The Revenant is not a film that is always easy to watch. But this, for me, is one of the reasons why it is such a great and momentous movie.
If you know anything about The Revenant (which is nominated for a total of twelve Academy Awards), you are probably aware that poor Leonardo DiCaprio (playing the American explorer, Hugh Glass) is left for dead by his compatriots and then must embark on an epic quest for survival. The highlight of the movie’s trailer (and certainly one of the highlights of the movie itself) consists of Glass rasping out this memorable line: “I ain’t afraid to die anymore. I done it already.”
This is, in fact, what the movie is about: sheer survival. And yet despite its singular focus on Glass and his mostly solitary journey, the film’s pace is anything but dull and plodding. The lengthy run time (two hours and thirty six minutes, to be exact) goes completely unnoticed until the director’s name appears (the brilliant Inárritu, who also helmed last year’s “Birdman”). Why is The Revenant so riveting and why does time become so fluid while one is watching it, the second hand of the clock silenced and sacrificed to the screen?
I have a few ideas. First of all, The Revenant is more than a mere story (actually, it is based on true events, but that’s not what I’m talking about here). It is an experience. As a result, it diverges from the stereotypical plot structure, subverting our expectations as moviegoers. There are certain conventions of film that we implicitly accept since we have seen them many times before, even though these conventions are not necessarily natural. For example, when we see a montage in a movie (a succession of fleeting images accompanied by music), we understand that time is passing and some sort of growth or development has been or is being achieved by the characters involved. However, someone who had never seen a film before would probably not have these same assumptions and might not understand from such a sequence that time had passed or change had taken place.
This is all to say that The Revenant, while it surely makes use of some conventions of film, does not rely on these conventions. The conventions are not vital to its powerful impact as a film. Looking back on the movie, I don’t know that I could isolate a climax or other particular points to flesh out a clear arc of the plot. This is why time passed by so freely without my perceiving its flight: the movie seeks to capture life in its essence and all its reality, and we experience this reality with the characters in the movie, not some carefully and obviously artificially constructed storyline.
I opened this review by saying that the movie is not always easy to watch, and this is undoubtedly true. I thought to myself while watching that it was “not for the faint of heart,” what with the amount of blood, gore and violence (who knew that arrows could inflict so much damage?) But then again, I have always considered myself to be faint of heart when it comes to such things, so if I could handle it all (even the graphic Grizzly bear attack) and walk away amazed and appreciative of the film, then in all likelihood you can handle it too. Some of the scenes containing the most violence were shocking but never gratuitous. This was not violence for the sake of violence or to manipulate its viewers with the entertainment of shock value (a phenomenon increasingly prevalent in contemporary film and television). Instead, as I said above, it was simply real.
I love when a movie looks life square in the eye, with all its beauty and all its ugliness, its triumphs and great sufferings, its sorrows and joys- and does not flinch. The Revenant did this in a way that was incredibly profound and stays with me to this day. It did not shrink away from the pain or suffering or the harsh reality of Glass’s struggle to stay alive, and by doing so the film was able to reveal a raw beauty that gave it a pervasive and life-affirming spirit of hope. The sounds in the movie are absolutely amazing: the hypnotic rush of water, the laborious wheeze of Glass’s breathing, and the bleak cry of wind. And then there is the breathtaking filmography, spanning sublime views of unexplored and untamed wilderness (a portion of the movie was actually filmed in Canada, and apparently the whole movie was shot using only natural light).
Even when there was blood, death and decay strewn across the ground, the camera would suddenly move upwards to the sky and an aerial, ethereal view of long-limbed trees, as if to suggest that even in the midst of death and despair, life and beauty still live on and cannot be put out. In a way, this was the message of the entire film: a gritty, moving and beautifully authentic testament to the value of life (one life), life that endures even when everything around it is whispering that it has every right to give up.