Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) gets grievously wounded while the hunting party needs his skills to plot the way home. He gets left behind to die, but Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) who is supposed to give him a burial, commits grave acts, and Glass pulls himself out of the grave to take revenge on Fitzgerald.
I am completely blown away by this movie and I need a moment to let it sink in.
The opening sequence with the Indian attack on the hunting party is perhaps the best shot sequence in years. The camera, as it flows from one person to the other, and the beautiful vistas and the violence and the tension as it builds up from this unknown threat of Indian arrows, to a full-blown attack and the desperate flight to the boat, the camera is everywhere at the right moment. It follows people till they die, and then swings around and follows the attacker instead. I was absolutely mesmerized. The amount of planning and direction that has gone into this sequence is staggering, and as the camera was flowing back and forth between shocking shots and close-ups, I was thinking, this is still going on, this scene, it cannot be.
The movie slows down after this, I mean, there are some more unforgettable sequences, drenched in beauty and tension, but after a while, Glass (DiCapro) is on his own and struggling to get back to the real world, and the movie slows down and starts breathing with the rhythm of nature. As Glass becomes a part of nature, surviving in it (at one point, literally, naked inside a carcass), he and we are forced to recon with nature. I say the movie starts breathing with nature because nature forms a connection with Glass’s life and spirituality. There is always the sun as a lodestone on the screen, piercing the forest and illuminating the path before him. The deep, heavy soundtrack is like a primal breath that fills the giant empty spaces between the mountains and the sky. It is one of the best soundtracks of the year.
Once nature gets this spiritual dimension, it starts adding to the story. Glass remembers Indian wisdom of how the trees are swaying and you’d think they might fall over but their roots are strong. Intentionally, the camera frequently moves upwards to show swaying trees, telling us that although Glass’s journey is hard at this point, the conviction inside Glass is strong and survives. The sun and moon become guidance and water is always there to save Glass. Lots of shots of him filling his bottle with life-giving water, and water saves him from the Indians. It is not a coincidence that the film starts and ends with water. We start looking at flowing water as if the whole film emerges from it, and in the end, Glass releases Fitzgerald into the river, to let the water be the agent of judgment, instead of himself. Then there is the scene where he spends the night naked within a carcass, it is symbolism of him dying, becoming one with nature, and resurrecting, naked as a baby, to exact his revenge. The nature scenes are more than just pretty pictures, they inform us of Glass and his journey.
The merciless winter is in this sense similar to the deserts in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). The emptiness of the desert reflected the loss of hope and perspective for the inhabitants of that world, while the winter of Dakota, in turn dangerous and beautiful, reflects both the harsh emotions of hatred and conviction and the winter sun the hope for redemption. It is no coincidence that nature played such strong roles in these films, since it reflects the moods and mindset of the characters. I also consider The Revenant to equal Mad Max: Fury Road in artistry and effectiveness.
There is always the camera, moving with the flow and inhabiting different characters. In the very first scenes, the camera is at chest-height and looking up at the people. It is the point-of-view of Glass’s son, while he observes his father. Other times, we move between people as objects are handed over. When Fitzgerald shares meat with his companion, for example, we move with the meat from one person to another. This same busy camerawork we’ve seen before in Inarritu’s previous film Birdman (2014).
The landscape is unforgiving in the sense that we have seen in The Grey (2011), but it is not as bleak. Inarritu is adamant to show the beauty of the landscape, and it is curious how the beauty and the mud-covered horrors on the forest floor succeed each other. The beauty injects a spiritual dimension, as is visible in how the sun and moon, while they are sometimes hidden behind clouds, they are very present whenever Glass dreams or regresses to visions about his past and his family. When Glass finally emerges in the night, the moon shines brightly above his head, as if he is some sort of spectral appearance, sent by the moon and nature itself.
Technically, the film is brilliant. We are lucky that there are directors out there who are willing to brave the elements and drag their crew through the mud to make a film like this, because it takes pure bravery and stamina to film these scenes, and to emerge from these forest with an expertly composed shot, that deserves a lot of respect. The acting was good as well, but I’m not sure whether DiCaprio will deserve an Oscar for this. He grunts and foams around the mouth, but even though we spend two hours seeing him struggle through the snow, Tom Hardy still has a stronger presence. It is not that I wouldn’t grant DiCaprio an Oscar, but the emotional involvement with his character is not optimal and he has been better than this. What I particularly like about Hardy’s character is that his motives are understandable.
In general, the movie is most to be admired for its epic scope and visuals, while the story of Glass and Fitzgerald is not that emotionally involving, really. We don’t really see the relationship that Glass had with his son and we don’t really feel the hatred that Glass feels. The final showdown is extremely tense, but it has more to do with the setting, choreography, camera and music. It is all technical brilliance that dazzled me, and a visceral, bodily stress about knives and straining muscles.
In conclusion, the movie is like a stunningly beautiful choreographed opera about nature, hardship and revenge. It is a giant of a movie, but with a rather thin story running through it, like a great valley with a small river. Nevertheless, it is a tremendous cinematic experience that has a depth to it in visual storytelling.