By Bill Arceneaux
At almost the last minute, The Revenant nearly devolves into traditional notions of macho vengeance. The film incorporates the all too familiar concept of eye for an eye “justice” (my favorite example being the beautifully excessive Death Wish 3). Frequently in movies, the wronged protagonist takes it upon themselves to right a situation through violent schemes, without any questions being asked as to the morality of their methods. We no longer live in the Wild West. The Wild West wasn’t even “The Wild West.” It’s easy to point and shoot; it’s hard to turn the other cheek.
The Revenant deals with revenge as motivation for survival, motivation for life. To live only to see another suffer makes for quite the compelling premise, and that’s just on the surface level. Beneath the blood-drenched snow is a tale of Man vs. All. By all, I mean himself, others, nature and God. And in being told this tale, we are challenged with questions about existence and what we’re doing with it.
Just when it could’ve become a conservative wet dream, The Revenant pulls the pleasure out of the climax, forcing a deep breath and moment of clarity. More out of body high than buzzkill.
Through the deep eyes of animals and the deathly cold blizzards of the frontier, God is always watching. The stunning photography, concise and constantly swirling, has a voyeuristic like intimacy, suggesting an invisible but always present character. It’s as if that character created this world as an obstacle course, for perhaps the purpose of enlightening the few that survive. Of course, we have to be listening in the first place.
The movie acts as a spiritual vision quest for the ages. It feels so real, it’s almost dreamlike (if that makes sense). Leonardo DiCaprio is put through the ringer, getting mauled by a bear — in one of the more frightening and breathtaking sequences since Life of Pi — healing ugly wounds, braving the elements and eating raw meat. I’ve often compared his casting choices and efforts to that of a young Robert DeNiro, in how willing he is to take chances. While he does grunt and growl, scrape and claw his way through, the real powerhouse is his opposition Tom Hardy. Where DiCaprio is a mere vessel, Hardy is an embodiment. As a man who self-exiled himself from humanity and claimed his own throne, he’s a true horror.
Uncompromising and stark, The Revenant is no easy watch. I’m reminded of the sort of IMAX-sploitation Everest that came out months ago, and how the sound and production design really convinced me of the dangerous scenarios. The Revenant, going so far as to shoot only with natural light and in faraway locations, makes your heart skip beats. As a visceral viewing experience, it’s hair raising. As a question on heavy themes, it’s welcome, it’s bold and it’s piercing.
There’s a peculiar connection to the filmmaker’s previous effort Birdman that I’d like to bring up. In both films, there’s a visual of a comet or asteroid, hurtling through our atmosphere, approaching a severe collision. As baffled as some were by Birdman’s ending, this confuses and concerns me more. The image that flashes in my mind is that of dinosaurs becoming extinct. Maybe it’s to put things into perspective. Maybe it’s a vision of something to come. Maybe it’s a statement on the fragility of life. Maybe. I have to believe that The Revenant isn’t a futile movie on the futility of being. I have to believe that The Revenant is about strength in purpose and faith than depressing revelation of pointlessness against daunting odds. I have to.
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