Sunday, 24 January 2016

The Revenant

The Revenant is a truly remarkable cinematic experience. It is an enthralling tale of survival and revenge portrayed with stunning visual storytelling anchored by breathtaking cinematography and exhilarating performances. In almost every sense of the term this is legitimately exciting film making, yet I'm just not as excited by this film now having seen it. Let's put this into context. The first two sentences of this review are also a pretty accurate way of summing up The Hateful Eight, also released this month. Both films beg to be experienced on the big screen, and both are rewarding in the moment. Both films also require some time for the viewer to truly consolidate their feelings and opinions on them; much like with The Revenant, I took a few days to fully understand my views of The Hateful Eight. But here's the catch: I was more excited about The Hateful Eight after I saw it than I was before I saw it, but the same simply cannot be said for The Revenant.

Don't get me wrong, I still believe The Revenant to be a remarkable film - the numerical score at the tail end of this review should confirm that - I just can't help but feel as if it just never truly lives up to its potential, at least in terms of longevity. The film's story is simple enough: after being brutally attacked by a bear, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is left for dead by the rest of his hunting team who now follow orders from John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Plagued with serious psychological traumas and abandoned in the harsh winter forests of uncharted American wilderness, Glass comes to a decision: today will not be the day he dies, he will hunt down his group and he will enact revenge on Fitzgerald for what he has done. It's straight forward, and admirably so. Whilst more complex plots potentially offer a more rewarding narrative experience, The Revenant is so focused on its visual design and thematic content that this simple plot would be perfectly sufficient providing Glass as a character works well across the 150 minute run time.

I just don't think that he does. Let's get this out of the way first: DiCaprio is spellbinding here. He is utterly phenomenal in how he portrays the struggle of his character in elongated wordless stretches, and when he is required to deliver dialogue he does so with painstaking determination, after all it is Glass' story that is pushing the film along and so we need to connect with him in one way or another. Glass as a character isn't a complete failure, the film's thematic ideas make him undeniably interesting and his story is fascinating even in its slowest moments, but he doesn't amount to much when viewed from afar. Granted, this is an incredibly intimate story and it's certainly debatable that Glass' character shouldn't be viewed from afar at all - as in the moment he is a fully compelling individual - yet once the film had ended and I'd gone home to consolidate my thoughts, I felt nothing for him. No connection, no upset nor satisfaction for his horrific ordeal. Nothing. It's a complicated matter, as this is a stark comparison to how I felt during the film. In fact, there were moments while I was sat in the cinema where I wanted to hop into the vicious American winter and kill people for him, but that feeling left me far quicker than it should have done. Ironically for a film so rooted in its themes of struggle and survival, The Revenant's central character struggled to survive in my memory by the time I woke up the next morning.

But I can't criticise the film too much for this, as I said in the moment I was utterly mesmerised by what I was watching. The Revenant's cinematography is unquestionably its selling point, and it's every bit as good as you'd hope. The infamous bear sequence is shot entirely in one elongated take, allowing the sheer brutality to come across exceptionally well whilst also demonstrating how seamless the film's visual effects are. The final showdown between Glass and Fitzgerald is framed so tightly around their faces and with such intensity that I felt like I could've started crying from the stress of it all. Emmanuel Lubezki's ingenious cinematography was shown in Gravity, and he then bettered his camerawork with Birdman, but this is his best yet. The Revenant relies an awful lot on its locations and scenery to tell a story when its characters aren't talking, and Lubezki more than steps up to the challenge. The camera spontaneously spins 180 degrees in the middle of the opening action sequence before embarking on a grueling journey as it smoothly glides from one character to another, hopping from victim to killer as well as jumping on horseback and plunging underwater without cutting. It allows the film to show the scale and ferocity of both the characters and the environments. It is simply breathtaking.

DiCaprio is, as previously mentioned, excellent here, but he's boosted further by a fantastic supporting cast that try their damnedest to live up to him. Despite some sketchy accent work, Tom Hardy is as reliably strong as he's become lately, the bizarre casting of Domnhall Gleeson (which still makes no sense to me) is overcome by the fact that he gives a genuinely impressive performance, and Will Poulter demonstrates that he can do a hell of a lot more than silly comedic supporting roles. These actors did not have an easy job to portray the characters they had in the conditions that they filmed in, but it hasn't faltered any performance across the film. In fact, the film's lack of artificial lighting is another wonderful strength: despite the violent, feral nature of The Revenant's setting, I couldn't help but want to jump in and explore the wilderness myself because of how stunning it all looks. Snow itself offers connotations of purity and calmness, yet while neither of these can be found in the film itself, InĂ¡rritu has somehow allowed their stark contrasts to feel almost poetic in a way. The film's beautiful scenery combines with its harsh narrative impressively well.

In terms of visual design, thematic content, effective storytelling and acting in the face of a thunderstorm, The Revenant is about as good as it gets for a truly exciting cinematic experience, it just fails to make a lasting impression. Going back to the similarities I mentioned at the start of this review, I would also refer to The Hateful Eight as a cinematic experience. In the moment, I was gripped by both of these films equally, yet a week after I saw The Hateful Eight I was still excited by it. I still desperately wanted to learn everything about it and read about its characters and revisit its story and gaze with wonder once more at its relentlessly exceptional cinematography. I didn't feel this with The Revenant. In the moment I was hooked, but the next morning I simply ticked the film off my 2016 list and didn't think about it again for the rest of the day. Good films have you in the palm of their hands from the offset, but truly great films still have you in their grasp a week later. The Revenant had its fingers tightly clenched around me for all of its 156 minutes, but I slipped from that grasp far quicker than I would ever have liked.

To Sumarise: Unflinchingly brutal without ever sacrificing its compelling thematic content, The Revenant is a visually breathtaking cinematic experience boosted further by Lubezki's exquisite cinematography and DiCaprio's heart-stoppingly intense performance.

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