Blood stands for beauty in The Revenant.
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s brave — and bravura — new film is a frostbitten epic. It is a film that mesmerises with its brutality and its breadth, its ragged relentlessness and its barely masked masochism, and, perhaps above all, a film that must be experienced in a theatre — ideally with a sweater at hand.
So brilliantly do Iñárritu and his master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki evoke the sense of freezing cold that it’s hard not to shiver, and the colour white, in all its pristine glory, emerges the most forbidding, most biting of the lot: the picture-perfect frames are composed around temperature rather than merely colour, with the white of the snow and the white of rapids more frightening and endless than any angry animal. Icicles crust around big beards making whiskers look like they could be snapped off like twigs, steam from mouths fogs up even the lens of the majestic camera, and, once in a too-blue moon, we find respite in the form of a warmer temperature: in firelight and in blood.
Blood, in all its forms. Blood as it runs down a broken nose or a recently-stabbed leg, blood as it drips out from a furry carcass or from a still-throbbing liver, blood as it colours and cakes the snow to break a parent’s heart, blood as it fills vengeful eyes. Iñárritu is clearly consumed by a self-imposed quest for blood and beauty, but — the question must be asked — how much must beauty bleed?
Also, how deep is the wound, truly? Iñárritu ramps up the suffering more and more, loading up the misfortune to the point where one begins to brace oneself for what fresh, frigid hell he will conjure up next for his protagonist Hugh Glass, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio doesn’t come close to hitting a false note but Iñárritu, tragically, does: as an edge-of-the-seat revenge drama, the film is right up there, but the filmmaker overreaches for grander themes, making do with some hokum expressed by philosophically shallow visions and obvious spirituality. There is even some heavy-handed exoticising of Native Americans. Even these significant missteps, however, look sensational.
There might not be much profoundness in the imagery, but, my God, what images The Revenant holds. From a haunting close-up of a horse’s eye to the thrilling, surreal vision of a spotted horse being ridden across dalmatian terrain, this film is a spectacular showcase for Lubezki, and the ace — on a hot streak after Gravity and Birdman — flexes his muscles so hard that the film belongs to him. There are moments his mighty Steadicam swivels around in a giddy sweep, like an eager child trying to drink it all in, trying to contain the spellbinding beauty of the impossible settings without blinking — a smashing early shot follows attackers and fleers during an ambush in stunningly visceral style, riding with them and falling with them — and others where his camera seems to gazes at the proceedings helplessly — like when a bear takes charge.
Iñárritu uses these visuals almost boastfully, constantly making us aware of his film’s greatness, marking it (rightfully) as a historic epic in the vein of movies like Lawrence Of Arabia. Just when things get murky to the point of malevolence — and this, they often do — the film cuts abruptly to beauty, to endless shots of treetops dappled with sunlight from cloudless skies. It is as if he self-consciously wants to emphasise what is what, from “look, how savage” to “look, how stunning.” The pacing, however, is so breathless that the overall effect evoked is one of heady awe. This is most definitely a gigantic experience.
The Revenant is the story of a real-life hunter nobody knows much about, which gives the filmmakers free rein to embellish, and yet Iñárritu treats it almost as a fable, making a film as fantastical as it is utterly, exhaustingly predictable. Hugh Glass is wronged and abandoned for dead, and he returns to exact his revenge. That is all there is, and with it Iñárritu’s fine actors do their very best. DiCaprio gamely throws himself into all manner of torture and delivers a memorable performance, but one with too much grimace and too little grace. Every now and then he conjures up a special moment — like when cauterising a neck-wound with gunpowder, or when wheezing like Brando, and when he stares icily into the distance and declares he isn’t afraid to die anymore. It is impressive, without question, though those expecting Leo to dig deep into his miraculous bag of tricks may be left wanting.
The rawest, best performance comes from the ferocious — and genuinely frightening — Tom Hardy as the backstabbing bastard of the piece, and a bit where he talks about choking on his own blood might be, in a film littered with horrors, the most genuinely affecting of the lot.
There is much in this film that haunts me, and I’m left with the thought that Iñárritu, with someone like Lubezki at his side, can do anything. This is evidenced by the way a relatively minor character in the film, Powaqa, played by first-timer Melaw Nakehk’o, is bestowed with the screen presence of an absolute goddess in the penultimate scene of the film. Suddenly there she is, the most captivating thing in the movie, taking our goddamned breath away merely because Iñárritu wants to heighten the drama of the moment. What mastery.
It is an odd coincidence that this film, released on Christmas Day in the US last year, did so alongside Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, another film about cruelty in the cold, also set in the 1800s. There were times when Glass, digging his way out of a grave, made me feel like I was watching a joyless take on Tarantino’s visionary revenge saga Kill Bill — and, in case you’re wondering, of course Uma Thurman in those movies was better than Leo here, and more challenged. Iñárritu embraces revenge in The Revenant, serving it up very cold indeed, but the film’s heart doesn’t throb as messily, as humanly as — I suspect — the director would have liked it to. (Perhaps DiCaprio ate it.) Either way, The Revenant is a devastating, visually jawdropping film that, for all its sins of tedium, makes up with scale what it lacks in artfulness. It certainly does the frontier justice.
Rating: 4 stars
First published Rediff, February 26, 2016