What an experience.
Alejandro Gonzalez-Iñarritu won several Oscars in 2015 for “Birdman” a different kind of Superhero movies. “The Revenant”, a project that did not originate on Iñarritu’s table, is yet another kind: the lone frontiersman fighting the elements and his natural enemies: the beasts, the aborigines and the always present nemesis. It is a story of male survival and deadly revenge, which is the basis for all superhero movies. It is curious to notice that, right before the movie even starts, all the previews stir audiences on what’s to come: “Batman v Superman”, “Captain America: Civil War”, “Deadpool”, etc. It seems like all the American audiences care about nowadays are these men with superpowers of any kind, and the only storyline their attention span can handle is survival of the strongest and most famous.
In the 80’s, “The Revenant” would have been a perfect vehicle for Stallone or Willis, or even Schwarzenegger. It is said the film was originally going to be directed by Park Chan-Wook with Samuel L. Jackson in the lead, which would have clearly made it an actioner. But with Iñarritu and DiCaprio, the story is shaped into a more spiritual terrain, with a particular observation on indigenous inhabitants, complete with a chaotic lifestyle and tribal geography (recreated to incredible results by Jack Fisk), a father-son bond that is at the core of the story and is even reflected in the encounter with mama bear (she is, after all, protecting her cubs), and a way of catching the sun through the trees that has become Emmanuel Lubezki’s signature. All of this, and regardless of some members of the crew leaving the production, has been recognized by the Academy with 12 nominations to the Oscars, making it the favorite and finally giving DiCaprio the chance to lead the Best Actor category with a commanding performance that may be the most difficult of his career.
The whole experience is absolutely visceral. Not only in the breathtaking action scenes (try to remain calm during the Bear attack), and the ultra realistic make up, but also in the acting. Bared of any complex intellectual rumination, Di Caprio (and the whole cast) are left with the basic and more animalistic instinctual resources, which, by the end of the movie, have vanished any trace of acting, our disbelief completely suspended, which ended up turning the movie into an ordeal we endure, even closer to the psyche than those virtual rollercoaster rides.
Fighting against the proliferation of CGI, which have brought a new kind of synthetic fantasy to cinema, some filmmakers have remained faithful to pursuing that age-old obsession with bringing audiences closer to a sense of “reality”, which in our times has already surpassed the “impressionistic” efforts, establishing itself in a new “Super realistic” terrain. There are painters and sculptors who recreate the human body in a way that make us too aware of reality, or even push us to think we are just a dream watched by those ultra real fantastic people/objects. In the case of the movies, even Steven Spielberg left behind the mechanic shark and the CGI of the new versions of “ET” and “Close Encounters of the third kind” for a more realistic opening in “Saving Private Ryan” in which we are immersed in the pain and madness of war. This was a logical follow up to Kenneth Branagh’s re-imagining of war in “Henry V” which gave the Shakespearean king a more realistic, down-to-earth feel. Later on Mel Gibson would make us all feel (and similarly sick to the stomach) watching how Christ’s flesh was punished to the limits of audiences imagination. “The Revenant” follows closely the punishment of the flesh and the damage of the spirit, similar to the traumas lived by William Wallace in “Braveheart”, but it is more in tune with Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men” and “Gravity”, where the visceral trumps the intellect and we experience before we have time to think. Iñarritu’s direction and screenplay (co-written with Mark L. Smith) make sure you are left with ideas to work on your own after the lights turn on again.
Another aspect that is impossible to overlook is the fierce competition for a commercial space. As Hollywood relies more and more in blockbusters, either Superheroes or old franchises or action films that draw the attention of the masses, filmmakers who are fighting for a room are trying to compete with stories that feed more or less the same need. Accepting his Golden Globe as best actor, DiCaprio noticed that this is an art film. Usually, art films do not involve the amount of graphic violence “The Revenant” displays to visceral limits, and the audience that see these films are of a certain age and aren’t expecting something that is more appropriate in a horror film or an action/adventure. In a fight sequence, you will see a knife stabbing a hand, an ax going through a leg, an ear being bitten, and eye almost being stabbed, and so on. And this is not the only scene designed almost in slow motion so that the audiences “enjoy” each mortal hit. There is an attack by the Arikara Tribe enough to make any action film seem like Walt Disney, and the Bear attack is something to create nightmares. I’m not saying that Iñarritu is inaugurating atrocious violence in art cinema, cause we have experience it in drops by other filmmakers, mostly from the appearance of Tarantino in the film map, but we can expect more art films that deal with most of the same interests of those Hollywood products that guarantee a revenue. After all, DiCaprio and the extreme violence of “The Revenant” have given the best results in Iñarritu’s career at the Box-office, which helps prove this little hypothesis.