In the wonderfully unpredictable Oscar race earlier this year, one of the few certainties was that Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s ‘The Revenant’ would feature prominently. Compared to the tightly-constructed intimate dramas around it, the film was a genuine cinematic experience, enormous in scope and ambition, the director and his lead actor both pushing their craft (and consequently, us the audience) to the brink of sanity. Utterly uncompromising, ‘The Revenant’ is an overwhelming film that sucks you in and spits you out, and even if the experience isn’t always the most enjoyable, it’s one hell of an experience nonetheless.
The film tackles the true story of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a frontiersman in Wyoming in the 1820s who falls victim to an horrific bear attack, and seeks revenge on the men who left him for dead, buried alive in the wilderness. The enormous trials faced by Glass are mirrored in the trials that face the film, shot in unforgiving locations using only natural light and submitting itself to the environmental and meteorological elements. The narrative might be a tad derivative of Ridley Scott’s ‘Gladiator’ (2000) and take more than a few visual and tonal cues from Terrence Malick’s ‘The New World’ (2005), (down to using both that film’s cinematographer and production designer) but what makes ‘The Revenant’ innately unique is that sense of reality and immediacy that comes from working in such a manner. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki keep the camera in close rather than opening up for epic hero shots, exploring the landscape of the wilderness and the actors' faces equally. We are placed beside Glass, immediately within his space, so that the camera feels like an active participant and an observer rather than an artifice. The visual achievements of the film are impressive, but it’s a language we’ve seen before from these storytellers - the unbroken shot doesn’t wow as much as it did in ‘Birdman’, and Lubezki isn’t many steps away from his equally breathtaking work in ‘The New World’ - but it's that immediacy that makes ‘The Revenant’ a distinct experience, one that burrows right under your skin. We know stories and characters like this, but Iñárritu and his team find a way to make it feel fresh again, capturing the enormity of Glass’ quest for revenge and battle against nature itself within the framework of intense intimacy.
Of course, DiCaprio is enormously impressive as Glass, but this strangely doesn’t come as a surprise. Is it incredible work and dedication? Of course. Is it any better than any of his previous work? Not so much, and while it’s a performance worthy of recognition, his Oscar for it seems more like a recognition for his body of work. The supporting cast is just as impressive, with Tom Hardy stealing the film as John Fitzgerald, the object of Glass’ revenge. Iñárritu taps into that danger that’s always been inherent in Hardy, and even though Fitzgerald is at times reprehensible, Hardy attacks his reasoning with such conviction that he builds him into something more complex than a simple antagonist.
It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by ‘The Revenant’, which is both its blessing and its curse. There’s little doubt this is an exemplary piece of pure cinema, visceral and affecting in a way only cinema can be, but the gruelling experience of it makes it almost impossible to digest. The poetry and philosophy woven through it settles into your soul without ever explaining itself, asking you as an audience to consider and engage with it in ways that few films do. Alejandro G. Iñárritu might not offer us the instant gratification that ‘Birdman’ did with ‘The Revenant’, but what we’re left with is far more haunting.
It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by ‘The Revenant’, which is both its blessing and its curse.
PICTURE & SOUND
It would have been a massive disappointment if ‘The Revenant’ didn’t stun in high definition, and this Blu-ray release does not disappoint. The 1080p 2.35:1 transfer is staggering, the depth and detail of Lubezki’s Oscar-winning cinematography presented with tremendous clarity. There’s a muted tone to the palette of the film, and this wintery diffusion comes up beautifully in high definition. The DTS-HD MA 7.1 track is just as flawless, capturing all the subtle nuances in both the sound design and score. It’s not the most explosive film aurally, but it enhances the image to create an enveloping viewing experience.
The film is also part of the first wave of Ultra 4K releases that presents ‘The Revenant’ in 2160p.
There’s only two extras on offer with the film, the primary being the unusual making-of documentary ‘A World Unseen’ (44:04). It doesn’t follow the traditional format of a making-of, instead focusing on the thematic and philosophical ideas of the film accompanied by behind-the-scenes footage and specially-shot sequences, with interviews ranging from the major players to the supporting cast. It might not work for every film, but for ‘The Revenant’ this is a beautiful companion piece. There’s also an image gallery of photography from the film.