The latest film from Alejandro G. Iñárritu is a deeply immersive experience realized by its various conflicts and their depiction through Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography. Though The Revenant is set in the early 19th century frontier, the dilemmas faced by both the local Native American tribes and the fur trappers exploiting their land resonate with fundamental conflicts of modern survival. Iñárritu has produced a commentary on the ethics of surviving off the land and amongst other people, examining the right to live for both humans and non-humans, and the power struggle between societies of opposite interests.
From its earliest opportunity onward, The Revenant establishes a kinship between its audience and nature through beautifully serene landscapes that make us cognizant of how superior the natural world is to our mortal selves. Varying between rising embers of a campfire, snow thawing on pine, and wilting reeds in heavy winter, they serve as indications of the action to come and the conditions of central characters while communicating an array of emotions.
When trapper and regional expert Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is viciously attacked by a grizzly bear, we gain a sense that nature has been avenged by injuries done to a fur trader. However, Glass seeks his own vengeance as he is left for dead and his son is murdered by fellow trapper John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). The film’s leading men are stunning as protagonist and antagonist. DiCaprio impresses with convincing delivery of the Pawnee dialect and Hardy realizes Fitzgerald’s character through calculated deviousness and volatile aggression.
While The Revenant does not retain the “single-cut” aesthetic which made Birdman a cinematic wonder, Lubezki reemploys long and continuous shots to develop a realistically linear narrative that is sparsely interrupted. Close camerawork accentuates the unpredictability of fight scenes making an unforeseen stab of a knife particularly thrilling. Iñárritu’s foray into filming combat is marked by graphic imagery – cheek bones collapse upon impacts with rifles while arrows penetrate throats and eyes with quicksilver speed. The aforementioned approaches work in tandem to make the scene in which Glass is attacked by a grizzly terrifyingly inescapable and gruesome.
The Revenant maps a frontier of its own through the many directions it pulls its audience, traversing territory between a father’s devotion to his son and the utter helplessness of being at nature’s mercy. Iñárritu capitalizes upon the affinity the audience develops for Glass’s survival, simultaneously questioning our motivations for violence, the imperialist agenda, and our appraisal of life and the world at our disposal.