Double Takes: Despite its Golden Globes, ‘The Revenant’ is a polarizing film
In our Double Takes series The Emerald provides two reporter’s contrasting opinions about Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Golden Globe-winning The Revenant, his first film since winning the Academy Award for Best Picture of 2014 for Birdman. Craig Wright was not impressed by the camerawork, while Meerah Powell says it is an immersive film.
The film follows the true story of a 19th century fur-trapper named Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio). Surrounded by a frigid and dangerous landscape, Glass attempts to persevere through a harrowing journey for revenge after being betrayed by his colleagues and left alone and injured to fend for himself in the brutal elements of the wilderness.
Listen to Craig and Meerah in our special Double Takes podcast below:
If you’ve seen the theatrical trailer of The Revenant, you have essentially seen the full picture. If you would like to avoid the price of admission and save a grueling two-and-a-half hours, here’s a recommendation: watch the trailer twice, think about the archetypal hero’s journey, predict the ending, and wait until video.
In director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s follow-up to 2014’s Best Picture winning Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, the tracker/navigator for a fur trading company during the harsh winter of 1823. An attack by a Native American war party forces the decimated crew to find a safe passage home through the unforgiving wilderness, in which Glass is viciously mauled by a grizzly bear and left as a liability to the others. Glass has no choice but to track John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) down and improbably pursue his revenge after being left for dead.
To start with the positive, the sound production in The Revenant is fantastic. It’s rare that a film’s sound demands attention for its quality, but every gust of wind, every cracked branch and every gunshot is captured in stunning clarity.
The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is beautiful, but every scene seems to begin and end with an extended landscape shot, or a closeup of ice on leaves and trees. It feels like an episode of Planet Earth, not a tale of defying death and revenge. This is part of Iñárritu’s plan. To make the violence seem more grotesque, he contradicts it with the beauty of nature.
That’s where the problems begin.
The most aggravating thing about The Revenant is the intrusive camerawork. Although Leonardo DiCaprio won best actor at the Golden Globes (and will likely claim his elusive Oscar for this performance), the camera is the actual star of The Revenant.
Much like in Birdman, the camera is not the means for filming scenes, rather it is the focal point of every scene. Good camerawork should be noted for how it creatively captures the scene, not how the actual object itself steals every scene.
The most blaring violation of camerawork comes after Glass has been abandoned. In near silence, the camera pushes so close to Glass’s face that his breathing fogs up the camera lens.
To many, this is perceived as an artistic feat of brilliance that no other director would dare attempt (Iñárritu took home the Golden Globe for best director). There’s a reason why few directors do this. It transports the viewer out of the frostbitten wilderness we have become entrenched in and shatters the illusion of an onscreen reality.
It shouldn’t be a big deal, except the same breath-on-the-lens gimmick is repeated twice more (!) in later scenes. It does not make the film more personal, as it is undoubtedly intended to do. It only calls attention to the filming in a distracting manner.
Iñárritu does capture the bestiality of man well — to an extent. His attention to detail is incredible, however, the overindulgence of camera interference exposes the details as a fault that interrupt the natural habitat of the film. The fights are well choreographed and suspenseful, but the blood, rabid drooling and sweat seems to always find a way to land on the camera lens, which is forced to act as a windshield. Every shot feels like a plea to notice Iñárritu’s self-indulgent, meta “greatness” that overuses every single trick in the book.
The movie reeks of Oscar bait for which the voters are likely to fall.
Despite solid performances from the stars (excluding the camera) The Revenant is an average survival movie with beautiful cinematography and sound. The problem is, it had the potential to be great.
In short, The Revenant is a movie that is destined to be analyzed by high schoolers for decades to come because it appears to be deep on the surface. It is the foil to Hemingway’s “iceberg theory” of storytelling; there is empty symbolism that leads to nothing, and overt symbolism that is so painfully obvious it’s tough not to chuckle in the theater.
“When you see the film, you will see the scale of it. And you will say, ‘Wow,’” said director Alejandro González Iñárritu in an interview with The Guardian about The Revenant, and he’s not wrong. Whether you loved it or hated it, it’s doubtful that you didn’t experience moments of awe during the film, whether due to its stunning cinematography, overtly visceral violence or emotionally evocative acting.
The Revenant, in my and many others’ opinions, is one of the best films of the past few years. The film, recently winning numerous Golden Globe awards including Best Motion Picture – Drama, has been praised for not only its rock solid plot and strong acting but also its equally matched, utterly haunting visuals.
Hugh Glass’ determination for revenge is illuminated by Leonardo DiCaprio’s more than convincing character portrayal that some suspect might finally earn him an Oscar for best actor. DiCaprio’s performance is exceptionally realistic, from grimacing pain to heart-wrenching loss, and a lot of it was real — such as DiCaprio eating a raw bison liver.
This stark visual reality was something that Iñárritu’s direction stressed, and something that becomes obvious in the film’s realistically cringe-worthy violence. Though the film features enough gore to satiate Quentin Tarantino, all the blood and guts aren’t in excess. The savage imagery, though hard to view at times, helps to ground the film in its very specific, and very brutal, reality by forcing the audience to watch difficult moments without giving them the option to look away.
Not all of The Revenant’s scenes are punishing to watch, though. The film also features breathtaking shots of its snowy, forested setting in order to transport and situate the viewer into the setting as well as to reveal the large-scale, equally beautiful and dangerous essence of nature that Glass must face head-on.
The Revenant balances its brute reality and soaring cinematography with surreal dream sequences experienced by Glass throughout the film. These dream sequences bring up penetrating memories from Glass’ past, mostly of his deceased Native-American wife, and help to add an overarching psychological aspect to the movie as a break from its intense physicality.
Overall, The Revenant serves as a serious form of engaging escapism that’s not as normally brought forth by film as it should be. When watching the film, it’s hard not to sympathize with Glass and other characters, feel their pain and hold their same desires. All of the film’s 156 minutes serve as an effortless platform to forget about sitting in a movie theater chair, and instead truly experience cinema rather than just passively view it. The Revenant serves as a film to get fully lost in.