Even like the deed that’s done. On Tuesday last,
A falcon, tow’ring in her pride of place,
Was by a mousing owl hawked at and killed.
And Duncan’s horses–a thing most strange and certain–
Beauteous and swift, the minions of their race,
Turned wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out,
Contending ‘gainst obedience, as they would
Make war with mankind
‘Tis said they eat each other.
They did so, to th’ amazement of mine eyes
That looked upon ‘t.”
–Macbeth Act II, Scene iv
Such is the response of nature to Macbeth’s sin against it in murdering his king. In Shakespeare, nature is often responding to man’s actions. In this case, killing a king who rules by divine right was such an unnatural action that nature responded with unnaturally powerful storms and a series of odd violent actions by non-human animals. This idea of the interconnectedness of nature with man’s actions permeates The Revenant, a Shakespearean revenge drama as bloody, obvious, and tense as Titus Andronicus.
The plot of the film is fairly simple. A group of trappers in South Dakota are attacked by a group of Native Americans seeking their chief’s kidnapped daughter. A small group survives, but then their trail guide–Hugh Glass–is attacked by a bear, an attack he barely survives. The Captain of the group leaves a few men behind, including Glass’s son, to watch over his seemingly-assured death. One of the men kills Glass’s son and leaves glass half-buried in a shallow grave, but Glass survives and so goes on a quest for vengeance against the man who killed his son.
Like Titus Andronicus, it’s really an excuse for cutting a bloody swath through a bunch of people. The first act of the film, right up to when Fitzgerald kills Hawk and leaves Glass for dead, exists just to allow us to forgive Glass for his single-minded thirst for vengeance.
But that’s not what the film is about. It’s about the relationship between man, nature, and religion. It is a film suggesting that nature is the true god, and that religion is antithetical to the nature into which man is born. Those who most respect nature–Glass and the Native Americans–are the ones who achieve what they hope for in this film, while those who spout religious platitudes are revealed as unable to live up to any sort of decency or even their own pronouncements of moral superiority.
As a result, the film is riddled with constant shots of nature surrounding the events, telling us whether nature is happy or unhappy with what’s going on. Storms brew when men mistreat each other. A church that has fallen into disuse is slowly being reclaimed by nature. The warm sun prepares the day for Glass when he respectfully uses what nature gives him and puts his gravely injured horse out of its misery. It includes so many shots and sequences that are not really a part of the film’s plot, and those are there in order to enhance the film’s point.
Further, the characters have discussions and give speeches that feel very un-natural throughout the film, the dialogue again bending from plot to making the film’s point.
Emmanuel Lubezki and Iñárritu create an absolutely beautiful and visually creative film for making this point. The film is shot seemingly entirely with natural lighting, complete with the lens flares and other photographic artifacts that causes. The digital photography takes away some of the more interesting aspects of natural lighting that, say, Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, UK/USA/Ireland 1975) shows, but those artifacts still make the film just stand out visually and emphasize its point about the relationship of man to nature. It’s also a film loaded with beautiful, clear backgrounds–skies so large and white that one cannot help but contemplate the smallness of humanity and notice every tiny imperfection of the actual screen.
As visually arresting as the film is, the acting is what will get much of the attention, largely due to the always-excellent Leonardo Dicaprio. Dicaprio’s performance, full of wordless moments of mixed emotions that are clouded by physical limitations and pain, is excellent. Few roles require as much for an actor as this one does, and yet Dicaprio more than lives up to it. Tom Hardy, meanwhile, is annoyingly arch in his portrayal of the villainous Fitzgerald. While Fitzgerald is a bad guy and the enemy of the protagonist, Hardy is within an inch of twirling his mustache in joy at his own evil, a piece of non-reality that is completely out of place with the rest of the film. No one else has much of an opportunity to do anything, so they don’t stand out, but at least no one seems awful.
Alva Noto and Ryûichi Sakamoto provide a sparse, spare score that is still generally a bit more than the film needs. It’s not terrible, but the film’s themes and general style would seem to lend itself well to having no non-diegetic sound, which makes even a little score intrusion rather annoying.
The Revenant is an excellent film. It has a point and sticks to making it. It’s beautiful and generally well-acted, even if Tom Hardy is lacking. It emphasizes its point visually, even if it doesn’t do it quite as well as it could have if it were willing to go further in its use of naturalism. It’s a tightly-focused film that has something interesting to say and does it visually, which is nearly the entire battle of making a film.