully played by Tom Hardy in sharp contrast to his lackluster performance in Mad Max: Fury Road) simply refuses to die and manages to crawl his way through the wilderness, hiding in its various niches and crannies, surviving in a manner that–if it were not true–one simply wouldn’t believe.
Inarritu’s images invite comparison with the Hudson Valley School of 19th century American Romantic painters like Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt and Fredric Edwin Church. This is a vision of Nature when it was still colossal and terrifying; Glass is surrounded and dwarfed by its gigantism. In this pre-industrial landscape one could be swallowed up at any moment by an avalanche or simply be erased by the mists of a blizzard or ripped apart by the savage jaws of a grizzly bear. This was what the world looked like before we humans captured it and put it inside the thin shell of a technical exoskeleton that transformed it into an anthropogenic incubator. But Inarritu’s film shows a landscape that is still full of sublime ferocity and archaic visions of frigid, luminous beauty.
In short: this is a film that will reward repeated viewings, for its semiotics are complex and its images are simply works of art unto themselves. It is, without doubt, the best film made in 2015 and makes such paltry efforts as The Martian, Mad Max: Fury Road and above all, the mediocre Star Wars: The Force Awakens look like the uninspired and pale imitations of cinematic images from days gone by that they are.
The Reveanant is a masterpiece. But don’t take my word for it: go and see it for yourself.