The unlikeliest of counter programming against the Jedi juggernaut in theatres this holiday season has been the return of the brutal, deadly serious western. But unlike Tarantino’s stylishly shit talking bloodbath in The Hateful Eight, Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu dials up the realism of his snow-blind frontier to the absolute maximum degree possible and delivers a wholly unique but equally engrossing experience in The Revenant.
Incredibly based on a true story, The Revenant finds formerly friendly Inception dream warriors Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy at each other’s throats as rivals in a band of fur trappers, beset by personal animosity, professional jealousy, dangerous weather and a vengeful Pawnee tribe on the hunt for their Chief’s kidnapped daughter. Things turn from bad to worse when DiCaprio, the team’s navigator, is nearly mauled to death by a bear, leaving the men stranded in enemy territory with little knowledge of how to get back to safety on their own. Hardy then leaves DiCaprio for dead, burying him alive in an attempt to keep his share of the profits after murdering his half Indian son in cold blood. DiCaprio survives though, if only to crawl his ragged body back to civilization for his well-deserved revenge.
“Let’s not stand on ceremony…”
Iñárritu doesn’t rely on long takes nearly as much as in Birdman, but many sequences employ it as his camera deftly swoops and swings in and out of the action. Amazingly, the film was shot entirely on location in Canada and Argentina, in sequence, and aside from one brief campfire scene, using all natural lighting. Iñárritu stated in an interview: “If we ended up in greenscreen with coffee and everybody having a good time, everybody will be happy, but most likely the film would be a piece of shit”. Shit this is definitely not, and the mesmerizing fruits of he, his cast and crew’s bone breaking labor are right there on the screen.
DiCaprio in the lead continues his infallible reign as the thinking man’s king of Hollywood and Tom Hardy completely disappears into yet another role, cementing his reputation as his generation’s premiere method acting shape shifter. Star Wars’ Domhnall Gleeson and We’re the Millers’ Will Poulter also shine in supporting roles, all surely “inspired” by the dehumanizing working conditions. The locations must’ve been hell to work in but they sure are amazing to look at, thanks to famed cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Each shot in the film is suitable for framing, all while the minimalist score of Japanese electropop icon Ryuichi Sakamoto illuminates the inherent peace, but also the fear and dread of the uncharted wilderness.
Back in the dark ages before Star Wars, Alien and Jaws created the phenomenon of the summer blockbuster, the western was the popcorn munching action/adventure film of choice for the country’s moviegoers, but has since fallen by the wayside and aside from a few gems here and there has yet to gain any serious traction at the box office in the years since. But thanks to the critical and commercial response to The Hateful Eight and The Revenant, the western may yet see a modern resurgence, and if Iñárritu and Tarantino’s bloodsoaked pulp revenge tales are any indication of the stories yet to be wrung from this well-trod milieu, I for one welcome our new/old hat wearin’, horse ridin’, six shootin’ overlords.