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.
Larry Pearce says
I felt the Revenant was a fairly good film with two or three unforgettable, GREAT sequences, yet not exactly a masterpiece on the level of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, Bruce Beresford’s little seen Black Robe, or even Michael Mann’s wonderful (and underrated) The Last of The Mohicans. Yes, we’re all impressed they did a lot of the stuff for real mostly (like the new Mad Max, there’s A LOT of digital trickery in the film despite all the hoopla and hype that it’s all “real”), the bear is the most eye-poppingly realistic CGI animation we’ve ever seen, the ambient music score is drop dead gorgeous, Leo’s nostril flaring, grunting, sweating, shivering, and painfully filthy hair seem genuine and intense (he’s always genuine and intense in his performances, though), and the escape from the French Canadian camp in the middle of the film is absolutely breathtaking… But what a disappointing climax!!! Just to go on this incredible journey to end up rolling around in the snow, wrastlin’ with and stabbing the guy who left you behind at the beginning of the film for what seems like FOREVER? What a letdown!!! The ending of Apocalypse Now is a letdown of sorts too, but it seems nihilistic and ironic in keeping with the spirit of the rest of the film whereas The Revenant’s finale just feels like “Welp… Ok. The movie’s over now. Bye. Time to pee.” And though I appreciated and noted the references to the paintings of Capsar David Friedrich in the dream/vision stuff, all that crap with his dead wife felt forced and overly sentimental, completely at odds with the otherwise refreshing starkness and brutality of rest of the film.
And about the much lauded cinematography and the film’s use of natural light: the film was shot with digital cameras, and though it’s cool they really went out there in the woods and shot all that stuff in actual lighting, the fact that it’s all shot digitally is a cheat. A big one. Digital photography in extreme lighting conditions is so much easier to do than doing it on film- which they should’ve gone the extra mile and done if they really had the balls. Though all the imagery within any given frame of the film is utterly fantastic, the basic visual quality of these images has the yucky sterility of a pretty screensaver. Think of an oil painting compared to a painting made with photoshop. Though the photoshop painting may indeed be an interesting, compelling, even stunning image, and maybe even a better work of art in the end than the oil painting, the basic subtleties that make the oil painting look rich to our eyes will always be lacking in the photoshop work. We may disagree on The Force Awakens, but at least that was shot on film and its digital FX were rendered to look like film. Visually, The Force Awakens looks better than The Revenant because of that.
Look at the many night scenes in The Revenant that have a campfire. The embers float up and dance around like fireflies as the camera tilts up to reveal the embers flowing and disintegration against the star-filled night sky. Incredible, world class filmmaking! But the quality of the image rather than the image itself doesn’t look quite right to the eye, like it was shot with a videocamera (which it basically was) rather than on film like something like Apocalypse Now or Barry Lyndon. It’s a very difficult thing to try to describe in words, and a lot of the time that digital/film difference doesn’t bug me if the movie is otherwise good and interesting (which The Revenant is for the most part.) But I felt like yelling at the screen while I was watching, “THEY DID THIS ON DIGITAL VIDEO, PEOPLE!!!” because so much press and fanfare have been slathered on this film’s portentous (and pretentious) pains in achieving an authentic quality- an authenticity that is ultimately dubious to my eyes. They should’ve done it on film. Period. It’s also too long for no reason other than to be “too long.” But you won’t win an Oscar unless your film is too long. That’s the rule.
My four favorite scenes this year at the movies:
1.) The escape from the French Canadian camp in The Revenant.
2.) The quantum world sequence in Ant-Man.
3.) Rylo Ken and Han Solo on the bridge in The Force Awakens.
4.) The scene in Ex Machina where the two guys are holding the robot blob brain that looks like a big breast implant while talking about robots and brains and A.I. stuff.
(Honorable mention: there was a lot of goofy Roger Corman type shit in Jurassic World that I got a kick out of too.)