“The Revenant” doesn’t open wide nationally until January 8, but those who’ve seen it recognize the brilliant filmmaking that it is. Oscar experts peg Leonardo DiCaprio as the odds-on-favorite to win Best Actor for it, and since Academy ballots were mailed out today, December 30, he may finally be in line to win after 5 nominations without a victory. Many voters will no doubt be nominating visionary director Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki as well, not to mention many of the other gifted talents responsible for the film’s incredible technical prowess. And with such nominations, horror fans can be thankful too as there are many attributes in “The Revenant” that could qualify as those found in frighteners.
The overall sense of dread that runs throughout the film is part and parcel of the very same tone found in the genre. From the very beginning, when the 1823 militaristically run hunting party falls prey to the attacking Native American Arikara Indians, the screen never lets up on an overwhelming sense of terror. Even when there are lulls, and there are but a handful in this venture, the audience is never relieved because of all the violence and tension that fills the screen.
In addition to the local hostiles, the competitive hunters in the film are also at each other’s throats. The possibility of bloodletting is a constant. And if man doesn’t turn on man in this story, the elements certainly will. The freezing weather and hazardous mountains are an ever-present villain throughout, like the setting of any haunted house or menacing woods are one finds in the horror genre.
Then there are the beasts in those woods. The mountains are filled with too many animals that can rip one’s head off and the film’s protagonist Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) finds that out the hard way. He’s attacked by a mama Grizzly bear who means to protect her cub from the interloping humans dotting her domain. And when she savages Glass, the scene rivals any attack from any movie with a drooling alien, dreadlocked predator or a 25 foot Great White.
To say this film puts you on the edge of your seat is like saying that Donald Trump has a gift for controversy. From the very first moment of the film, the tension is as thick as the brush, and danger is as close as any tree branch. Truly, no horror film that opened this year came even close to creating such a relentless sense of angst, unease and terror in its storytelling. It’s exquisite torture.
“The Revenant” also is a film with a vengeance theme front and center, like so many in the horror genre. Whether it’s Freddy Krueger exacting his revenge on the descendants of those who caused his death, Jason Voorhees annihilating more sex-occupied teen camp counselors, or any one of Vincent Price’s movie mad men theatrically offing his persecutors, revenge is always a dish best served cold in horror. And a similar unrelenting ruthlessness fills Glass. Not only has fellow trapper and unapologetic racist John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) killed off Glass’s half-breed son in the story, but he buried Glass alive after he was mauled by that angry bear. He’s one unrepentant, irascible bastard and he definitely has it coming. And come it will in the form of Glass, crawling out of his grave, lumbering through land and water to find him and bring great wrath to his enemy.
Another thing that “The Revenant” has in common with horror movies is an ominous and menacing score. Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto and Bryce Dessner have written taut and dissonant music as desolate as it is frightening. The score reminds one of the very same thing that Paul Thomas Anderson did with the music in his 2007 epic “There Will Be Blood.” He directed his composer Jonny Greenwood to score it like a horror movie because his main character Daniel Plainview was truly a monster. (One in plain view as well, to say the least.)
DP Lubezki uses a lot of handheld POV shots in his camera work and they echo the way horror films are often shot. Lubezki uses such tactics to put the horrors that befall Glass and the hunting party right in our face. His camera work is constantly moving, picking up the choreography of a large cast running about, performing in-camera stunts and catching all of them, weaving in and out of the death and chaos. It’s a technical marvel that puts most quick-cut actioners to shame. And Lubezki does it all on location in the wilderness. It was probably as harrowing to shoot as it plays on film. It truly is one of cinema’s most amazing photographic achievements.
His camera is so close to all that is going on it becomes a veritable character itself. And it takes your breath away. Repeatedly. His work here may just net him his third cinematography Oscar in as many years. That will be an Academy record if it happens, and a most just one as well.
Shots where the camera follows Glass and his injured horse over a cliff, or where it weaves from land to water and back again, have to be seen to be believed. There are numerous effects, both post and in camera too, but Lubezki hides them all with a magician’s grace. But his subjects here aren’t glamorous assistants or little white birds. They’re deaths, attacks, and more attacks. Sound like a horror film to you?
And finally, there is no greater theme in the best horror films, than that which recognizes man as the true monster in the world. In Blake Snyder’s screenwriting books and classes, he identifies man’s greed or selfishness as the great villain which always invites the other monster into the story to wreak havoc. The same is true in “The Revenant.” Sure, there are the land, water, air and wildlife present as murderous obstacles, but it’s all the various beasts walking upright on two legs that are the most lethal threats here.
There are no true good guys or bad guys in this piece, only pigheaded, violent, and self-interested men who know it’s a kill or be killed world they’ve chosen to contend in. And Glass himself rises out of his own grave to become a single-minded predator stalking his prey. He becomes a monster so unrecognizable, that at the end, he barely recognizes what he’s become. That moment may be the scariest one in this film.
“The Revenant” is a movie that will be talked about for years, and its themes about spirituality, bigotry, and the spoiling of our environment will be big parts of the conversation. In addition, its themes of horror, and similarities to the tropes found in genre, will be discussed at great length too, and deservedly so. “The Revenant” is absolutely one of the best films of the year. And easily, one of the most frightening as well.