Locating Realism in The Revenant

a person who has returned, especially supposedly from the dead.

Many directors focus on human struggle with an eye for the sentimental, but Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who lists his director’s credit as his full name like the signature on a check, zeroes in on crueler truths. He takes the struggle and reduces it to instinct; it becomes elemental. His characters are like Andrei Rublev, toiling in the ruthless cold to craft a life that someone may mistake for art someday (and I get the sense he often thinks of himself as a modern Tarkovsky, less an artist than a chronicler of art). This was more figurative in Birdman, more existential in The Revenant. This time, the starving artist is actually starving, in mounds of crystal snow, walking a landscape of skeletal trees, a staggeringly beautiful place shot with splendor yet no allure. It’s an aloof, wild place, with no pity, even less so for seeming beautiful. Nature in The Revenant cannot be mistaken for nurturing any more than space could in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In shots that are long enough to seem like the torture of real-time, Iñárritu rebuilds his art around struggle.

In this film, loss is even more present than beauty (it’s inhabited by characters who would say the same of life). Architecture crippled by time, even dreamed up by a man longing to remember something built by human hands, seems more desolate than a gorgeous yet empty landscape since the buildings have the added burden of recollections. Tarkovsky sent the young Ivan wandering through bombed-out homes on the windy Russian plains, dreaming of the last time he was happy, in a world of ripples and cloudless cheeks surrounded by his mother and the smell of apples. Iñárritu takes the sensory experience of Tarkovskian dreams to bring Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) to a similar “other” level of reality. He dreams of broken churches, with fire-licking demons eating sinners up the walls. Its cracks snake all the way up to a lonely bell ringing forever in a broken tower. He greets his dead son (Forrest Goodluck) and wife (Grace Dove) in this world of dreams. Animal skulls stacked like tribal pyramids block the sun; ants hurry to complete their tasks before the dream ends. These are the images that supply The Revenant with the feeling of medieval painting or even its baser elements, like cave scrawls, those pleas to be remembered by people who knew nothing but hunger in a pitiless world. The Revenant seems not only to film the wilderness but to engrave and preserve an ancient idea of it, an idea older than civilization, maybe even older than beauty.

Like Kubrick or Malick, Iñárritu seems to think of his cast and crew as props, his hands in a sense, assembled to enable this vision of primeval toughness. Like Days of Heaven, The Revenant’s shooting schedule was restricted to a few precious hours of the day when the light was at the right height in the trees and the world had just started going grey. The Revenant is about struggle, yes, but it also required it. Hugh Glass (from which the embellished real story of the American fur trapper comes to the film through the book of the same name and the 1915 poem, The Song of Hugh Glass) might have recognized some of the hardship on the set, as numerous cameramen and technicians abandoned the long-winded project and its tight-gripped director for warmer assignments. Emmanuel Lubezki, the man responsible for giving Malick’s films the visuals of somber memorials to match their airy dialogue, gives The Revenant its high-minded, elemental look, holding the technique of the project together in the absence of much dialogue at all. No matter how beautiful the film appears, it never becomes comforting. That sunshine, eerily locked into an endless repeat of those two hours at days’ end, gives the impression of a lamp over a white operating table. This sun isn’t comforting – it’s exposing.

I’ve been drawing connections between The Revenant and the imagery of other films because the film recalls the past epics with purpose, possibly through a desire to become part of their heritage. No film came to my mind as often as The White Reindeer (1952). This dark fantasy fable began on a wind-swept plain of snow, as a woman confronts her unknown heritage as a witch; in a pivotal scene she prays (or co-conspires) with a pyre of antlers jutting from the ice, arranged in purposeful chaos, both a gravesite and a shrine. At its center – a stone monolith, as haunting as Kubrick’s, as mysterious as the dreams that Hugh Glass has of nature as it turns into cruel architecture in his head. Animal parts become monuments. In the day, he sees the land as it appears; at night, he sees it as it is, through towering effigies of stacked skulls.

DiCaprio creates a mind- and toe-numbing depiction of struggle, risking hypothermia, trying to dance around the accent of an 1820s fur trapper. He even bit into a buffalo’s heart with stony eyes, gagging in reality as a vegan and in the film as a hungry man so unused to food that it takes the wind from him. Had DiCaprio not been physically (or spiritually) up for the part, as many cameramen were not, he retroactively could not have been Iñárritu’s vessel for this character’s immense toil. As Iñárritu said when asked about his huge crew turnover, with the pitiless certainty of a cold wind, “As a director, if I identify a violin that is out of tune, I have to take that from the orchestra.” DiCaprio was not fit to endure it – he was fit, because he endured it.

DiCaprio has always been more tenacious than versatile. He goes after different parts with the tone of someone who can learn "any" accent and play "any" man, while to the audience he is always nearly the same Leonardo played up at different levels of drama. Even in The Revenant, he is a movie star, always on the verge of losing the accent, like Jay Gatsby studying for a part he hopes will be his big break. His recognizability does not stop him from dirtying his face, snarling through spit and pain in brutal, unimaginable injuries. His eyes are the most well-acted parts about him. But he’s sensational, in all the senses of that word. He feels like he’s in the role of his life, not in actual life.

When placed against the naturalism of Tom Hardy as the rival trapper, Fitzgerald, it becomes even clearer how much DiCaprio feels like an actor. Hardy disappears into the role of a man from this era. His disgruntled monologuing is a barely audible train of loathsome jibber-jabber, like 1820s Popeye. He speaks from a world created by snow and blood and grey sunshine. There is no feeling of “acting” in it. Even as Glass endures a self-important quest to defy the universe to get his revenge (like the lengths to which DiCaprio goes to finally get his Oscar against the less well-entrenched Hardy), Fitzgerald just does what he has to do. “I ain’t go no life,” he says, “I just got ta live.” The film questions whether Glass’s big finish makes much of a difference. Revenge, which is more a trope of the movies than of life, is a concept that Fitzgerald ends up knowing more about, having caused it rather than felt it – no matter what Glass does, he still has to figure out how to keep living once the plot is over. Hardy, like Fitzgerald, goes unrewarded for more natural work.

The Revenant communicates this idea a bit too forwardly, as though Smith and Iñárritu's screenplay at some point became uncomfortable with the idea of being misunderstood. Lines like, “Revenge is in the creator’s hands,” speak dramatic effects into an existence in which they are already evident. Maybe Iñárritu guessed that audiences wouldn’t know what to take from the film. The Revenant must be read in context as a blockbuster, not a small art film, a movie that attracted crowds with a star and a budget in the A-list. In that sense, Iñárritu has made quite possibly the most artistic blockbuster of the century so far, for which a few overwrought lines can be forgiven as much as they are understood in the context of the expectations of a denominator-focused industry.

Though least faithful to itself in moments of over-literal writing, The Revenant is dredged in natural tension to make up for it. The quiet moments become effortfully surreal, as the bison skulls rise into Glass’s point of view like a personal and cultural prophecy. Jodorowsky’s birds fly from his wife’s bullet wounds; Dali’s ants carry their family’s corpses up snowy hills. These are all surreal emblems of Iñárritu’s human struggle, which Glass re-enacts around tiny fires and among dead trees, scavenging bones for marrow in the hope of one day killing the man who did him wrong. The journey contains moments-long eternities of scrabbling, heaving, lurching, retching, like a documentary's relaxed cruelty somehow glossed up into a spiritual journey. This includes a gasp-inducing torture of a scene in which Glass is destroyed by a bear, clawing helplessly, spitting, torn open in the cold sunlight and merged with the earth. The scene became famous for the wrong reasons – it should be regarded among the most scarring beating scenes in movie history.

Among this toil, The Revenant uses DiCaprio's obviousness not to become superficial on accident but to purposefully go against modern cinematic perspectives on realness. It does not use cheap cameras to capture the wilderness more “realistically,” or wield first-time actors against its circumstances to try and use inexperience to recapture the feeling of real life. With its glossy budget, big tech, and famous stars, Iñárritu takes the accuracy of naturalism and shrinks it down to such a narrow view of one man’s life and dreams, of even one time of day, that it becomes surreal to see it re-enacted so glamorously, at such expense. The strategic use of famous actors only adds to the illusion, each in a different sense depending on the performance.

Hardy feels more like the newer definition of realistic filmmaking, where great actors are supposed to disappear into the roles. In keeping with his name, he’s so hearty he makes misery seem noble (or the nearest to noble it can, which is a kind of dignity never far from turning into regret). He commits horrific acts but in a world cruel enough to make them almost reasonable. He acts like everyone else just hasn’t acknowledged it yet. Domhnall Gleeson brings the opposite tone but the same realism to a much smaller role. His name in the film is Andrew Henry, named by a mother yearning for something that sounded patriotic even as his boyhood ambitions for glory turned to brutal survival. He has a dirty face with clotted hair, but he still has innocent eyes. If Hardy captures the era, Gleeson absolves it.

By contrast, DiCaprio is like the much older traditions of cinematic historical fiction, where great actors played parts they could never quite disappear into (he’s like a high-minded version of Fess Parker’s Davy Crocket, stoic in his furs and in the hearts of boys). The struggle of Hugh Glass to survive seems inseparably linked to DiCaprio’s struggle to become Hugh Glass, emblematic of his struggle to become an actor natural enough to be worthy of recognition and not just fame. DiCaprio’s presence in the film doesn’t hide the filmmaking devices that made him, as Hardy and Gleeson do – he reveals the method, using the audience's recognition against them (Tarantino weaponized this aspect of DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, a film in which he played an actor struggling to find a role as dramatic as the drama he acts out in the real life of the film in which DiCaprio plays him). The decision to cast DiCaprio may not have been possible on a smaller budget, but it gives the film the gift of taking the older meta that Iñárritu must have had in mind and making it visual. If The Revenant were a painting, the choice of casting DiCaprio vs a more natural nobody would be like deciding whether or not to leave in the brushstrokes.

Behind the abuse and the cold, the hard earth and the gore that makes Cast Away look like City Slickers, The Revenant serves as a broader statement on realism in movies by turning these stars into historical devices, like figures in early American painting. A scene where Native Americans obliterate the main cast from horseback is continuous and panoramic: in sheer dramatic effect, it should be mentioned in the same breath as the Normandy landing in Saving Private Ryan. Yet the style hinges just as much on these impressions of realism as on DiCaprio’s more blatant presence, which decodes them for the audience in the context of the broader meta of the film's genre, in the way that John Wayne did in The Searchers. By being just slightly out of time, Leo brings The Revenant up to the level of older Hollywood epics (or down to it, depending on where you're looking from). Iñárritu seems to believe that the film would be more evocative if he left the brushstrokes in, even if it wasn't as "real." Pulling great actors down into these elements is more evocative not despite but because they are well-known enough to be recognized.

This is why DiCaprio gets to be the revenant in this story and the other actors play the roles of period props (or violins). Concerning a particular tradition of movie realism, one which stretches from John Ford’s Western epics through the mid-century Hollywood period blockbusters, climaxing with Kubrick and Tarkovsky’s think-pieces, Iñárritu uses a big budget and a big star to go against the trend towards having to choose between rigid naturalism and obvious throwback filmmaking. Of that old mixed feeling of the bygone epics, the epic-turned-meditation of the North American journey, which takes the biggest stars in the game and elevates them to historical monuments, Iñárritu doesn’t settle for a recreation. He wants to bring it all back from the dead.

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©20th Century Fox/Regency Enterprises

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