Perhaps more admirable and commendable than moving or masterful, the large scale frontier adventure tale visualized with eye-popping wide angle realism doesn't quite to add up to something greater than the sum of its parts. This is the power of that indescribable piece of storytelling/cinematic magic which when missing can make even the boldest, visionary works of art feel strangely inert.
Starring: Leonardo Di Caprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter
By Alan Bacchus
The Revenant is the latest in a series of films shot by lauded lenser Emmanuel Lubezki which stages their action with a philosophy of near 360 degree access, showing the viewer a wider field of view than the compositions we see in traditionally staged/covered films. Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men and Gravity, and last year Iñárritu‘s Birdman lay the groundwork for this picture, though cineastes would deep dive into the films of Mikhail Kalatozov (I Am Cuba and The Letter Never Sent) for inspiration as well.
Arguably The Revenant is the most ambitious of these antecedents, a true frontier story of Hugo Glass (Di Caprio), an American fur trader leading a team of hunters through the North American hinterland. While on the run from a band of revengeful indigenous warriors, Glass finds himself mauled by a bear and severely injured. After being left for dead by a member of his team, the picture turns itself into a compelling one-man against the wilderness survival picture, and later one of raging bloodthirsty revenge.
The bold visual flourishes trickle down into the depiction of the procedural details of Glass’ survival. The trials of Glass, after the truly mesmerizing bear scene include using a horse carcass as shelter tent, overcoming gaping bear-inflicted wounds as well as another cinematic use of the gunpowder wound cauterization techniques. Some of these scenes don’t quite pass the common sense plausibility test, but it’s not hard to gloss over these details when placed into a world with few cinematic artifices impeding us. The real locations and impossibly beautiful picturesque scenery is never anything less than breathtaking.
That said, as admirable and gritty immersive cinematography, the philosophy does threaten to wear itself out. The distortions inherent in the extreme wide angle lenses test our patience as the picture moves past the two hour mark. The running time fits the bill of the requirements of the epic genre, but by the end we’ve been so overloaded with visual beauty, the filmmakers fail to move us emotionally at the end. Instead of a large scale action scene to punctuate the finale, Iñárritu and co-writer Mark L. Smith opts for a gory one-on-one fight which fulfills Glass’s journey of revenge. Again, it’s an impressive technical scene of fight choreography, practical gore effects and of course cinematography, but it’s missing the magical touch which effectively reconciles the long journey which came before it.