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Movie Review: The Revenant

Updated on January 18, 2016
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Following up a big movie is hard. A good followup can mean the difference between a filmmaker becoming a major player or the director being known as the "guy who directed that one movie." After a Best Picture winning film, the pressure may be stronger. Alejandro Inarritu had already made his mark even before Birdman, but there was still anticipation for his followup, The Revenant.

Set in the 1820's Hugh Glass guides a group of fur traders through the snowy, mountainous woods. Along with Glass is his half-Indian son Hawk. Early on, they are attacked by unfriendly Indians, devastating their party. Matters are further complicated when Glass is viciously attacked by a bear. Some of his party members try to carry on with him despite Glass's critically wounded condition. As that becomes too daunting, Fitzgerald - one of the party members - tries to put Glass out of his misery. When Hawk refuses to allow Fitzgerald to carry out his plan, Fitzgerald murders him in front of the helpless Glass. Hugh Glass eventually escapes and he embarks on a journey to heal himself and claim revenge on Fitzgerald.

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As of this writing, The Revenant has already received a dozen Oscar nominations (literally), and it is easy to see why. One of the nominations, the film received is for best cinematography, and boy, does this film earn that one. This may be the single best-looking film of 2015. Some of these shots are so gorgeous, someone could frame them and put them on their wall (meanwhile, there are shots in this film that if someone did that, they should seek psychological counseling, but I'll get to that). According to IMDB, the film relied heavily on natural lighting, and this film looks gorgeous with brilliant use of the winter colors.

Much like Birdman, The Revenent relies on long, uninterrupted cuts. This decision is somewhat hit and miss. For the most part, it works. The scene where Glass is mauled by the bear is shot in one continuous take, and this helps emphasize the shear brutality of the scene. Without cuts or even music, we forced to endure every excruciating uncomfortable minute of this assault. However, there are times when two people are talking and the uninterrupted cuts - while technically impressive - do not add much to the scene. This was an issue in Birdman as well. However, in that film, doing everything in one take was the point. Now, being pleasant to look at may not mean much if the film does not have much else, but it does deserve to be mentioned. After all, film is a visual medium, why would I not just read a book? (Aside from the fact that a movie can be watched in a few hours, while a book will take a few days.) Fortunately, The Revenant has other positives besides the visuals.

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By now, this film has also gotten tons of publicity for Leonardo DiCaprio's performance, and the film that might score this overlooked underdog his first Oscar win. (Look, I like Leo as much as the next guy, but don't even get me started on all the actors who have never even been nominated.) Leo's performance in this film is a triumph. He speaks very little dialogue - at least in English. So much of his performance relies on body language and facial expressions. No words need to be said when he finds a source of water, his face tells the story. There is a good scene where Glass and a Native share a meal and only exchange looks with each other. DiCaprio is a terrific actor, but this is one of the rare occasions where he disappears into a role.

Whether you view this as a positive or a negative, it bears mentioning that this film is VIOLENT. In a day and age where we have gotten so wimpy that "Intense Moments" is enough reason to give squeaky clean films like Frozen and The Lego Movie a PG rating, it is almost hard to believe a film this graphic would be released in the mainstream. From the opening battle where we see arrows going straight through people's heads, this movie is brutal. I've sat through my fair share of gory films - American Psycho, Saw, Gladiator - and the Revenant still made me wince and avert my eyes at times. This film was so intensely bloody that people walked out during the screening I saw (at least I assume that was why).

Although this film is violent to the extreme, it is violence with a purpose. Yeah, it can reach uncomfortable levels, but this is the sort of situation that NEEDS to be that way. This is the story of survival. A man is fighting for his life in a harsh environment: The audience needs to feel uncomfortable along with him. There is a scene late in the film where Glass has to gut his deceased horse in order to create a shelter. This scene is every bit as gruesome as it sounds. However, it is a reminder of the intense conditions Glass is in and the unsavory things he has to do for survival.

As good as the Revenant may be, this is definitely not a film for everyone. The Revenant is one of those films that is difficult to talk about without giving a blow-by-blow recap of every single scene, but there are flaws. While one of the movie's strengths is that it keeps up with the show-don't-tell rule, there are scenes that feel like the film is rubbing its artiness in the viewers' faces. This film also meanders a bit. With a film about survival and a man exploring the dangerous woods, it should be no surprise that the film does not go from point A to point B (and on weekends, point C), but the film sometimes feels shapeless. The Revenant's runtime is over two and a half hours, and it feels that long. Perhaps this flaw will seem less noticeable on repeat viewings - there have been times I have seen a movie that dragged in theaters but felt more breezily paced the second time I saw it. However, I have to call it like I see it.

Overall, The Revenant is an excellent film, but not everyone will gravitate to the film. Some viewers will understandably be turned off by the intense violence while not everyone will like the not-always-focused arthouse style. However, if you can stomach those two elements, The Revenant comes highly recommended.

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