The Wilderness Years
Not long ago audiences contemplated Quentin Tarantino’s wasteful use of Ultra Panavision 70mm in The Hateful Eight, 85% of which was theatrically presented inside a cabin set. That movie also opted for cartoon characters and lashings of full fat verbosity. What, we asked, would a real Western look like; one that took the beauty and brutality of the frontier and western civilisation’s challenge to it, seriously? The answer might look something like Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, a nasty, expansive but economically told tale of betrayal and survival in 1820’s Missouri.
The location may recall Marlon Brando’s 1976 western, The Missouri Breaks, but thematically it’s closer to the late colossus’s politics. The Revenant explores, with sweeping, digitally sutured takes and natural light, the foreboding and wild landscape, but depicted thereon is the plundering of Native American settlements by the gung ho capitalists of France and the American colonies. This backdrop, in turn, conditions the conflict between the movie’s two main characters – scalping survivor, Tom Hardy, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s fur trapper, who’s had a son with a Pawnee woman (murdered by the French).
Hardy’s deep seeded racial hatred and suspicion of DiCaprio, culminates in the former leaving the latter for dead when Leo’s mauled by a highly realistic CG bear, while killing his son. So begins a revenge movie that’s content for the unforgiving land to by and large do the talking. Consequently, the film takes its time, drinking it in, punctuating DiCaprio’s slow crawl back to civilisation with visceral and 360-degree action sequences, that keep the camera close without the cuts that would normally signal a director’s imprimatur. Iñárritu’s camera floats around, God-like, recording the mauled man’s plight dispassionately. The effect is meditative but more pronounced in the movie’s moments of harsh reality. The style’s as cold and inhumane as a pack of wolves mauling a bison.
Iñárritu’s a filmmaker who delights in the conspicuous use of the cinematic apparatus, however, so naturally wants it both ways. Despite the impossibility of Leo being shadowed by a digital camera, the lens is conspicuously and deliberately soiled with mud, blood, rapid river water and the flair from direct sunlight. This could have been removed in post of course, but then you wouldn’t have that sense of reportage, of life captured in the moment, of being on the characters’ shoulders as they fight for survival, against the land and each other. This is stylization naturally, the filmmaker’s choice, but one wonders why the production would go to such great lengths to give the sense of being God’s eye on 1823 Missouri, only to break the illusion and signal the presence of 21st century technology. Why not just pull the camera back further and show Iñárritu directing his actors?
Still, The Revenant is a great mood piece; an atmospheric epic that makes good use of its star by mauling his throat early, thus denying him the opportunity to speak for much of the running time. DiCaprio, in a near silent part, suffers for his art of course, so will no doubt be rewarded, but the acting plaudits should really go to Tom Hardy. With just a smattering of dialogue he manages to project the pain, confusion and moral conflict of his self-interested antagonist, maintaining a penetrating presence in every scene in which he appears. If the bear outdoes everyone, so what? They can’t give an Oscar to a set of pixels…luckily for Leo.