I was thinking…
…how often directors are given most of the credit for a film’s success or blamed for its failure, as the case may be. Yes, a director is held largely responsible for the outcome of a picture, but the look of it, the way it is shot, each frame is planned and shot by a cinematographer, otherwise called a director of photography, or D.P., for short.
It is true cinematography awards are doled out, but few people ever seem to remember the D.P.’s name. Go ahead. Name one. I dare you.
Director of The Revenant, Alejandro Iñárritu, is being given the lion’s share of the credit for how the picture turned out, but his cinematographer, Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, has proven to be the true favorite of the filmmaking team. Rarely has a cinematographer been given as much press and even more awards than his director. I would certainly have to say he deserves it, too.
The Revenant is based on a book of the same name, which in turn, was based on the true events of the winter of 1823, in the wilds of what is now South Dakota.
Hugh Glass (Leonardo Di Caprio—Inception), an exceptional scout and father of half-Pawnee boy, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck in his feature debut), is guiding a team of fur trappers through the wilderness when a war party of Arikaree, or Ree, Indians attack them without warning. Abandoning most of the pelts, the remaining trappers board their boat and try to escape on the river.
Glass convinces the leader of the trappers, Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson—Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ex Machina), to abandon the boat so they can lose their assailants overland and cut days off their journey back to Fort Kiowa and safety.
A constant foil to Glass is Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy—The Dark Knight Rises, Inception), who does not trust Glass or his son due to a bloody run-in he had had with Indians several years prior.
While out scouting ahead, Glass is attacked by a mother bear protecting her cubs, and he is mauled horribly, only managing to survive the altercation by shooting and then stabbing the bear multiple times.
Finding the mortally wounded Glass, the rest of the team tries to carry him while making their escape, but, due to the extent of his injuries, find the task to be impossible.
Captain Henry offers monetary compensation to any men willing to stay behind with Glass until he finally succumbs, bury him properly and then make their way alone to the fort.
Glass’ son, Hawk, volunteers, as does the young Bridger (Will Poulter—The Maze Runner, We’re the Millers). Fitzgerald, unfortunately, also volunteers, citing his need to make up for their loss of the pelts as his reason.
Never trust a man whose driving force is monetary gain.
Without giving too much more away, Fitzgerald does something truly terrible and then leaves Glass half-buried in a shallow grave.
Mostly dead and seething with vengeance, Glass pulls himself from the grave (hence the title of the story) and makes his way toward the fort–braving the wilds, the cold, hunger, hostile natives and, worst of all, the French, in order to exact revenge on Fitzgerald.
From the opening scene to the final moments of the film, one word kept cycling through my brain: brutal.
Iñárritu shoots the opening sequence in such a chaotic fashion, we are instantly jolted from our cozy spot in the theater with whiplash-like force, leaving our stomachs somewhere back in the lobby. The brutality of the initial attack, juxtaposed with the utter fragility of human life is sobering, even while drenched in the intoxicating brew of fear and adrenaline.
Once the adrenaline wears off, we are, like the protagonist himself, left shivering and shaking like a mystery-solving Great Dane. And this never ceases–not until well after the final credits fade from the screen. As a matter of fact, just writing about The Revenant right now is making me shake like a Chinese motorcycle.
Perhaps this frigidity is partially due to the fact the film was captured using nothing but natural light. As photography literally means ‘drawing with light,’ to have to depend on the sun and fire to capture your images is especially difficult and makes what the filmmakers were able to pull off that much more spectacular.
In perfect concert with the images is the minimalist score composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto. As bleak as the freezing imagery, the music is just enough to accent the brutality without drawing too much attention to itself.
Even though the film slows to nearly a molasses crawl in some scenes, it is not only expected–considering the setting and story–it is often welcome. Iñárritu inserts what the late Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu referred to as ‘pillow shots’–still, unfailingly beautiful images of nature–allowing us to regain our breath before diving back beneath the turbulent waves of the story.
Here, director of photography Lubezki chooses images that, while perfectly akin to the setting, are in stark contrast to the tumult of the human drama. The camera often shows us grand aerial views of the topography, soul-comforting images of nature at its most serene and inspiring, as if to remind us of how beauty is a matter of perception.
But as we sink back to the earth, returning to the actual events, we see the truth of nature. Despite all its marvelous wonder, grandiose complexity and seeming neutrality, it is not trying to do you any favors. It is, in fact, trying to kill you.
Lubezki’s hand is also evident during the most frantic shots as well. Even in a tense horseback chase, he seems to favor close-ups. Close-ups are favorites of filmmakers like John Cassavetes, who understood the depth and core of emotion is seen, not through actions and gestures, but through all the subtle nuances of the human face.
Every one of those nuances is displayed in The Revenant, specifically by DiCaprio and Hardy. Hardy’s amoral self-righteousness and mumbling Texan drawl is reminiscent of Tom Berenger’s Sergeant Barnes from Oliver Stone’s Platoon. DiCaprio, on the other hand, absolutely suffers for his craft, embodying the tortured and driven Glass, while performing beyond what 99 percent of actors would be willing to do. “It was the most difficult film, I think, that any of us have ever done,” he says. See it for yourself and you’ll understand.
While the computer generated animals–including the bear–are not perfect synthetic representations of their analogs, and they can sometimes draw one out of the harsh realism of the world, their imperfections can be overlooked.
So, grab a blanket or a space heater, have something warm to drink and settle in for two-and-a-half unsettling hours. The Revenant is a movie you only need to see once, but you need to see it.
Ammo Dump rating: 9 out of 10 arrows
I’ll talk more about this film and others during my (every once in a while) radio show. Listen in on WJBC-AM1230 in Central Illinois. For the rest of the world, listen on @ALphaEXray to find out when I’ll be on the air.. And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter
Run time: 156 minutes