What would Werner Herzog have done with a Go-Pro and a drone to play with?
That’s really too facile an opening gambit for an epic film that owes much to Aguirre – The Wrath Of God and a little to Bertolucci’s The Conformist. (Of course, I need not say that this is praise of the very highest order.)
Hugh Glass, a guide in the early stages of America’s infatuation with its Manifest Destiny, having been ripped to shreds by a bear, is left by his party of fur trappers to die in a shallow grave, his son already murdered by Fitzgerald, the amoral egoist who always seems to hitch a ride in a group like this. Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio, not so much acting as enduring) somehow survives that ordeal – something he makes a habit of – and doggedly (that is, on all fours) sets off to exact revenge on Fitzgerald (a wild eyed Tom Hardy, whom you would think had had enough of this sort of thing in Mad Max: Fury Road).
The plot hardly matters though – the star of this show is the American landscape. Filmed by Emmanuel Lubezki (with a love touched by sadism) by means – I can only presume – of steadicams mounted on drones, nature’s malevolence is shown in both the most gruesome of close-ups and the widest of panoramas. There are times when you want to freeze the screen and question whether a frame was inspired by Southern Comfort, Badlands, Deliverance or the paintings of Casper David Friedrich. There’s nothing really new in the landscapes themselves, but the urgency with which we move through it, is exhilarating and (literally) awesome.
As is the case with Herzog’s cinematic battles with soil and water, the music (by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Carsten Nicolai) adds much to the otherworldy feel of the movie, at once viscerally felt, but also mythic. It’s another reason why this film demands a visit to a cinema – its epic scale will inevitably be diminished on even the largest of domestic screens.
I’m going to see it again, but second time round, I’m not going to bother much about following the plot and worrying a little about the clunky introductions of one or two characters inserted, like Chekhov’s Gun, because the story needs them later. I’m going to let the images and the sounds wash over me, treating it like a visit to the Musee D’Orsay and trying not to be overwhelmed. Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s previous movie, Birdman, I felt too nervous, too dependent on fussy showy long takes and ultimately disappointing, but his control in The Revenant is complete, the long takes bringing back memories of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia and The Sacrifice. Such confidence is rare to see so fully realised – if anyone beats him to the Oscar for Best Director, they’ve done bloody well.
And, as I reach for a word and come up with “bloody”, I guess that underlines just how the film, like Leo and his dead horse, has got under my skin.