The Revenant: Artistry and Subtlety

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I’ve just returned home from watching The Revenant, a film as rough and gruesome as its hero’s face. It’s a heavy film, weighed down by its subject matter, its setting, and the way it tells its story. This isn’t to say that it’s bad – its an incredible film, and one that I enjoyed – but there’s a lot in it that I just can’t form an opinion about.

Before getting all negative I’m going to talk about what the film does well. First off, the camerawork is superb. Director Alejandro Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki are very fond of the “big take” and their mastery of the technique shows. Many of the most hectic scenes – a raid by Native Americans, an attack by a grizzly bear, a hand-to-hand duel with knife and tomahawk – are displayed with incredible detail, utilizing beauty and brutality in a cinematic dance. The static shots are also vivid, utilizing the North American landscape with amazing effect. All the performances are good – and some are great. Tom Hardy is ferocious as the traitorous and greedy Fitzgerald, but his performance takes a backseat to DiCaprio’s tortured, abused, and determined Hugh Glass. From a technical standpoint the film is a marvel.

Now for the … other part. Simply put, this film is not subtle. The visual symbols and motifs are so bold as to be bloated. The soundtrack, though fitting for the movie, is constantly thundering throughout the film, sometimes to the movie’s detriment. More than once I found myself thinking “this scene would be a lot more emotional without the emotional music.” Yet, for all the grandeur of the movie, I can’t seem to find out what its trying to say. Yes, we are supposed to sympathize with the Native Americans, but their pain at the hands of white settlers is shown through the eyes of a white settler, a sympathetic white settler, but a white settler nonetheless. Crow, Glass’s Native American son, has seen is mother killed, his village burned, and travels with white trappers who hate him. Yet his rage is expressed through Glass. There’s a scene where an Arikara chief lists the atrocities by settlers to French traders. Its all true, but it feels like the film puts in this scene to simply say “this is a movie that deals with these issues!” rather than, well, dealing with the issues.

One could make the argument that the film isn’t about  the native-settlers conflicts, or about racism, and sure you could say that the film’s main theme is about revenge. Glass is betrayed, his son is killed, he’s left for dead, and he sets out for revenge. Okay. But even with this interpretation I can’t really figure out what The Revenant is trying to say. Is revenge good? Is it bad? Is it futile? Are the natives supposed to highlight the consequences of revenge? Is the bear attack a metaphor for the damage of generational conflict? The movie doesn’t really bother to say. It just waves its arms and screams about brutality and revenge and suffering.

Again, this isn’t meant to undermine the many successes of the picture – its certainly a movie that makes me think. But maybe if it had spent more time making it clear what it means to say, rather than being as loud as it can, I would be able to take a little more away with me.

One thought on “The Revenant: Artistry and Subtlety

  1. Two in a day? You’re prolific.

    Strongly agree with this post. I quite enjoyed the movie just as an experience. My attention span was at an all time low over the holiday, yet I had no problem watching it for 2.5 hours. My reductive description would be something like: 1) A Clint Eastwood movie 2) without Clint Eastwood 3) Using flintlock weapons 4) Set in 19th century Montana.

    There were a lot of really beautiful panoramas. However some parts also felt videogame-ish, like the CGI was a little overwrought (here I’m thinking of the bear, and a few frames when a horse was shot during the initial raid). I liked the music, but am also predisposed to liking anything that Bryce Dessner touches.

    I thought Tom Hardy was brilliant. Which is to say that I developed a visceral hatred for his character, while still being subject to his charisma.

    I desperately wanted Captain Henry to make it out alive, but was rightly pessimistic about that one. For some reason the scene that stays with me the most is when he knocks down Bridger, as the boy is coming through the gate. You really have to be Lawful Neutral to pull off righteous anger that well. Domnhall Gleeson was in no fewer than four movies in 2015 (this, Star Wars, Ex Machina, Brooklyn).

    The trees-swaying-in-the-wind mysticism made for good pathos, but didn’t really cash out as much…

    You’re right- the movie has no idea what it’s saying with regard to morality or kinship or Native American culture or anything really. It’s just a showcase in sociopathy and loss.


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