Iñárritu + Lubezki + DiCaprio + Hardy
Conclusion? Don’t watch it on a laptop.
*The Revenant features on ILT’s Top 10 Films of 2015! Find out where it ranked here.*
Summer, 2015. The debut teaser trailer for The Revenant drops. There’s a dramatic spike in the number of people being made aware of what has the potential to be a monster collaboration. Not only are recent Oscar winners, Birdman director Alejandro G. Iñárritu and veteran cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman, Gravity, Children of Men), once again teaming up, but their winter Western will star two of the biggest (and most credible) names either side of the Atlantic; Leonardo Di Caprio and Tom Hardy. Between film nerds everywhere, there’s collective :o Almost immediately, however, it occurred to my chums and I that Hollywood has a tendency to spoil this sort of epic by revealing far too much detail in subsequent trailers. So, from then on, it was lights out. Until yesterday evening, when months of averting my eyes during cinematic previews and evading screener-leak review chat as best I could (it was practically impossible), finally paid off.
Was it worth it? In one word, yes. Early reaction to said latter trailers tended to bemoan the exact unwelcome plot reveals we set out to avoid (not that the plot is terribly complicated, but it’s nice to be caught unawares within the safe confines of our imaginations), whilst the screener reviews I did unfortunately come across varied on direction and performance, but with many concluding it was a rather dull affair. Leo, in particular, was frequently cited as having achieved the most unwanted prize in Hollywood Oscar-baiting; the one dimensional performance. As with early, laptop-driven reviews of The Hateful Eight, however, I took all of this with a shaker’s worth of salt. After all, when a film has been promoted as a spectacle of high class technicality, it is improbable that just watching the film itself will provide the complete viewing experience.
This is not always the case – in fact Birdman is a perfect example – but when it’s an epic Western with vast, vista-laden visuals, themes that run deeper than the surface plot, and minimal dialogue, a 13” MacBook Air is unlikely to do is justice or hold your attention. This is of course, to an extent, wild speculation on my part – I’m not saying the film cannot be enjoyed at home, or indeed, that everyone will enjoy it at the theatre – but my point is, why not give yourself the best chance of being engrossed and entertained? Lock yourself in, man! (Note: I was recently labelled a ‘cinematography snob’. As you’ve probably guessed by now, I took it as a compliment).
Anyway, enough of my self-righteousness (kudos if you made it this far), what about the movie itself? Well, as stated, it was fully worth the cinematic experience. The opening action sequence was more jarring than engaging, and perhaps did push frantic spectacle for the sake of it. It’s impressive, no doubt, but Iñárritu and Lubezki still appear to have been in Birdman mode from a visual point of view (the film was apparently shot chronologically), with the constant panning and ducking lacking some of the finished product-type presentation perhaps required from an audience perspective, especially so early on in such a mammoth feature.
It’s a minor blip, though. From there on out, Iñárritu and Lubezki craft a quite gorgeous picture, layering the standard Western survival/revenge formula with a thematic presence that’s thought-provoking enough to compliment an overall visual style I like to call, ‘personal spectacle’ – a practice of which Lubezki is an undisputed master. That supposedly unnecessary tendency to frequently frame and insert nothing but nature between the character action (itself a plethora of long arse tracking shots) actually works very well in maintaining tone, empathy, and subsequent audience immersion (like I said, I really don’t find ‘cinematography snob’ offensive). The tight-knit action that follows the opening battle is also far more effective in execution, wearing us down with small, smart doses of seemingly, but not actual never-ending brutality. The real-world special effects are superb throughout, inspiring flinching empathy, and although some of the encounters with our furry friends of the forest are CGI, it’s pretty fucking good (likely motion capture-based) CGI that blends well enough with the stunt work so as not to take you out of the movie.
On the performance front, Leo puts in a terrific shift, throwing himself quite literally into the process of becoming the physically and mentally battered and scarred Hugh Glass, a chap none too pleased with the actions of Tom Hardy’s classic southern villain of the Old West, John Fitzgerald. With his hunt for an Academy Award still ongoing, despite numerous nominations over the years, Leo’s every performance tends to be overanalysed and all but scrutinised to death every other winter. There’s really no need for such practice here; it can be summed up as a worthy, emotionally-pronounced (but not over the top) turn by a well worn veteran actor, whom it’s difficult to accuse of anything other than complete dedication to the cause. The warnings prior to viewing were that he does little more than shout a lot. I can safely say this is not accurate. His encounters with pain are abundant, but instead of being forced to talk to his lost self as a means of moving the plot forward, he, you know, acts. Hardy too is finely horrific as Fitzgerald. His character may have the depth of a small puddle, but that doesn’t prevent him successfully coming across as an overwhelming dickhead that we’re happy to hate.
If I haven’t yet made it clear, The Revenant really needs to be seen on the big screen. The pounding sound design, the brave (and expensive) decision to shoot with natural light, and the beautiful, eerily wind-blended score each may well fall by the way side unless you’re playing an HD quality copy through a decent output, criteria of which the screener version unfortunately does not meet. The pacing, too, was far better than I anticipated (shout out to the slick, inventive editing of Stephen Mirrione), with the the two and a half hour plus runtime failing to drag once things get going during the opening act. Don’t be surprised if both Leo and Hardy are nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor respectively at next month’s Academy Awards, while the direction and cinematography awards will surely also be contested. Lubezki will be favourite for the latter, but, personally, I still believe Roger Deakins flawless work behind the camera on Sicario deserves the top prize.
To conclude, The Revenant is better than you’ve heard. Just remember to breath – and enjoy the view.