It was just over a year ago when I have what I consider to be my cinematic rebirth, when I saw a film that completely changed my perception on what cinema should and can be. That film was Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), which has now risen to third place on my list of the greatest films of the twenty-first century. Alejandro González Iñárritu, a director I did admire prior to that film, completely blew me away with his genius. I honestly thought Iñárritu had finally made his masterpiece, and that he would not be able to make something quite like that again. I was dreadfully wrong, as Iñárritu once again bared his teeth of talent and made The Revenant, one of the most extraordinary films I have ever seen, and a truly fantastic piece of art that is undoubtedly the best film of the year.
The key to any great film is not aiming to excel on one enormous front, but to make many smaller aspects of the film work at their absolute best capacity. Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) will be remembered for decades because of its truly original method of making the film appear to be filmed in only one take, but it will also be remembered for countless other brilliant nuances within the film. The Revenant is not at all different – Iñárritu makes use of so many different aspects that simply make this film work, and there is not a single aspect of this film that is weak or inferior to any other, and considering how Iñárritu put his crew through hell and fire many of them, and nearly killed Tom Hardy, one has to beg the question – was it worth it? The answer is, of course, a resounding yes.
Let’s talk about Leonardo DiCaprio, the finest actor of his generation, who always chooses complex and fascinating roles, right from the very beginning of his career. It is difficult to pin-point a performance that can be considered DiCaprio’s best performance of his career, but there are certainly a short-list of contenders for that title, and it is undeniable that his performance in The Revenant is near the very top of that list (quite honestly, it is probably his second greatest performance, right after his masterful work in The Wolf of Wall Street), but even then, it is probably his most unique and challenging performance. Consider the fact that most of his performances have relied on his charm and control of dialogue, The Revenant stands out as a performance that is almost completely different. It is a truly physical performance, and that isn’t just empty praise – it is literally a mainly physical performance, because DiCaprio spends the vast majority of the film not uttering a single word, and instead gives a masterful performance through his physical trials and tribunes, where he undergoes some gruesome and difficult conditions to give such a committed performance. When one considers that DiCaprio really did eat raw bison liver, and that he really did sleep inside the carcass of a dead horse, along with doing many of his own stunts, Leonardo DiCaprio truly did suffer for our entertainment (and perhaps even for other reasons, that I am sure everyone suspects). This is a performance that comes around once in a lifetime, and it stands as one of the very best of the year. DiCaprio gives this role his absolute all, and does a fantastic job, and he is rightly receiving the praise and accolades he deserves for it.
However, one of the best discoveries I made about this film was the fact that it wasn’t entirely centered around Leonardo DiCaprio, but rather also around Tom Hardy, who plays the cruel John Fitzgerald. Now while DiCaprio undoubtedly gives the most committed performance in the film, I was captivated and fascinated by Hardy, who is nearly on the same level of brilliance as DiCaprio, perhaps not for his actual performance, but rather because of what the character represented, and his actions. Many people have been quick to call Fitzgerald a “villain” and “pure evil”, but I found myself feeling slightly different. Perhaps I am playing devil’s advocate here, but I found myself thinking that perhaps Fitzgerald was not a villain at all, but rather a very unlikable anti-hero. To be perfectly honest, he did what he needed to do, and in the profession that Glass and Fitzgerald and the other men found themselves, a single life is not that important (the only reason Glass was kept alive was because he had knowledge of the area that none of the men in his hunting platoon did), and that sometimes one person needs to die so that others can survive. Fitzgerald didn’t do anything truly wrong, and did what was necessary. Hardy, however, made him into a complex and very interesting villain, and Hardy once again proves how he is an actor rapidly on the rise, and after the fantastic year he had in 2015 (starring in this, along with Legend and Mad Max: Fury Road), it is not surprising that he is finally becoming a household name.
I do need to give some attention to the unheralded performers of this film, namely Domhnall Gleeson (who had a bigger year than Hardy, starring in four major films this year), who plays Andrew Henry, the compassionate and dignified leader of the hunting expedition who needs to make difficult choices, especially when it comes to the critical state of Glass, his most valuable employee. Will Poulter plays Jim Bridger, the naive but courageous and honorable young man tasked to stay behind and help Glass ease into death painlessly and with dignity. Forrest Goodluck plays Glass’ Native American son named Hawk, that protects his father from the cruel Fitzgerald, and when he finds Fitzgerald trying to kill Glass (as per Glass’ agreement), Hawk himself meets his own dreadful demise. These three actors round out an incredible film filled with incredible performances, and while DiCaprio and Hardy are the main focus of the acclaim of The Revenant, Gleeson, Poulter and Goodluck deserve some praise as well.
Directors are the ultimate craftsmen of a film, as it is their vision that is translated into the final film, and if you are truly an auteur, like Iñárritu is, your vision becomes the riding factor of the film. However, very few directors are capable of controlling every aspect of a film and making each aspect of it true to their own specific vision (unless you are Steven Soderbergh, who very often acts as director, cinematographer and editor). It then falls onto the director to choose a collaborator who he or she feels is capable of translating the director’s own vision in the best way possible. Iñárritu used Rodrigo Prieto on his first four films, and while those films were absolutely stunning, it was only when Iñárritu worked with Emmanuel Lubezki that his films become visual knock-outs, because if there is one cinematographer that threatens to take over the entire film with his vision, it is Lubezki. His work in Gravity (with Iñárritu’s good friend, Alfonso Cuaron), and then his subsequent work in Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) proved that Lubezki was perhaps the greatest living cinematographer, and adding to those two films, The Revenant forms a spectacular trifecta, which any budding cinematographer can learn from, as it shows three distinct ways of making a film. Lubezki never fails to top himself, and I wouldn’t dare call The Revenant his best work, because he will surely blow us away with a bigger and better achievement very soon.
The Revenant is such an amazing film. It is tense and terrifying, and beautifully made. There is not a more visually stunning film this year, and every frame is an absolute masterpiece of film composition. Not only does it look amazing, it has a fantastic score, composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto (the tense and overarching orchestral compositions are a far cry from the equally brilliant score of Birdman, which was merely Antonio Sanchez beating on a drum for two hours). The performances are absolutely fantastic, and both DiCaprio and Hardy give two of the best performances of the year. It is a film that is almost too grandiose for its own liking, because it always has the ambitions to be bigger and better than any other film. It may be a chore for some people (and the gore is absolutely vivid), but if someone is willing to sit through a fantastic and sweeping film that is unlike anything you’ve ever seen, then The Revenant will undoubtedly appeal to you. The best film of 2015, by far.