“The Revenant” is both Style and Substance, and Don’t Let Anyone Tell You Otherwise

The Revenant is a gorgeous slog. From the opening panorama to the final close-up, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s frontier survivalist epic confronts the viewer with this discord. This tension colors the film completely, elbowing out more nuanced analyses of character arcs or thematic material upon first glance. But to claim, as some critics have, that The Revenant is a pretty film devoid of meaning is an absurdity. The harrowing cinematic experience certainly offers visual splendor up front and is heavily fettered in a masochistic cloak, but underneath it all, the insights into the human condition are many and varied. Besides marveling at the strength of the human spirit or the futility of revenge, themes of spiritual rebirth, everlasting love, betrayal, racism, and even the importance of friendship and connection with another human being in this vast, cold world.

For the second straight year, Alejandro G. Iñárritu has created a visual masterpiece with the help of Emmanuel Lubezki. But this time their subject is not the claustrophobic trappings of a New York theatre, but the vast expanse of the American frontier. The opening sequence is masterful visual storytelling, and prepares the viewer for the wonder that will unfold throughout the film. The first shot establishes the setting, a trio of hunters stalking an elk deep in the forest. Upon the firing of the killing shot, we are transported to the camp and Fitzgerald, swearing under his breath at the loudness of the shot. His fears will be realized as the Ree attack the group and chase the survivors to the boat.

In the camp and during the hunt, the camera swirls through the assembled company, placing the viewer among the trappers. Yet, often the camera takes a low angle: it awkwardly looks up at all of the men in the party, as if glorifying each and every one of them as titans. Hence the viewer is placed among the characters, but is visually separate. Here Lubezki and Iñárritu exalt these frontiersmen as larger-than-life characters, men to revere. When the Ree finally attack, it is more of the same. The camera continues hover throughout the attack, and actually focuses on multiple characters, as if searching for a protagonist among the many. Old and young men, white men and Ree are surveyed during the carnage, and no answer is provided until the trappers escape on the boat. This initial sequence, lasting maybe 10 minutes, is unbelievably powerful filmmaking.

The camera has more tricks up its sleeve, too. It continues with low-angle views, but changes its subject from the characters to the setting. Multiple times it focuses on the sky and the treetops swaying in the wind. It also inserts itself into the action, catching snowflakes on the lens, fogging over with a character’s breath, or getting smeared by an errant drop of blood. This breaking of the fourth wall serves as a reminder that we, the audience, are here in this world (though, thankfully, just as visitors). The final and most poignant example of this technique occurs at the end of the film, but you must earn its importance by experience.

The plot of The Revenant is straightforward: a band of fur-trappers are out doing their thing in Montana and South Dakota in the 1820s and are attacked by the Arikara (often called “the Ree” in the film). The survivors, which include frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his half-Pawnee son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), have to escape capture en route back to the fort. On the way, Glass is attacked by a bear and becomes a liability to the other survivors due to his extensive injuries. When the commander (Domhnall Gleeson) offers triple shares for men to stay behind and see that Glass’ last days are comfortable, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) agrees to stay behind along with Hawk and another young man. Fitzgerald murders Hawk and leaves Glass for dead, and from then on Glass must struggle for every hour of life as he heals from his injuries and evades capture from the Ree en route to Fitzgerald.

Thus we understand the title of the film: a revenant is a visible ghost or animated corpse that has returned from the grave to terrorize the living.

The performances in the film are magnificent. DiCaprio is not given many lines, as the bear attack compromises his speech for much of the film, but he is able to accomplish much with other aspects of his performance. Those who criticize DiCaprio’s tendencies for screaming, anger, and a general lack of range will likely find plenty to complain about his performance in this film, but I believe there is more subtlety here than in something like The Wolf of Wall Street. Even more impressive is Tom Hardy’s turn as the traitorous John Fitzgerald. Hardy adopts a wonderful accent and feels plucked from the era, which is not at all surprising given his prowess. Both actors have undoubtedly earned their Oscar nominations, but I would consider Hardy’s the better performance – though just barely.

Initially, Glass’ survival instinct is driven purely by revenge. He scrawls “Fitzgerald killed my son” on rocks and walls in the hopes that someone, somewhere will learn the truth should he not survive. But throughout his pursuit of Fitzgerald, there are bizarre flashbacks and fever-dreams which provide additional context for Glass’ story. We learn that his wife was murdered in a raid by US soldiers, and that Glass killed an officer to protect his young son. We also see a macabre pile of skulls, perhaps symbolic of the sheer magnitude of death that Glass has caused his life – and the receptacle for one more skull: Fitzgerald’s.

These visions first emerge as Glass recuperates from the bear attack, but as he nears his quarry, he starts to see his wife with his waking eye. Throughout the film, she recites a motif in the language of the Pawnee which can be viewed as the major theme of the film: “When there is a storm. And you stand in front of a tree. If you look at its branches, you swear it will fall. But if you watch the trunk, you will see its stability.” The meaning of this statement is clear: though one is best by challenges and injuries, the strength of a man is not in the outward appearances, but in the core of his spirit.

But, as I have mentioned before, this is not the only theme of The Revenant (though it is the most evident). The first friendly face that Glass encounters in the wilderness is a Pawnee man who offers him some food, and then insists on the two travelling together. The pair only share the road for a short time, but this one kindness undoubtedly saves Glass’ life. This plot element suggests that even in this sparse wasteland, men of very different backgrounds can discover commonality and celebrate it through friendship. In a film as harsh and unforgiving as The Revenant, this is a powerful statement, and has often gone overlooked by most critiques of the film.

This is why I balk at the opinion that The Revenant is nothing more than pretty machismo and punishment. Those elements of the film are certainly present, but to simply take them at face value and abandon further analysis takes specific elements of the film and treats them as indicative of the whole. Taking Iñárritu’s most recent film as an example, it would be like saying Birdman was about the self-obsession of actors. While partially true, it woefully misses the underlying point and related themes. Do not succumb to the temptation of dismissing this powerful film as mere punishment porn. The Revenant is brutal at times, but through that brutality finds a life, love, and spirituality to rival the great explorations of the human condition.

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