Winning for Best Cinematography, Best Actor in a Leading Role and Best Director at the 2016 Oscars, The Revenant delivers the story of scout Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) in a harrowing cinematic feat. Proving a burden to the rest of his fur-trapper team after a brutal Grizzly bear attack, Glass is no sooner left for dead than watches his son Hawk fall prey to the knife of fellow trapper John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). After excruciating trials, Glass ultimately regains his strength to seek revenge upon Fitzgerald for his misdeed. This grueling resurrection is anchored in an amplified vision crafted by Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography and the choreographed action directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Receiving several nods at the Academy Awards last year with Birdman (2014), Iñárritu and Lubezki supplant contemporary Manhattan and the perils of stage-acting with the unforgiving landscape of 1800s Missouri Territory and pioneers’ deceit. Much like in Birdman however, the manner in which many of the sequences in The Revenant are shot has a galvanizing effect. Iñárritu and Lubezki allow us to inhabit the story in several different ways as they navigate the troubling place of realism in cinema as well as our place in proverbial Nature.
After Glass is nearly buried alive, his healing is only mirrored in the balance of menace and solace provided by the surrounding landscape. His make-shift grave, dug several feet down into frozen ground, functions less as a macabre chamber than a sub-terranean space to preserve his wounds. Later suspected by the Arikara (the “Ree”) to have kidnapped a member of their tribe Powaqa, Glass escapes into the ferocious rapids of a nearby river and brought to ice-covered shores miles away. The aspects of Nature that save his life are the very facets that could end it. It is this theme of equalibrium that pervades much of The Revenant. “I’m not afraid to die anymore,” Glass states at one point. “I done it already.” Reincarnation thrives here, a point tailored by a scene in which Glass disembowels a dead horse and crawls inside the steaming cavity to survive the night. He waits for the rising sun to warm the frozen flesh of the carcass and exits his former abode. On the film’s lofty thematic scale, dying twice weighs equally as much as re-birth.
Glass’s solitary ruminations, encounters with the Ree, and confrontation with the bear require time to unfold to reach their full potential. Iñárritu’s and Lubezki’s determination to capture life-as-lived in The Revenant is made palpable in their implementation of sweeping, panoramic long-takes (enabled by C.G.I.) that maximize screen time and do not sacrifice action. We have no other recourse but to keep looking and dwell inside the scenes, for as long as Glass can brook his encounter with the bear or lay incapacitated on a raw-hide cot with frost-bite fast approaching. Even in the final duel between Fitzgerald and Glass, droplets of blood and condensation from the breath of the two men muddy the camera lens, a gesture speaking fully to the commitment of everybody involved on set. Visually pommeled by a new realism, we watch Glass tread through the Missouri Territory with revenge coursing through his veins and our nerves on end.