Review: The Revenant


I follow twelve people on Instagram. I don’t really use it much, but it’s something I check every so often. Of those twelve, only one is a person I don’t know personally: Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki. And honestly, how could I not? He’s one of the greatest working cinematographers out there, and his compositional skills are as apparent whether he’s photographing stills or films. If you look through, you’ll notice he has a thing for sunstars, an effect where you can see the sun’s rays to shoot out in all directions. It’s a very cool effect. It’s also one that is featured heavily in The Revenant. In fact, the reason I bring this up at all is because The Revenant is like a two and half hour tour of Lubezki’s Instagram. Which is to say, it’s freaking gorgeous.

It’s also weird. In the best way possible. The Revenant is like a film from the Hollywood of the 1970s, when filmmakers were given money by studios to make new and interesting things. We got some of the greatest movies ever made from that period. Whether The Revenant will join their canon or not, its mere existence is something to be celebrated.

I really, really hope people see it.

[This was originally posted to coincide with The Revenant’s limited release. It is being reposted to coincide with the wide release. Seriously, please go see it.]

The Revenant | Official Teaser Trailer [HD] | 20th Century FOX

The Revenant
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Release Date: January 9th, 2016
Rating: R 

At least 30 times during The Revenant‘s 156 minute runtime, I thought the word “weird.” It was the only word to describe what I was watching. “This is really weird… This is weird, right? … It’s weird AF that a studio funded this… This is the weirdest prestige drama in more than a decade, right? … What kind of weird Oscar bait is this? … Dude, this is so weird.” When the credits rolled, I turned to our own Hubert Vigilla (his thoughts below), who sat beside me, and said, “That was really fucking weird, right?” He nodded.

I belabor this point because I want to make it exceedingly clear that The Revenant is a constant surprise. I only saw that first, spoiler-free trailer, so I knew exactly three things going in:

– Production was hell
– It was shot in natural light on the Alexa 65
– Leonardo DiCaprio sleeps in a dead animal carcass

Had I waited another day or two, I would have known that some people believe the film features an extended scene where DiCaprio is raped by a bear. That would have made for a weirder film than this one… but perhaps less than you’d think. Instead, we’re left with what is inarguably the most horrific animal attack ever put on screen. Five to eight minutes, a single take. 

Earlier this year, I saw a film called Backcountry. I never wrote about it, but I was interested in something that the press notes said, paraphrased to “We want Backcountry to do for hiking what Jaws did for swimming.” They wanted the bear attack to be so intense, visceral, and real that anyone who saw it would have nightmares about grizzly bears and be simply incapable of hiking again. The film failed in its quest; the scene was a mess of quick cuts and not-amazing effects. At the end of it, the mutilated corpse was rather unsettling, but the journey wasn’t so impressive.

The Revenant does what Backcountry wanted to do. The scene is horrific, mostly because of how freaking long it is. In one of many long takes in the film, we follow Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) as he goes out into the woods. We see young bears. We see a big bear. The big bear runs towards Glass. At this point, I thought, “No way. This guy’s the protagonist, and we’re like 40 minutes into this movie. He’s not going to getOh shit.” It’s hardly a flawless sequence. The bear doesn’t actually look “real” most of the time, and the bites and scratches felt a little off. I don’t know what actually happened on set (and director Alejandro Iñárritu refused to explain it in the following Q&A), so I don’t know entirely whose fault it is that the seams are there, but you know what? I’m nitpicking. That scene is incredible. It’s shocking, possibly even revolting, and absolutely brilliant. It took guts to make that scene look like that. But they committed. It paid off.

The Revenant

That’s the film in a nutshell. It took guts. They committed. It paid off. It takes guts to make a movie that essentially begins with the biggest battle of the entire film. In fact, it’s the only real battle in the film. In the first twenty or so minutes, you see more “action” (bear attack aside) than you’ll see in the rest of the movie. To set up expectations like that and then completely ignore them in favor of a film that is actually rather slow is gutsy. Actually, no, it’s crazy. This is a film that periodically cuts to beautiful shots of the wilderness or the skies or bugs or whatever, because art. It does it to evoke thoughts and emotions. This is a studio-funded film that actually requires you to think about what it’s doing and why. There’s only one moment in the entire film that could arguably be considered “hitting you over the head with The Point,” and I take some issue with that moment for a few reasons, but ultimately it doesn’t detract from the overall feeling that the film wanted me to think about what it was trying to say and not just say it.

And again, this is a Hollywood movie that cost $135 million to make. This is the antithesis to the Superhero tentpole movie. You cannot sell this to the ADD generation, because as soon as they realize that this is a slow, gorgeous exploration of a man’s suffering and not much more, they’ll pull out their phones and start tweeting about how bullshit everything is. That scares me. It scares me that people will go into this movie expecting something totally different, something traditional, and not get it. But rather than appreciating the art, they’ll be furious that they weren’t given entertainment. They’ll say it’s the worst movie ever, because movies are supposed to be fast & furious. And then people will be scared off.

Though the film is technically inspired by a book inspired by a true story, the only thing that was really taken from the real Hugh Glass’s life was the fact that he was attacked by a bear and survived. The journey that follows, and probably the journey that got him there, was the brainchild of Iñárritu and Mark Smith, who co-wrote the film. This is, for all intents and purposes, and original work. I still can’t believe it exists.

The Revenant

Some years ago, I remember hearing someone talk about how we’re no longer in the age of Torture Porn; rather, we’re in the age of Suffering Porn. It probably had a different name, and that’s why I can’t find an actual source, but the point was this: It’s not about seeing people get tortured anymore, enjoying the blood and viscera and all of that. It’s about the suffering now. The Revenant is suffering porn. Glass is mauled by a bear in an excruciating, extended sequence, and perhaps that’s torture porn. But, then he can’t move. He can’t speak. All he can do is suffer. And then when he finally builds up strength to move, it’s belabored. It’s pained. Every single movement and every single breath hurts this man, and you can feel it and hear it and see it. DiCaprio gives one hell of a performance, though it won’t win him the Oscar. As spectacular as he is, this simply isn’t an “Academy” performance. 

And the same part of me that says that also thinks this isn’t an Academy movie. It will be nominated, I think, because Birdman won Best Picture and Iñárritu won Best Director. These are also, I suspect, the reasons that The Revenant was made. Iñárritu built clout with that last film, and so he was able to go and do something crazy and keep people by his side as it got crazier and crazier. I believe it will be nominated, but I also believe that it has absolutely no chance at winning. It’s too different, too weird, too brilliant. Birman won, but as much as I loved Birdman, it also hit the Academy notes. It was a movie about an actor who wants to do something Important. It lashes out at critics and audiences. It says the right things and bashes everyone over the head with its message over and over again. That message resonated with people in the Academy. There’s no other way that script won Best Screenplay. There’s no other way that film won Best Picture.

What’s the message of The Revenant? Well… that’s a complicated question. And the fact that it’s complicated means that this film will not win. But maybe it should. It’s not my favorite film of the year, but I want this film to receive prestige because I want films like this to exist again. The Revenant is a ray of light in the black void of superhero movies. If it succeeds, it’s evidence that not only can expensive and original ideas gain traction (something Christopher Nolan has proved) but so can expensive movies that make you think (something Christopher Nolan has not proved). If The Revenant fails, that’s it. I don’t think we’ll see another film like it for a decade or more. And I hope beyond hope that that doesn’t happen. I hope it becomes a massive success, in America and elsewhere. I hope it proves every single assumption that people (myself included) have about what sells nowadays wrong. I hope it proves that weird movies can succeed again.

Please see The Revenant. If not because you want to (though you should, because it’s excellent), then because you want it to set a precedent. You want to change things and show the studios that this was not a mistake. After the chaos of the production, I imagine there are at least a couple of people waiting for this film to fail. They’ll write it off as a failure and use it as evidence that audiences just can’t handle truly interesting big-budget movies. That can’t happen. 

I have the utmost respect for the people who allowed  The Revenant to be made. And I hope that it makes them all filthy stinking rich.

 Editor's Choice

Hubert Vigilla: The Revenant feels like a strange, singular, director-driven project that could have only been made in the 1970s. After the screening, Alec and I kept asking each other, “How the hell did this thing get made?” The question was half bafflement, half admiration. There is so much to admire about The Revenant given its difficult production history. That it even exists is a kind of accomplishment. It’s a visceral art movie, one that might in time be named alongside films such as Apocalypse Now or Aguirre, the Wrath of God for audacity and craft.

Seriously, who is the studio person that gave a madman the keys to the car? I need to thank them.

The cliché is that they don’t make movies like this anymore, and they really don’t make them like The Revenant, especially not end-of-the-year prestige pictures distributed by a major studio. The Revenant is full of hardship and grunting; heavy on slobber and scalps and hypermasculinity, light on dialogue and monologues and audience hand-holding. The film is uncompromising when it comes to its depictions of violence and its deeper spiritual concerns. Both are treated with equal measures of importance. Sure, it’s self-indulgent, and the film takes itself extremely seriously, but it’s this level of risk that makes Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest such a memorable, engrossing picture.

Emmanuel Lubezki’s imagery and meticulously choreographed long-takes are a wonder to behold. The look and feel is a mash-up of Terrence Malick, Werner Herzog, and even Alejandro Jodorowsky. (I spotted two potential Jodorowsky homages, possibly three.) Both Tom Hardy and Leonardo Di Caprio act their asses off, with Di Caprio turning in his least glamorous performance and maybe most unconventionally award-worthy. When not a raspy Sisyphisean hero driven to avenge a murder, he’s Wile E. Coyote waving to the audience before gravity sends him crashing to the canyon floor. It’s absurd, it’s glorious, and there’s no other movie like it this year. 86 – Great