Alejandro González Iñárritu is determined to beat me into submission. After really liking his first film, Amores Perros, I REALLY disliked his next two big features, 21 Grams and Babel.
But then came last year’s Birdman, Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. Even though I walked into the movie expecting to hate it, and was annoyed by certain aspects of it (drumming so loud it drowned out 30% of the dialog), I was stunned by the craftsmanship. I was fully on board with it winning the Oscar for Best Picture.
Last night I watched, or rather endured, Iñárritu’s new picture, The Revenant. I say “endured” because it’s a grueling 156 minutes. But it’s also fascinating, horrifying, thrilling, and irresistible.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as the guide for a group of fur traders on Montana in the 1820s. I don’t want to give much away plot-wise, so I’ll just say the boys have some Indian trouble, and then Leo has some VERY nasty bear trouble. The bulk of the film deals with Leo’s attempts to survive in the wilderness long enough to get revenge on them that done him wrong.
The excellent cast also features one of my favorites, Domnhall Gleeson as the leader of their expedition and Tom Hardy as the Leo’s Machiavellian nemesis. (In a refreshing change, I could understand most of Tom Hardy’s lines this time around.)
Once again Iñárritu is working with heroic genius cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who is only the second DP in Oscar history to win two years in a row (for Gravity and Birdman). After seeing his jaw-dropping work in The Revenant, I think he’s got a good chance of going three for three. In addition to Gravity, let’s remember that this is the man who shot The New World, Tree of Life, Y Tu Mamá También , Sleepy Hollow and Children of Men.
The first fifteen minutes of the movie are absolutely flabbergasting. The majesty and menacing mystery of the north woods country is almost overwhelming in the hands of Iñárritu and Lubezki. The Indian attack that opens the movie is a masterpiece of staging that reminded me of the opening of Saving Private Ryan, which is about as high praise as I can summon up regarding an action scene.
The rest of the movie can’t maintain that astronomical standard, but then neither did the rest of Saving Private Ryan. It’s merely brilliant. It features shot after shot that’s either so beautiful or so crafty it literally pushed me back into my seat.
Iñárritu has revealed himself to be an absolutely take-no-prisoners filmmaker. He has that in common with his friend and fellow director from Mexico, my hero Alfonso Cuarón. Every single scene in the movie looks like it must have been brutal to shoot. Remote woods, cold weather and lots and lots of water — all elements that challenge any film team. The movie was shot in sequence for 80 days over nine months. At one point while filming in Canada, the weather warmed up a little too early and they lost the snow. Undeterred, Iñárritu packed up the entire team and relocated to southern Argentina to finish the scene. He’s a beast. But he’s OUR beast. He needs to stay healthy and make many more movies.
Special mention must be made of the remarkable bear attack scene. I assume it was accomplished with a combination of CGI and puppetry, but trust me, you’re ready for the emergency room yourself before it’s over.
There’s been a lot of talk about The Revenant being the film that could finally net veteran favorite Leonardo DiCaprio his Oscar. I think it will. Though he only speaks 15 lines of dialog in English in the entire movie, his performance is the stuff Academy Award voters love. I’m not a fan of his; the last movie I liked him in was What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? But I do think he’s a terrific actor and he certainly deserves a win for this beautiful, bleak, unforgettable movie.