The Revenant, redefining cinematic experience and the Rebecca Principle.

Astounding, bold, vigorous, breathtaking, visionary, ambitious, a masterpiece, meditative, profoundly visceral, agonisingly honest, powerful, raw, thrilling, wow-inducing, material that reaches for cosmic significance; these are all words that the critics have used to describe The Revenant. I have to say though, while I would agree with all of them (maybe not the ones about cosmic significance) I didn’t love it.


There is nothing wrong with it, there is no failure; the film makers have evidently done exactly what they wanted to do and it is totally uncompromising. The movie is made with great skill and it totally redefines the term ‘cinematic experience’ but watching it does demand a considerable level of endurance. It is extremely brutal, mostly in its depiction of injury, but to be honest almost as much fortitude is required to get through the incessant shots of the prepossessing yet bleak scenery. The cinematography is incredible but like everything else in the film it is pushed on you with bullish force and if the sight of blood doesn’t get you then the snow blindness will. Much of the time none of the characters are even in shot and the camera ponderously wanders off to gaze at the land and sky, narrative be damned.


Above all else The Revenant is concerned with visuals. How authentic everything looks is what is most important here, from the mountains to the mutilations. I think the planning wall during preproduction must have been covered in storyboards, picture postcards and animal attack autopsy photos with a single post it note in the corner detailing the entire plot. 


The story as it is tells of Huge Glass, a 1823 South Dakota tracker and fur trapper played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Glass is attacked and very very badly injured by a very convincing CGI bear. Despite the desire of many of his fellow hunters to carry him home he ends up being left for dead as the rest of his party retreat away from hostile Native Americans. Not content to just lie there and die though Glass drags himself two hundred miles across the unforgiving frozen landscape to catch up with the one man chiefly responsible for his abandonment and let him know what he thinks of his betrayal. He knows what he needs to do to survive and it is often unpleasant but his desire for vengeance drives him on. 


It is fair to say that Glass is not fragile and as he overcomes everything that befalls him, getting back up like Wile E. Coyote, you have to remind yourself that incredibly this is largely a true story. Sorry Davy Crockett but you are going to need to change your theme song because you are no longer king of the wild frontier. In terms of battling with nature, what this guy goes through makes you look like Winnie the Pooh.


Relentless as it is though, if you are interested in cinema as a story telling medium you have to see this film. With the snow and ice and the gore the movie is as beautiful as it is ugly. The way it is composed and shot using only natural light is superb and the extended scenes and long shots are brilliantly choreographed. Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s previous film Birdman was all captured with no cuts but clever as that was it seemed gimmicky. Here the way the camera stays with the action for long periods of time is more expertly managed. It draws you in and holds you there even when you might want to get away. Even though it is slow in places it doesn’t drag for a second of its two and a half hour running time. 


Actors are frequently captured in close up getting in the face of the cast and the audience simultaneously and their performances are more than up to it. If DiCaprio doesn’t get the Oscar then I expect him to track down every single member of the Academy and bring down his retribution on them because of the terrible injustice they have done him. Those around him are also good with Hammersmith boys Tom Hardy and Will Poulter deserving special mention.


The Revenant is undoubtedly a work of art but it is like one of those Renaissance paintings of hell. You are repulsed by it but unable to look away, impressed by the imagination and craftsmanship. 

The Ripley Factor?
I think women feature in this film for about seven or eight minutes. When they do appear they are significant though. 


The woman in the fridge trope, named after an event in the Green Lantern comics where the protagonist finds his murdered girlfriend inside said home appliance, is one where a female’s greatest contribution to a story is to die or get injured so as to motivate her man to be a hero. There seems to be a new convention now which could be called the woman in the grave, or better still the Rebecca principle. Here the most important female character doesn’t even appear, apart from maybe in flashback, because she is dead before the film even begins. She remains influential though as her passing has had a profound effect on the male lead. Recent examples of this would include John Wick, Inception and effectively even Finding Nemo and The Revenant fits this model too. It isn’t the most feminist approach, celebrating but totally sidelining women, and I hope it doesn’t become any more prevalent as a narrative device.


Elsewhere the story features a kidnapped Arikara Indian girl who is horribly mistreated but has her own moment of empowerment. She does eventually play a part in Glass’ salvation as well.


The women in the film then do largely exist only to define or motivate men. They are not on screen enough to be believable as real people which is interesting for a film that strives for authenticity and realism in other respects. There are a number of male characters that are sketched equally thinly though. There is no objectification of female characters and even though they rarely appear their obvious status among the men around them means their inclusion does not feel tokenism.

Is this one for the kids?
I’m not sure I’ve seen a film that is more graphic in its representation of injury than this one. Be prepared for that. Needless to say when the bear jumps on Leo it is not with hugging in mind. It is this more than anything that is disturbing although there is some other violence toward both animals and humans that if I hadn’t seen the mauling an hour or so earlier I might have found more shocking. 


It is not one for the kids. Inside Out may have been great family viewing but insides coming out is not.


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