Brrrrrrrr. Brr. Brrrrrrrutal. Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s epic “The Revenant,” which does not reach toward but lunges for greatness, is assuredly more than the Emperor’s new furs, as some early reviewers have suggested. But what is it, exactly? After a second viewing, I might side with filmmakers versus critics: “’The Revenant’ is a film Erich Von Stroheim made after getting drunk with Terrence Malick,” film-critic-turned-filmmaker Paul Schrader annotated on Facebook. “It’s kind of rescuing what cinema is about,” Iñárritu told the Financial Times’ India Ross. “Show and don’t tell.” What “The Revenant” shows is the travails of fur trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) in dragging his broken body back to civilization after his crew in the wilds has abandoned him after being mauled by a grizzly bear. But the work by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (“To The Wonder”), production designer Jack Fisk (“Tree of Life”) and costume designer Jacqueline West (“The New World”) demonstrates the determination of Iñárritu as well. Contemplating particular shots, of vistas, of expanses of virgin wood and water photographed at great cost and exertion in chronological order, in natural light at dusk in the winters of British Columbia and the furthermost tip of Argentina, the eye widens and the mind marvels. These were the majesties explored, exploited, diminished or destroyed in the centuries since. Iñárritu and Lubezki enact their play of manly avarice amidst its steely beauty and icy harm. And Glass drags himself closer to the beginning of the industrialized world. Filmmaker Aaron Stewart-Ahn is a fan, as he indicated on Twitter: “I may blaspheme myself. ‘The Revenant’ might be equal to ‘Fury Road,’ Cormac McCarthy, Kurosawa, Tarkovsky, Jodorowsky, and the sky itself… Expect an astral projection.” This prompted an exchange with Iñárritu’s longtime friend Guillermo del Toro, who wrote, “There is a pernicious misapprehension [regarding] the difference between story and plot, between filmic storytelling and stage dramaturgy. ‘The Revenant’ is overwhelmingly cinematic… tells its story with superb filmic tools.” Each shot means to shock with elemental beauty: the simmering immanence of Tarkovsky in a frosted glade, mist materializing between bare, thin-trunked trees. The warring fury and irrational tumult of Klimov. The dark-on-darker screen of Philippe Grandrieux. Iñárritu has watched well. (As he tells David Fear in the January 2015 Film Comment: “I was looking toward things like ‘Dersu Uzala’ by Kurosawa, Tarkovsky’s ‘Andrei Rublev’—which is maybe my favorite film ever—Herzog’s ‘Aguirre, the Wrath of God’ and ‘Fitzcarraldo,’ even ‘Apocalypse Now.'”)The elegant, haunting score by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto is as essential as any other component to the bruised, brooding moment. With Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter. 156m. Widescreen. (Ray Pride)
“The Revenant” opens Friday, January 8.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published soon. Previews of the project are on Twitter and on Instagram as Ghost Signs Chicago. More photography on Instagram.