Film Review: 'The Revenant'
Opened: 15 January 2016 (UK)
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter
Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Producers: Arnon Milchan, Steve Golin, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Mary Parent, Keith Redmon, James W. Skotchdopole
The Revenant (meaning someone who returns from the dead), as it turns out in the hands of Alejandro G. Iñárritu, comes across more as the success and a symbol of cinematic magnetism than a tale of human ‘spirit’ as many clichéd descriptions would have you believe. Every frame, every shot is bathed with the beauty that cinema can achieve and through that, the ugliness that can be refracted. The juxtaposition of ethereal snow-filled caps and pleasantly flowing brooks with the sight of a man wallowing in pus-infected animal-wounds or eating a dead animal’s liver – puking, but still eating— under-scoring Darwin’s ‘Survival of the Fittest’ theory as a ‘lived’ experience — is something for the visual senses only cinema can provide. In reality, this experience is difficult to experience whether one is either a subject or an object of that experience. But cinema provides a vantage point to visualize and sink into and Iñárritu leaves no snow-ball unturned in this tale of a man’s survival story only to extract vengeance on a man that betrayed and left him and his son for dead in the wintry-wild of South Dakota.
In short, the story revolves around a bunch of fur-trappers who are attacked by an Indian tribe in the American west during the Christmas month. The tribe is looking for its chief’s daughter who has been kidnapped and violated by one of the pelts-owning groups. After one such violent attack, Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) finds himself attacked by a grizzly bear rendering him almost paralyzed. He has a half-Indian son and their settlement – as shown in repeated back-story montages—has already been burnt by marauders. His wife is killed and he only has a son, Hawk, and he is looking forward to whatever life offers as a future. One of his antagonists, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) after promising to stay back along with a young Mr. Bridger for reward-money, proves a classic personification of a renegade after a couple of days of harsh winter and connives and leaves behind a horribly injured Glass, after convincing Bridger that under the circumstances, it would be the most ‘Christian’ thing to do. He even digs up the Earth to bury Glass and submit him to God! The rest of the story revolves around Glass’s inhuman suffering and survival in the face of all odds and exacting revenge on the man who yanked out of him the very reasons for continuing to live life.
As I said before, the beauty of this movie is in how cinema can take the audience through those experiences that are so difficult to even imagine in the crevices of our fertile or infertile mind. To imagine/substitute oneself in the dirty/stinky shoes of DiCaprio’s Glass is a difficult task; partly because folks like us in this modern world are quite used to the blizzard—and as I write this I am expecting a ‘devastating’ blizzard along the power-corridors of the United States—as we know it thanks to the shovels-for-loan at the leasing offices and, of course, that haven of modern civilization – Wal-Mart.
This movie is a powerful visual-vehicle of the power-struggle between nature and the human. Of how weak a human with all his or her shenanigans is brilliantly shot by Iñárritu in the scene of the grizzly bear mauling Glass. The ‘natural’ order of business with which it goes about attacking, clawing, mauling, sniffing, licking, and stomping the human who is somewhere along its food-chain is superbly conceived and shot. You can literally ‘feel’ the chilliness of the account. That the scene is a marvel of shot-taking and visualization is underscored by the fact that not once does one feel a sense of ‘pity’ for DiCaprio’s Glass. The bear is but doing what it is supposed to do; protecting her kin!! You can feel the pain and physical injury and helplessness of Glass, but never the pity for him or any sense of hatred for the animal.
And then there are two more ‘heroes’ to this mad cinematic exploration: The lush cinematography and the outstanding background score. There is one shot of DiCaprio’s Glass walking in the snow-filled wilderness and the camera zooms into him from afar. From a distance, as the audience, one realized and sees that tiny ‘speck’ of a human walking with a make-shift cane in his hand as the camera zooms in on him. Visually, the movie fantastically conveys the lone ‘journey’ to the audience, but Glass is obviously oblivious to the distinction. He doesn’t see the ‘futility’, but it looms large for the audience’s senses!!
The soundtrack (Carsten Nicolai & Ryuichi Sakamoto aided finely by the Seattle Symphony) Orchestra is magnificent; the back-ground score does a stupendous job of adding aurally to the visually stunning landscapes in view. Hope and melancholy go hand-in-hand here and the musical score does a brilliant job of elevating the ‘sum-total’ of experiences for the viewer. I am musically illiterate but cognitively quite capable of musically putting together two and two and this is one helluva score that translates the beauty and dangers of the wilderness. The Revenantmain theme is one to die for.
Coming to the ‘acting’ credentials, DiCaprio has been facing quite some flak for– at least in the Indian press and amongst the Indian critics of ‘repute’ – his performance of Glass; since according to them, his performance is nothing but a classic syndrome of‘suffering-for-art’ remember Bale from The Machinist?): That there is not actually any ‘felt’ performance but just the rigmarole of physical suffering. I am not saying they are entirely wrong but I do beg to differ. Leo is very good in conveying a ‘progressive’ graph as the character demands it; from voice-modulation to the physicality. After being mauled by the bear, till the very end, he maintains the weakness and ‘hoarseness’ in his voice. His shouts and bellows are but whimpers in the overall aural world that he is a part of. One of the conundrums of a role that is so physically outward and demanding is that the emotional registers are pushed into the back-ground. I wouldn’t strongly blame any critic or audience if he or she feels that they couldn’t ‘feel’ the emotional connect. But isn’t that the point? What ‘emotional’ connect is one talking of when one is forced to eat and vomit at the same time? When one slushes out the innards of a horse and makes a living in a carcass? When survival itself is at stake, that ‘animalistic’ need to preserve life is all that ‘emotions’ can convey. (There is a scene where he and an Indian slip out their tongue just to catch snow-flakes and enjoy. They then smile at each other. After that, it’s back to survival business.) This is not to give DiCaprio a pass but to wonder whether the ‘performance appraisal’ that one is so keen on giving is indeed a reflection of true indicators? In one scene, for instance, Leo is sharp in enactment of a scene: His fingers, his hands have been mauled and he is trying to collect and drink some water from a brook. Due to his injury, he effectively conveys his failure at ‘cupping’ or ‘palming’ his hands to collect water! He tries but he just gives it up since all the water is just slipping out the gaps of his fingers! There, right there, is an act of precision for you! How you classify it, is upto you.
Tom Hardy is adequate, but his voice is something that put me off. I couldn’t understand half of the time what he was saying – and he tried the Southern accent. Hardy has always been a problem—for me at least— in terms of his dialogue-delivery. I struggle to understand the words coming out of his mouth when he attempts an accent different from the Londoner accent. According to me, he is pretty bad at other accents but quite effective in his own (check out Locke for instance). Oh by the way, one of the ironic – maybe deliberate – takes I observed in this film is that the subjective ‘villain’ of the piece, Fitzgerald, is the one who takes the name of the Lord the most and is shown more Christ-loving than any others! All other actors including the Indian actors aid effectively in this experience.
Finally, this is cinema enjoyed as a wholesome experience if you do not have a heart disease. (I don’t as yet but still had to turn my head away for at least 10 minutes of the 152 minutes running time.) Here, by the way, is TIME’s account of the actual history.