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Movie Review: The Revenant

From the first frame to the last, very rare is the film that has made its way into my psyche and taken up residence. I'm afraid I'll never shake this film off. And I'm afraid I don't want to.
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The Revenant
Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
In Theatres

"On est tous des sauvages"

The Revenant is at once both brutal and beautiful, violent and thoughtful, compelling and difficult to watch. Moments that are so gorgeous and transcendent and breathtaking and awe-inspiring and intimate yet are as big as the whole outdoors are juxtaposed with moments of such brutality and violence and savagery that you feel forced to look away, to try to escape what is happening on the thirty foot screen right in front of you. And after it's all over, when it's all said and done and you've walked out of the theatre and made your way home and gone back to your life,  director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have created something that will haunt you for days, weeks, maybe forever. There are not many films that are this visceral, this textured. And there are even less that have crawled into my brain and will not let go. The Revenant is an emotional experience unlike any other. From the first frame to the last, very rare is the film that has made its way into my psyche and taken up residence. I'm afraid I'll never shake this film off. And I'm afraid I don't want to.

On the surface, The Revenant is a revenge story, a story of survival. But it is so, so, so much more than that. It's an examination of obsessiveness, of the strength of will, of determination. It's an exploration of the human soul, of the power of memory and loss and the need to just keep moving, to just keep breathing. Not so much of man versus nature, but of man's nature being not only the things we were born with but that also we are the sum of all of our parts, the end result of everything we have learned and experienced, a combination of nature and nurture if you will. It's an optimistic view of humanity, that we, each of us, can take the horrors of our past and decide to either learn from them and use them as lessons on surviving or we can let them fester and feed our hatred and our cynicism. At least that's what I got out of it. Maybe The Revenant is just a film about Leonardo DiCaprio surviving a bear attack and hunting down Tom Hardy. But, for me, on a personal level, this movie has crawled into my brain and taken up residence.

There are so many brilliant set pieces in The Revenant, so many examples of what makes Emmanuel Lubezki not only one of the greatest cinematographers working today, but one of the giants in the history of his profession. The opening ambush scene, the camera at eye level, following a Ree warrior or a frontiersman, moving on to the next when they fall, glancing up at the treetops at Ree perched like snipers as arrows fly, immersing the audience in the chaos, in the death and violence and horror as the trappers try to make their way to the water to escape the onslaught stands with Lubezki's work in Children of Men as a seamless and breathtaking achievement. But, unlike the car scene in Children of Men, we are never given a moment to reflect on what we are seeing, never given a moment to ponder the technology that created this spectacle. Never given a moment to take a breath until it's over. There is a moment after the escape, the trappers on their boat making their way down river, when the camera looks back at the smoke rising from their campsite and tracks the smoke skyward and back down. But now, instead of being on the boat we are at the scene of the ambush. It is seamless and beautiful and an inspired way of introducing the Ree and their motivations for the attack. So many moments of The Revenant are like that moment, surprising and confident and unconventional.

And that is The Revenant in a tasty nutshell. Surprising and confident and unconventional. It didn't need to be. The story itself is a conventional revenge piece. Bad guy does bad things, hero hunts down bad guy. But it's in the telling that The Revenant stands apart. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu directed Birdman a film equally loved as it is loathed. A film that, it can be argued, is more spectacle, more style over substance. The Revenant is not Birdman, the style, the spectacle is understated, is subtle. The hero's journey is more important, this time around, than the tricks of technology. One of the great achievements of this film is it's ability to quietly and expertly transition from moments of look-away-brutality and violence to moments of reflection. It allows us time to see the characters think about what's happened and what the next move should be. And there are moments of lyricism, of poetic beauty, of dream logic. In a film where a dude is nearly killed by a grizzly. The Revenant is one amazing artistic achievement.

The locations the movie was filmed in have a huge impact on the experience of watching The Revenant, they are almost another character. An amoral character that isn't necessarily trying to murder anyone, but will, without second thought, cause great harm and even death to anyone who underestimates its danger. The harshness of the environments are never far from the forefront of the film, they never just settle into the background and become pretty scenery. The toll that was taken on the cast and crew of The Revenant hangs over it, is a texture of the film. You never, ever think that the actors are splashing around in a wading pool against a green screen. The audience is fully aware that the cast is in the Bow River at the height of winter. Between that and the fact that the film was almost completely filmed using natural light leads me to a question that much smarter people than I am will have to answer: is The Revenant a case of using harsh and restrictive environments and conditions to further the needs of the film? Or is it a case of a director inserting his head up his own butt to satisfy his ego and tyrannical tendencies? I think, in my own oh, so humble opinion, The Revenant might stand on the same shelf as Fitzcarraldo or Apocalypse Now, films that are much beloved but are examples of obsessive directors driving their cast, their crew and themselves to the brink of insanity and physical harm. I mean, I love Apocalypse Now but there is no denying that Coppola took things to an extreme that, honestly, some of which does not add to the film. Though it did result in one of the great filmmaking documentaries of ever and ever, Hearts of Darkness.

There are two schools of thought about Leonardo DiCaprio, some say he is a shallow pretty boy playing dress up in any role they see him in. They see him as bland, as wooden, a cardboard caricature of an actor. And there are others, and I belong to this camp, that see him as one of the great talents of his generation, someone able to dig deep into every character he plays. Someone who finds the emotional centre of the story, an actor that brings something true to the screen. And, I think, even the Leo Haters will find something that will give them pause in The Revenant. He brings an understated humanity to the role of Hugh Glass, a wisdom learned from some awful truths. The frontiersman's beard he has grown may hide his perpetual baby face, but that isn't where he's selling this role. It's in the eyes. Hugh Glass and his pain and torment and loss and entire history are in those eyes. And when he suffers his greatest loss those eyes will break your heart into a million crying pieces. I don't know if this is Leo's year for the Oscar or not. But let's get real here for a moment - The Revenant is only his fifth acting nomination. Wanna talk snub? Talk to Roger Deakins, now on his 13th nomination for Best Cinematography without a single win. And while we're on the Oscars, neither Alfred Hitchcock nor Stanley Kubrick won Oscars for directing. Cary Grant's only Oscar was an honorary Oscar. The Academy has much longer history of getting things wrong than it does of getting things right.

Anyway, enough about the Oscars.

Let us talk about what I think is the standout performance in a film packed full of standout performances, Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald. Tom Hardy has an ability to take a character that anyone else would have played as a one-note, moustache twirling bad guy and create empathy for them. He can make the audience wonder about these characters, these very bad people he has played, like John Fitzgerald, like Bane, like that dude in that Star Trek movie, like Bronson, or whatever. He can make us wonder if they are redeemable, if they are continuing to make a series of horrible mistakes just because that is way they are hardwired or if these are conscious decisions. He brings something to each role that he plays that adds dimensions to a character that may not have had those dimensions on the page.

And whoever is helping Domhnall Gleeson pick projects deserves a raise. Four films in 2015. And all four have won multiple awards and are up for many more. I've seen three of four and the three I've seen are among my favourite films of the past year and are among my favourites of the decade. Not very many actors have that kind of track record, let alone in just one year.

One more thing and then I'll wrap this up. I want to mention the score by Ryuichi Sakamoto, alva noto, and The National's Bryce Dessner. I've loved Sakamoto's work for years, since the first time I watched Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. The score for The Revenant does more than accompany the movie, it does more than give us emotional cues. It is one of the finest pieces of music of the past twelve months and it is frustrating that it is ineligible for an Oscar nomination. But, like I said above, the Academy has a much longer history of getting things wrong than it does of getting things right.

So, to sum up The Revenant - brutal and hard to watch at times, at other times beautifully lyrical and poetic and tragic. Is it worth two and a half hours of your time? Yes. This film needs to be seen. I can't express how much I loved this movie. And, hey, Brandon Fletcher's in it. He played poker and hung out with folks I know when Edwin Boyd was filming in Sault Ste. Marie. So, we got that going for us.