Revenge is undoubtedly among the most widely explored of themes in media. It makes for a great story-telling gig, because who hasn’t experienced the desire for revenge? But when we see the story of Glass, and how he was left for dead by his comrade Fitzgerald after being mauled by a bear, then all our squabbles about ex-girlfriends and bad bosses really seem a bit like anthills next to mountains.
The Revenant, set in the Canadian frontiers of the 1820’s amidst tension between Native Americans and French settlers, is among the most brutal films in tone you will see. In the opening minutes of Inarritu’s newest film, the word brutal is in fact the first thing to come to mind, although a more fair term is probably raw. The film opens with a group of Native Americans attacking the settlement Glass and his men are stationed at, and the scene, while not nearly as gratuitous as, say, The Walking Dead, is far more heavy handed and authentic than you find in your typical action film, even one that is dark in tone. The rest of the film (though particular the second act) continue that same “rawness” in every event it depicts, whether that be cauterizing a throat gash, the merciless slaughtering of inconvenient people, or the unforgiving nature of the Canadian wilderness. In fact, the only thing that seems even remotely fake is the bear, where CGI was obviously necessitated. In many cases, it was as real as it appears to be, thanks to director Alejandro Iñárritu (who won Best Picture at the Oscars last year for Birdman):
“I can name 30 or 40 sequences that were some of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do. Whether it’s going in and out of frozen rivers, or sleeping in animal carcasses, or what I ate on set. [I was] enduring freezing cold and possible hypothermia constantly. I certainly don’t eat raw bison liver on a regular basis. When you see the movie, you’ll see my reaction to it, because Alejandro kept it in. It says it all. It was an instinctive reaction.”
That authenticity is further enhanced by the unconventional way in which the movie was filmed. It was shot entirely on-site in the Canadian wilderness, utilizing all natural lighting and using several long, uninterrupted takes (although these are fewer as the film progresses, I suspect for largely practical reasons). DiCaprio breaks out arguably the best performance of his career, and the best performance I’ve seen from him by far. Tom Hardy carries his own weight too, with a role far removed in tone from his characters in more well-known films like Inception, The Dark Knight Returns, and Mad Max: Fury Road. The execution is as near flawless as I’ve seen in any recent film, the only blemish being an awkwardly placed scene of Glass and his friend trying to catch snowflakes in their mouths.
Rawness and authenticity is certainly a core element of this story. But that’s the medium more than it is the substance, and the film takes a new thematic turn that, as a viewer with only surface knowledge of the historical source coming into it, rather surprised me, and in quite a pleasant way. Roughly half-way through the film, Glass comes across a man who, briefly, he travels with as a friend. Their meeting begins as one of mercy – Glass is very near starving to death and this man has food. After being asked, the man gives him some of the meat.
He also cares for him and helps him heal. Then, in a dream sequence, Glass comes across a painting of none other than the crucifixion scene itself, as well as some elements of his past and his motivation for tracking down Fitzgerald that I won’t spoil for any who haven’t yet seen the film. Glass emerges from this experience, having healed enough to go on, something of a new man. Inarritu doesn’t make a large spectacle of this, but it shows itself in numerous small ways that begin to build on each other, like saving a sexually abused captive (which is depicted briefly – somewhat explicit, but no nudity) and, eventually, defending one of the men that left him. Even more telling, in this revenge story, is a Native American who essentially quotes scripture – or at the very least paraphrases the very same sentiment. Shockingly, with this film being a revenge story of sorts, it quite directly espouses a Christian perspective in these events, and even utilizes the imagery of Christ himself to explore the theme of redemption.
And unlike in other films or television, where a redeeming quality is often drowned out by the extraneous filth (like Jessica Jones, for example), this message shines through, even with a smattering of harsh profanity (mostly by Fitzgerald) and violence aplenty. It really seems as though the brutal nature of the film serves a specific purpose, that it makes the development of Glass, and the villainy of Fitzgerald, that much more meaningful when we see just what Glass was put through, in a way that is uncut, unabridged, uncensored, authentic, and raw. This film is certainly not for the faint of heart, nor, I’ll warn, for any who are disturbed by animal death or just blood-spewing violence in general on film. But for those that can withstand it there’s a very redemptive quality here, and for those who didn’t catch it until the start of 2016, it sets the bar incredibly high for the long list of blockbusters that are yet to come.