Felix Garner Davis
Drenched in blacks, blues, harsh whites and splatters of crimson, Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography in The Revenant offers an analogue to the film’s plot as it splays the screen in all its gorgeous desolation. Make no mistake, this film isn’t necessarily an enjoyable one, even if it is compelling. As I watched Hugh Glass and his troupe of hunters and trappers trudge through pools of cold mud beneath the vomiting heavens, rifles poised and ears pricked for the various dangers surrounding them, I began to feel a bit sodden and dispirited myself. However, I found it difficult to look away.
While The Revenant’s colour palette is admittedly grim, its effect is enchanting: Lubezki and Alejandro Iñárritu deploy a hyperreal rendering of the Louisiana Purchase’s frostbitten wastelands to transport us into an immersive universe. Once they flick into view, the ice-glazed plains and skeletal forests enveloping the men of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company are hard to forget, and even harder to extract oneself from.
It’s a masterful example of location selection and establishment of setting, not to mention choice of shot: as the party flee the Native American Arikara (‘Ree’) pursuing them, all of their discomforts, fears and anxieties are propelled from screen to viewer with unsettling force, whether by soaring vistas of the barren country, claustrophobic cuts between grimy faces and clusters of woodland or silent sequences of near-darkness.
...the merciless world Lubezki and Iñárritu create doesn’t do 'The Revenant' any favours in the ‘good vibes’ department.
The score, helmed by the tripartite phantasm of Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto & Bryce Dessner, the first of whom you may know as the composer of ‘Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence’, befits the bleak cinematography and frigid feel of the film. It’s a very sparse arrangement, characterised as much by its long periods of silence as it is by its intermittent rumblings of bass and mournful bursts of strings. Such dynamism contributes to the film in a double-edged manner, imbuing both the most intense moments of action and the quietest sequences with equivalent power; in the end, it's just a question of whether you’re moved more by crescendos or reduction.
Praise must also be directed at the cast’s performances, which are very good. Leo DiCaprio is sublime as skilful tracker Hugh Glass, managing to maintain an engrossing, committed rendition for two and a half hours despite the fact that his vocal chords are nearly torn out by an enraged grizzly bear in the first twenty minutes.
As I left the cinema, I heard a few people giggling about Leo’s turn; one guy murmured, ‘Well, there was a lot of grunting.’ Be warned: this anonymous gentleman is not incorrect. The Revenant features a damn lot of guttural communication, much of it rather challenging to make out properly. Tom Hardy mumbles most of his lines out of the side of his mouth, eyeballs bulging, snow-flecked whiskers dancing in the wind. Will Poulter’s accent is so thick that it often sounds as though he’s producing some kind of racist impersonation.
But while this thread between some of the lead performances may prove to be an aspect that a few titter over, the film’s quality is such that none of it actually feels silly at all. Mark my words, while he may earn some brownie points with his fellow whiskey-swilling couch cynics when he repeats that scintillating comment at the next convocation of the Nigh-Professional Film Critics’ Guild of East Brunswick, that miscellaneous filmgoer I quoted above was just as glued to the screen as I was.
Again, I don’t see The Revenant as a particularly enjoyable film, regardless of how absorbing I found it at first sight. I’m not quite sure that anyone could view it as ‘enjoyable’, given its cruel setting, savage plot turns and blood-soaked examination of vengeance and fate; the merciless world Lubezki and Iñárritu create doesn’t do it any favours in the ‘good vibes’ department. Perhaps the most it could ever have strived for was effectiveness, and I think its success lies in the fact that it certainly achieves that.
If you’re looking for something to stimulate a whole lot of tooth-grittin’, jaw-clenchin’ and face-crinklin’, this is worth a watch.