As a young man growing up in Northern Michigan, I once had the misfortune of crashing through some thin ice on a canal that ran through my hometown (ironically, I was trying to warn my younger brother away from a place I thought had thinner ice). I sank down to my armpits into arctic water, which seemed to immediately render my legs useless. With some useless yelling and useful floundering, I quickly scrambled my way back to land. After that, I still had a good half-mile to walk wearing soaked clothes in sub-zero temperatures before I got back home. Yet, my memories of the cold I felt that day don’t seem nearly as real as the cold I imagined Leonardo DiCaprio felt in his new film The Revenant. That’s how authentic it looks.
To summarize, the movie chronicles the epic journey of Hugh Glass, a scout for a early 1820’s fur-trapping expedition, after he is attacked by a grizzly bear, has his son murdered in front of him, and is then abandoned for dead. Through sheer will and a burning need for vengeance, he treks through desolate valleys and near-frozen rivers in an attempt to confront John Fitzgerald (an excellent Tom Hardy), the man responsible for the decidedly downward arc of Hugh’s life.
To begin, I’ve heard this movie described as ultra-violent. I respectfully disagree. Instead, I call it simply brutal. As brutal as life surely was in the snowy wilderness of the American Frontier during the early part of the nineteenth century. To see this film is to vicariously experience those times. In the same way that Gravity had me shallowly breathing in the car on the way home to conserve oxygen, The Revenant left me with my muscles tense and contracted from fighting off hypothermia. This visceral response can be attributed to two factors, Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography and Leonardo DiCaprio’s totally committed performance.
First off, this is a gorgeous picture. Mr. Lubezki captures the beauty of the unsoiled natural world without diminishing it’s inherent savagery. The snow-covered vistas are breathtaking, even more so when the only sense of scale comes from a tiny blip of a barely recognizable human being. The intimate shots of a leaf or branch are left onscreen in silence long enough to allow contemplation of what it must have been like two centuries ago to be living where if you get caught outside during a blizzard, you were truly on your own. What I noticed during the film was how the characters never seemed to be overly impressed with the views now only seen in SUV commercials. They and I share a secret about nature that I only learned while trying to body-surf off Myrtle Beach, namely that nature isn’t actively trying to kill you, it’s just indifferent to your survival. This fact may be small comfort to the men of this film who are desperately trying to stay warm, as it was to me when an undertow was dragging me across the bottom of the surf, but it is a great truth about life that nature doesn’t care.
This lack of caring thankfully doesn’t carry over into the camerawork of this movie. The subtle use of what felt like a fishbowl lens helped to bring the viewer into the action. I felt surrounded by the snow-covered trees instead of just watching them on a flat plane. The water in the river sequences had a mass to it that made you feel its force along with its chill. Another technique noted also by others was the use of extended tracking shots. This is something I would like to see other filmmakers take note of. Instead of the frantic, quick-cut world of the Transformers or Bourne Identity movies, where the viewer is robbed of their ability to make any sense of the actions sequences, The Revenant allows the viewer to track the movements of individuals in three-dimensional space. In turn, the audience can better understand the choices made by the characters in an extended chase or fight scene. Compare that to other current films where before your mind can even process who’s elbow is blurring across the screen, the director has already cut to another shot of what may be either a face or the folds of a jacket bouncing off something or other with ear-shattering bass booming in the background. It’s not subtle, and it’s usually done to hide either a weakness in the story or the performance.
Thankfully, neither of those two factors come into play here. As a long-time director of student theater, I can assure you one of the most difficult things to portray authentically is physical pain when you simply aren’t feeling any. The tendency among most actors is to first cover their faces with their hands. Unfortunately, while an authentic response in many cases, it robs the audience of their ability to feel empathy with the character and his/her plight. In this film, however, Leonardo DiCaprio offers a master’s class in the depiction of someone not only experiencing physical and mental anguish, but of that same person trying to suppress and overcome it. To add another layer of difficulty, for most of the film he has very few spoken lines to depend on to express Hugh Glass’s pain. There is no voice-over or long soliloquy for him to use to communicate his suffering. He only has his eyes and his face, and he uses them both to up-most advantage without resorting to over-the-top mannerisms. It simply feels like truth.
To sum up, while not a film I see myself watching over and over like A Few Good Men or Shawshank Redemption, The Revenant is one I highly recommend seeing on the biggest screen possible. If nothing else, go for its realistic capturing of a way of life which, thankfully, we’ll never have to experience, and go so that when Leo gives his acceptance speech for Best Actor during the upcoming Oscars ceremony, you’ll be one of those who know why he truly deserves it.