The revenant directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu came out last year in 2015, after seeing it at cinema I thought it was amazing. However due to the film being such a spectacle; through its outstanding use of cinematography, would it hold up on subsequent viewings. After watching the film for a second time I am delighted to say that it does. The shots are just a striking this time round; I wondered if the lack of dialogue and plot would make the film boring however this just helps you pick up on the subtleties of the film.
Obviously the first thing to talk about when discussing this film is the cinematography. I do not want to go into this too much as the cinematography speaks for itself. Nearly every shot is like a photograph; not just working in still but the way motion is infused into the frame is incredible. It almost felt like a mix of the slow shots of Tarkovsky mixed with the fast choreographed action of Kurosawa. I am however not the first to draw this conclusion see video below for similarities between the revenant and the work of Tarkovsky. Lubezki did a great job as always creating long shots the draw you into the action while simultaneously creating a sense of real time in the film. This is important when attempting to tell a true story (even if it was altered for thematic purposes) as it creates an almost documentary like feel. The shots often contrasted the beauty of nature with the destruction of man through fire and blood.
After speaking on the cinematography we must discuss the element that blends with this so well the score. The shots feel empty, alone and solemn; the score of the film fits this too a T. The score could be easily overlooked as it fits the film so well. It does not create the atmosphere however just adds to the overall feel of the film.
Okay before we sink our teeth into this one lets establish a few of the characters we will be looking at. Glass (Dicaprio) our main character; an experience guide who is mauled by a bear early into the film. Hawk (Goodluck) is Glass’s half-native son. Bridger (Poulter) is the young boy who stays behind to help Glass. Finally Fitzgerald (Hardy) the character that leaves Glass for dead by burying him alive.
The film opens with Glass, Hawk and his mother sleeping. While this is happening we hear Glass speaking to his son about not giving up; “As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. Keep Breathing… Keep Breathing.” The sequence has a dream like feel to it very comparable to some of the opening by Bergman or Tarkovsky. After seeing them sleep we are introduced the first two concepts that I believe where very important to Iñárritu for this film; Trees and Wind. These elements can be seen throughout the film and they are a representation of nature. The native family appears happy next to the large tree with the wind blowing through there hair, one with nature. This then cuts to a shot that is a stark contrast to this; Hawk standing in front of their burning home. Embers wisp around him however his hair remains still. This introduces a 3rd concept; Fire. I believe in this film to some extent fire represents man and his destruction of nature. Finally the fourth concept is introduced; Survival through the voice over and the shot of Glass holding his son surrounded by the destruction, that used to be his home. Survival is shown in 3 primary forms throughout the film: man vs nature, man vs man and nature vs nature. I feel these 4 concepts where important in the production of this film and there by are important in understanding this film on a deeper level.
After this opening we fade in from black to a camera slowly moving up river before we see the title of the film. I feel like Iñárritu is giving us a hint here to what we are about to see; a slow struggle against the forces of nature. After this we see Glass and hawk hunting a dear, Glass is now a teenaged boy rather than a child. We cut to Fitzgerald, he speaks to his men about the importance of the pelts, something we will see throughout the film as they are a source of revenue. Capital is very important to Fitzgerald; he does not care for nature or man but for money.
Shortly after this the first conflict begins, the natives attack them in an attempt to steal the pelts. All of the elements combine fantastically during this sequence and really shows the craft that Iñárritu has. The camera work and chorography are great at making us the audience feels as lost, scared and confused as our characters. The camera itself during this sequence almost feels like a character; it feels so natural. A lot is going on off camera that we don’t even see creating a sense of realism and scope to the battle. This sequence represents one of the elements of survival that I spoke about earlier Man vs Man. It displays the brutality of man over pelts which in essence represent capital. However it may be deeper than this as they were attacked by natives. As the boat sails away the camera pans up to display the beauty of nature with trees and birds. This is however contrasted by the destruction that man has caused below; as the camera pans down we see burning trees and a sea of dead bodies and blood.
After getting off the boat they decided to stash the pelts and come back for them later. Fitzgerald is clearly not happy about this; when he is asked what is more important his life or the pelts, “Life? What life are you talkin’ about I ain’t got no life! I just got a living and the only way I get to do that is through these pelts!” This leads onto to Fitzgerald showing that he does not like Glass or his “half breed son”. Fitzgerald speaks about the boy’s mother being dead, antagonising Glass and Hawk. Glass remains calm, while Hawk attempts to stand up for himself but is put in place by his father. “I told you to be invisible, son.” “If you want to survive, keep your mouth shut.” “They don’t hear your voice! They just see the color of your face.” Hawk wants an identity and a voice yet does not seem to fully understand that without his father in this situation he would be nothing.
The film is loaded with images of mans effect on natures beauty and how sometimes the two complement each other. For example the embers of the fire and the silhouette of the tress at night create an amazing contrast and image of beauty. Having these lingering images throughout the film does a few things. It creates a solemn pace in which the audience has time to think about what is going on. Also it adds to the overall atmosphere of the film as we feel like one of the characters stopping and staring.
The bear attack on glass shows the survival form of man vs nature. It also displays the brutality of nature. Once again the spinning camera is used hear to create a similar sense of confusion and fear similar to what Glass is experiencing. I found that the CGI did pull me out the experience a bit on both my first and second viewing. However I can not think of any other way of doing this as effectively. Some people have displayed there dislike for the bears breath on the lens however I felt it was a nice touch. It made the sequence feel like a documentary even if I could clearly see that the bear was fake. After the attack Fitzgerald shows no sympathy; “Proper thing to do would be to finish him off quick.” Another man says “He will be dead in side an hour.” And Fitz replies “We all will be if he don’t quite whaling like that.” Fitzgerald is appearing to care for the other man, but I believe he is just trying to convince the other that they should finish him of, in an attempt to save his own skin.
The natives meet with the French attempting to trade the pelts they stole for weapons and horses. However they have a dispute as the French only want to trade for weapons. “in French you stand there and talk to be about honor?” “Those pelts are stolen.” “You all have stolen everything from us. Everything! The land. The Animals.” The natives display this oneness with nature that they feel the French and the Americans lack by invading their land.
The captain is about to kill Glass out of mercy, as the men can not carry him any farther. He instead offers $70 to any men will to say with Glass before moving it up to $100. Bridger and Hawk agree to stay behind. Fitzgerald agrees to help as Bridger and Hawk offer up there share. The captain tells Fitz that glass must have a proper burial when it is time. This leads onto Hawk speaking to his wounded father an night; “Can you hear that wind father? Remember what mother used to say about the wind? The wind cannot defeat a tree with strong roots. You are still breathing. I miss her so much” All of the key thematic elements are in this sequence; Trees, Wind, the Fire in the background as hawk speaks and Survival. The fire appears quite small and dwindling while the other elements are very bold in this sequence. Almost as if Glass is losing that man like influence and returning to his oneness with nature. Then the Mother begins speaking to Glass in a flashback dream like sequence. “As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe. Keep breathing. When there is a storm and you look at the tree. If you look at the branches, you swear it will fall. But if you watch the trunk you will see its stability.” This dream sequence feels heavily influence by Tarkovsky. As you see his wife get killed by being shot in the heart a sparrow flies out of her chest. Once again reinforcing and symbolizing this idea of oneness with nature. What she says makes us think of Glass like a tree metaphorically speaking. His branches might be weak at the moment however his will to survive is like a strong trunk that gives his stability. Also at the start of this dream sequence we see Glass caring for Hawk after the attack which is mirrored very nicely by what is happening in the present day of the film. At the dead of the dream sequence we see Glass stand in front of a pyramid of skull and bones. I have yet to come to a conclusion as to what this truly represents; I have read some theories however I do not agree with many of them. I think the closest thing it is likely to represent is the presents of death in Glass life and how in this moment it feels closer than ever to it.
The sound of digging begins in the dream almost waking us to what is going on; Fitzgerald is beginning to dig a grave. Shortly after Fitzgerald opens up to Bridge and shows why he has a hatred for the natives; as he was scalped by them. While this goes on Bridge carves a snail like pattern into his catering. Fitzgerald wants to kill Glass and tries to manipulate him “All you gotta do is blink”. Hawk stops him from killing his father, before being stabbed by Fitzgerald. Bridger asks where Hawk is and he replies “He’s not with you?”
Fitzgerald wakes Bridger up and tells him they have to leave. Bridger protests saying that he needs a proper burial. So Fitzgerald buries him alive “He’s Alive.” “So shoot him.” Bridger leaves him his water canteen says he is sorry and leaves. I feel these elements are very important as to what has happened and what is going to happen. After the lose of his wife, Glass lost his oneness with nature; however after losing his son he is buried like the seed of a tree. Bridger gives him water like you would to a plant or tree and this causes a spiritual rebirth with nature for Glass. A part of himself has died and he is going to come back as something different.
Glass slowly but surely pulls himself out of his grave and begins to crawl through the snow. He spots the blood of his son on the floor and this motivates him to keep going. When he finds Hawk he lies with he and says “I’m not leaving you son. I’m right here.” Bridger realises that Fitzgerald was lying to him. Fits reminds him that he saved him at the start of the film “The way I see it I saved your life twice now. So I alt to be God to you. And God giveth and god taketh away.” Fitzgerald sees him self as good like as he is a master of his own fate. Cut back to Glass and Hawk and he places a pelt in his dead son’s mouth further reinforcing this idea of man and nature. Glass wears the bear hide as he crawls away. Down by the water Glass points a stick at swimming dear like a gun. The music in this scene is very solemn implying that glass is remembering the times in which he hunted with Hawk.
Shortly after this the idea of Fitzgerald seeing himself as God like is reinforced. He speaks with Bridger about how his father finds God in nature after not being a religious man. “It turns out Jesus is a squirrel. A big fat meaty one. […] And I shot and ate that son of a bitch.” This idea shows Fitzgerald’s lack of respect for nature and his father; once again showing that Fitz only cares about himself. It is very unlikely that his father really believed God was a squirrel; it is more likely the case that his father saw God in all of nature’s beauty, forming this oneness with nature that we have been discussing. Fitzgerald however seems to believe that by consuming God he has become one; by having the power to choose who lives and dies.
Next we have another dream sequence from Glass; He sees a shooting star and Fitzgerald. Before standing in front of the pyramid of bones again, only this time at night. He then sees Fitz as the man that killed his wife and points a gun at him. Glass seems haunted by the idea that by killing his wife’s killer he did not get revenge. This idea will be very important in the final moments of the film. As Glass awakes he walks into the river and finds that he has caught a fish and begins to eat it raw. Then literally seconds later, Glass walks out of the water and puts his hand over the fire. One may ask why he did not cook the fish; however I believe there is a reason for this. If fire represents mans effect on nature, what we are seeing is after Glass’s rebirth he is losing his connection with man as he becomes more like an animal. Glass walks up the hill to see a pack of wolfs attacking a herd of Boar; this is the nature vs nature survival. The wolf’s must attack to protect there own as food is needed for survival.
Glass waits around until night to try and get some more food after the wolfs have left. However a native has got to the corpses first; at first he points his bow and arrow at glass before sharing the food with him. This is mirrored earlier in the film when Bridger gives food to the native in the burnt out camp. This mirroring gives light to the idea that humans want other humans to survive; yet capital (a man made concept) gets in the way of this. The morning after Glass and the native have a connection through lose of family. “But revenge is in the creator’s hands.” This idea once again will come to fruition at the end of the film.
Glass has another dream sequence; in this one he walks towards a dilapidated church. Inside he finds his son who he hugs before his son turns into a tree. This dream sequence does a few things firstly in reinforces this life being like a tree metaphor. It also acts as Glass’s rejection of the Gods of old as he becomes more connected with nature. The idea that revenge is not going to bring his son back his building in his mind. It seems as through these dream sequences Glass is coming to the realisation revenge will not help his situation. Revenge being a man made concept it is quite animalistic. However the animals we have seen throughout the film only kill for survival. Glass realises revenge does not change what has happed; Glass is no longer looking to survive against nature but with it. This is almost further emphasised shortly after as glass sleeps inside a dead horse for warms. He has accepted that he must do what he needs to survive as that is now what is important to him.
When glass makes it back to the camp his oneness with nature has made him like a force of nature. While Fitzgerald runs away like a scared dear in the woods. “I got him trapped he just doesn’t know it yet” Glass implying that his knowledge of nature and tracking will give him the edge over Fitzgerald. “I ain’t afraid to die anymore. I done it already.” Glass has accepted his spiritual rebirth with nature.
In the final moments of the film we see the confrontation between Glass and Fitzgerald. This once again brings up the survival of man vs man. As Glass is about to finish him off Fitz say “you came all this way your revenge, well you enjoy it ain’t nothing gunna bring your boy back.” He looks up and sees the natives; all these elements combine that have been building through Glasses dream sequences. He repeats the line the native said to him earlier “Revenge is in God’s hands… Not mine.” He floats him down the river; nature or god takes its course as Fitz throat is slit by the natives. They slowly ride pass Glass as he looks up he sees a girl he saved from being raped in the French camp. This connection to nature that Glass has created has caused him to do the right thing and it acts as a sort of karma. As otherwise it is very likely that he would have been killed.
After this we see one final dream like sequence. We see Glass’s wife but here she is smiling something we have only seen one other time at the start of the film surrounded by nature. In all of Glasses dreams (memories) she has been sad. He is back to living like he was when he was with her; so in his mind this makes her happy. She walks off, giving this idea that she is finally able to pass on knowing that her husband is on the true path. The path that does not try to fight against nature but lives in harmony with it. The film ends with Glass staring off into the distance before his eyes slightly shift to look into the camera.
There are a few key ideas what I want readers to take away from this article and film that I believe I have displayed. That Iñárritu was attempting to create a metaphorical connect between life and a tree. Glass tree like rebirth causes him to have a new appreciation that he had once lost. He no longer seeks vengeance as he has faith in the course of nature. The Film looks at the way man fits into the natural world and the way nature fits into the man made world. The influence of Tarkovsky is clear through the dream sequences and although philosophically it may not be as deep; I found myself more engaged with The Revenant. The tight pacing that gives you room to breath, the outstanding cinematography and score are just some of the reasons I believe this one will go down as a classic.