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New Release Review - THE REVENANT

A fur trapper left for dead sets off on a quest for vengeance.



Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Alejandro G Inarritu

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter, Domhnall Gleeson



Much has been made of DiCaprio's performance here, and he'll probably receive an Oscar for eating raw fish, as that's how awards seem to work these days, but the far more impressive turns come from Tom Hardy as the gruff narcissist who leaves him behind, and Will Poulter as the well-meaning young trapper manipulated by Hardy into going along with his plan.



For his 1948 thriller Rope, Alfred Hitchcock set himself the challenge of filming the movie in what appears to be a series of extended takes. He pulled it off, and the movie is a technical standout. So pleased with his work was Hitch that he decided long takes were the way forward. For his following movie, Under Capricorn, he again used several extended, complex tracking shots, but he admitted almost immediately that he had allowed his ego to get in the way of the storytelling process. There's a time and a place for this technique, and while it worked for Rope, it was detrimental to Under Capricorn. If last year's Oscar winning Birdman was Alejandro Inarritu's Rope, The Revenant is his Under Capricorn. While the unbroken shots served the story of Birdman (it's almost impossible after viewing to imagine that movie filmed any other way), here they disrupt and distract from the narrative.
The movie sucks us in immediately, with the first of many complex long takes, as a large group of fur trappers are attacked by a tribe of Arikara warriors. With flawless effects and shocking violence, it may well be the best scene of warfare since Saving Private Ryan. Here, the choice to employ long takes is a wise one, pulling us into the scene and wrapping us up in the chaos and confusion. Later, however, this technique becomes irritating and amateurish, as we witness a filmmaking experiment fail before our eyes.
There are two reasons Inarritu uses long takes here. The first is to show off the extent of Leonardo DiCaprio's performance as fur trapper Hugh Glass, who spends the movie on a vengeful quest after being left for dead following a bear mauling. DiCaprio ate live fish and bits of shrubbery, and both he and his director want us to know it! By showing DiCaprio pluck a swimming fish out of a stream and chow down on it in one take, we know that's a real, live fish he's biting into. But do we really? After all, in the earlier Arikara attack sequence we see arrows fired through men's necks in one unbroken take, and we know that's certainly not real. But much of the publicity has centred around the lengths DiCaprio went to for the sake of realism. The Revenant's director and star are obsessed with selling the film's verisimilitude, but who goes to a movie to watch an actor punish themselves like a Tokyo businessman on a Japanese game show? Besides, there's not much point in showing your lead actor literally chew on scenery if in the same shot you then pan across to a herd of unconvincing CG bison. Much has been made of the film's bear attack; sure, it's a great technical achievement, but then so are the Transformers movies.
The second, and more likely reason for Inarritu's extended takes here is his insistence on shooting in natural light. With the amount of shooting time per day drastically limited, Inarritu and ace cameraman Emmanuel Lubezki simply didn't have the time for a lot of set-ups. Quicker then to film scenes in one unbroken handheld shot than have to set up multiple angles. The resulting effect is often distracting, and at times highly amateurish, with the camera spending too much time floating through wasted screen space as it pans from one subject to the next and back.
Much has been made of DiCaprio's performance here, and he'll probably receive an Oscar for eating raw fish, as that's how awards seem to work these days, but the far more impressive turns come from Tom Hardy as the gruff narcissist who leaves him behind, and Will Poulter as the well-meaning young trapper manipulated by Hardy into going along with his plan. While DiCaprio's performance is overwhelmingly physical, Hardy and Poulter's is all about what's going on behind their eyes. Look past the pair's dodgy accents and you'll see two actors doing stellar work, communicating their states of mind without the need for any physical grandstanding. A far more interesting take on this story (seeing how we already have a superior take on Glass's plight in 1971's Man in the Wilderness) would have focused on Poulter's character, as his internal strife is far more fascinating than DiCaprio's external agony. But that would require a filmmaker of depth and nuance, two attributes Inarritu has thus far failed to display in his bafflingly lauded career.
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