Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

08 January 2016

Enter Pursued by a Bear

Alejandro González Iñárritu's The Revenant is titled like a horror movie, but it isn't one. It also isn't exactly an action/adventure movie either. Stylistically, it's something like a cross between Terrence Malick's Tree of Life and The New World with Joe Carnahan's The Grey. (Since I'm mentioning films that I love, this is me telling you that I loved The Revenant.) If The Revenant looks like a Malick movie (it's shot by the great Emmanuel Lubezki) and is plotted like a survival or disaster film, the story of The Revenant is revenge. And revenge is one of my absolute favorite things.

The film is contemplative and very slow at times – a couple exiting the theatre with me wondered Why did they show so much of the scenery? – focusing on the world inhabited by these eighteenth-century colonialists. This slowness and contemplation makes the film gorgeous, of course, but it is also what the film is about to a large extent, the way violence exists on the surface of a world that is beautiful. The natural world itself is also incredibly violent – particularly in the snow-covered mountains and icy waters the men are traversing. Perhaps I am reading this into the film, but the film's violence, shocking though it is at times, and often extremely brutal, is also beautiful. In this way, it seemed to me that for Iñárritu, the natural world and then men and women who are a part of it are all violent, and all capable of beauty, even when they are violent. (This seems to me a larger theme in Iñárritu's work – think back to that incredible shot of the blood bubbling on the Teppan grill in Amores Perros.)

The Revenant – like the director's non-Birdman films – is also very interested in worlds colliding, in different languages (there are at least three in the film, including extended sequences in Pawnee), in the problems that are bred out of miscommunication, and in the inhumanity that accompanies racism. Like all of Iñárritu's films, The Revenant is also interested in magic, in powers and abilities that don't seem to make sense through scientific explanation. This makes the film seem both improbable and also constantly wondrous. I spent much of the movie with my jaw dropped, shocked at the images onscreen. In the film's first act, Leonardo DiCaprio is brutally mauled by a bear: His throat is torn open, his back ripped to shreds. And from this, he comes back. That he continues to survive despite absurdly harsh weather conditions, three different groups of people who wish to kill him, and the terrifying wildlife of the Americas, is both improbable and amazing to watch.

But The Revenant doesn't have the quality of absurdity that might accompany the jumps and explosions in a James Bond film or something from the Mission: Impossible series. Instead, one wonders about the man's existence itself. Is he dead? Is he a spirit? A ghost? A zombie? Can he be killed at all? Is there some earth-magic that is keeping this man's shell alive so that he can execute justice on his enemy?

Alternating wild action sequences and vicious, violent fights with slow consideration of rivers, waterfalls, sky, and even fire, The Revenant is a kind of superb meditation on everything. What does it mean to be racist out in the middle of nowhere when humans should be working together to survive? What does it mean to get revenge in the middle of nowhere, completely outside of society? What are barbarism and civilization? What is humanity's limit? What are the limits of the human body?

The Revenant is perfectly directed. It is gorgeously scored by Ryuichi Sakamoto (it's my favorite score of the year, and of course it is ineligible for the Oscar because the Music branch is insanely twisted). The movie is impeccably shot and edited; it is no exaggeration to say that Lubezki might and probably should win his third consecutive Oscar.) And it is superbly acted – Domnhall Gleeson's work is particularly great, providing exactly what is needed in DiCaprio's most emotional sequences, and I thought Will Poulter was exceptional as well, but all of the performances are excellent.

The Revenant is certainly not for everyone, but I loved it.