Film review: The Revenant (Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu)
By Sascha Krieger
At the very end, he looks straight at us, intensely, wordlessly, a piercing look. Is he accusing us, holding us responsible? And for what? Then the image disappeared and we’re left with breathing – life, reduced to its basics. Which sums up The Revenant, director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest, yes, masterpiece, pretty well. Based on a true story, it tells of a man named Glass, a scout, widower of a Native American woman, a Pawnee, to be precise, and father of a son who society frowns at as a „halfblood“. We’re in the early 19th century, in a snowy midwest untouched by what we so lovingly call civilization. Glass leads a troop of trappers, helps them escape from a Native American attack, before being mauled by a bear. Two companions are left behind to guard him. One murders his son before they leave Glass for dead. Crawling, he sets off to find his son’s killer. That’s all it is: a man on his own in the wilderness, driven by revenge and the love for his lost family. Nothing new here, right?
Leonardo Di Caprio plays Glass and he might well end his Oscar drought with this role. He doesn’t do much else than portraying a basic human will to go on, to deal with unfinished business, he is pure existence and single-minded purpose, life stripped of all pretenses and „meaning“ and higher purpose. There is no room for this in the unforgiving world he inhabits. The cruelty of the people inheriting it – apart from the trappers there is a violent gang of French adventurers and a native American group on a mission of their own – pales in the face of the vastness and forbidding hostility of nature. Director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki creates unforgettable images: drenched in a pale, greying light, he paints the screen like a canvas. Snow is everywhere, the chill permeates even the story-telling. The camera moves slow in intricate, calm, incredibly complex tracking shots. As in the opening attack: It follows a character, switches to another until it finds yet another subject. Individual lives don’t count much in this world, humans are little more than fleeting images on which we can focus for a moment only. In the big picture, they do not matter.
The pace is excruciatingly slow. Time seems suspended, there is no progress, humanity helplessly floating in a disinterested universe. Underscored by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Carsten Nicolai’s brooding music, Lubezki’s camera moves in and out. It is either filming from a tremendouns distance, putting the spotlight on nature, a nature which reveals itself to be lost while we’re watching its sublime splendour, that will be destroyed by the sons and grandsons and great-grandsons of the people we see. By us, basically. Nature is the film’s real star and Lubezki presents it in a majestic, yet threateningly cold way that occasionally gets almost kitschy (those back-lit shots he indulges in so much in Terrence Malick’s films!) but doesn’t fail to create an atmosphere in which beauty and death are on. If life is a never-ending fight, these images are its visualization.
Or the camera moves really close, goes right into the face of Di Caprio or Tom Hardy, who plays Glass‘ adversary Fitzgerald with a cruel calmness and speaks of despair and disillusionment. So close that at one point the lens fogs over from Di Caprio’s breath. There is no middle ground, only humans alone in nature and thrown back on their own. Iñárritu’s latest film is a stark existential tale on what makes us go on. All the characters have lost something, all the cruelty stems from these losses – and they fuel the need to survive, in whatever way. Very few make it in the end and even nature will have to give in eventually. So is all hope lost? No, because as the final shot tells us it’s on us. We’ve come far since the days of Glass and company but life remains a permanent series of questions: why and what for? Why do we live and what do we do to the world we’re living in? Glass seems to have little time for these questions, his story is life reduced to its basics. It tells us: This is what it is when you tear down the facade. Face it and accept it. When all is said and done, life is cruel. And meaningless. and beautiful.