(Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu, 2015)
The Revenant starts with a sudden, brutally violent attack upon a trapper camp by a war party of Arikara Indians in 1823. Arrows abruptly appear in throats, blood spurts, and all of a sudden a pitched battle of horrific violence and chaos is underway. Obviously inspired by his work on Birdman, Inarittu shoots all of this in what appears to be a single, awesome take, as the men fight, die and begin a panicked retreat towards their boat on the river, the Indians in pursuit.
Shot by the genius cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, this scene reminded me of nothing so much as the work of Terrence Malick. His masterful The New World, also shot by "Chivu" created an utterly immersive, 360 degree world upon the American Frontier, and Lubezki's camera patrolled it incessantly, as it does here. Only the world summoned up by Inarittu has a lot of Sam Peckinpah in it too - it is tough and masculine, filled with big and peculiar characters and terrible deaths, a sense of relish for the violence and suffering on screen.
This focus upon action is new for Inarittu. It is also quite refreshing. His earlier work was often weighed down by a pompous sense of seriousness, of a director with an undergraduate understanding of the world filled with conviction that he had important things to say. Babel is perhaps the nadir of his work, a trite and simplistic thesis on communication, interconnectedness and the modern world.
The Revenant too strains for seriousness, but it is taciturn film, entirely wordless for long stretches, and Inarittu reduced to images is a much more impressive director than the man who relied on vacuous screenplays to communicate his themes. On one level, this film is an absolutely incredible action film, with its plot concerning a man struggling to survive in an unbelievably harsh environment and his quest for revenge after he is left for dead, and watches his son murdered. Only Inarittu fills it with long, slow scenes glorying in his sensational landscapes, and sequences revealing the state of mind of his protagonist, Glass (Leo DiCaprio), as he is haunted by memories of a massacre in an Indian village, the death of his wife and his own actions to save his son.
The action scenes are outstanding: both that stunning early battle, a later pursuit across a plain, an extended and terrifying bear attack, and the final confrontation each contains a few genuinely jaw-dropping moments, and they help make this an entirely gripping experience, for all that its director has greater pretensions.
The ferociously committed performances are a great boon, too. DiCaprio does most of his work without dialogue, and still manages to convey his agony and fierce will to survive with just his face and body language. Tom Hardy, as the man who betrays him, unveils another funny voice and accent, but creates a weak, believably complex antagonist in his Fitzgerald.
The likes of Will Poulter and Domhnall Gleeson match them in smaller parts.
For all that, Lubezki is undeniably the film's true star; his work here is sensational, and this is truly an every-frame-a-painting movie. For all the effort that Inarittu devotes to creating a strong thematic content here - his suggestions that Tarkovsky as an influence say it all - this film is amazing. Powerful, beautiful and riveting, it is hard to shake off.