The Revenant / Alejandro González Iñárritu / 2015 / fourstar

Active Ingredients: Natural photography; Score; Focus on mood
Side Effects: Length; Revenge theme; Closeups and long takes

Despite its violence, brutality and harrowingly intimate chronicling of struggling, The Revenant becomes, surprisingly, a film about goodness, even grace.

Ostensibly, structurally a revenge story, The Revenant transcends that shallow, constricting emotion. It seems to sidestep revenge as if by feel, learning to overcome its seduction as the film flows forward, but there’s an understanding (a vague one perhaps, but an understanding nonetheless) of its emptiness deep in the film’s bones. You can see it in its many skyward glances, minimizing the experiences of its characters in favor of some more cosmic drama; you can hear it in its patient, organic score, echoing the breath of life.

To my mind, the film’s true intentions come into focus in one sobering and quietly overwhelming sequence. As Hugh Glass grieves his son, whose breath has stopped, he continues to inhale and exhale, not by instinct, but purposefully, pointedly. He’s drawn from death and towards life by something within him, but also by something without: the same force, whatever it is, that keeps the whole world spinning. His breath grows stronger, condensing on the lens and overtaking our vision. This breathing is picked up on the soundtrack as the camera drifts slowly upwards towards whatever that life-giving force is. Then, somewhere else, a new exhalation, Fitzgerald’s this time, is added to the existential patchwork.

I was surprised that this sequence, and the film as a whole, worked as well as it did. Based on Iñárritu’s previous films, I’d written him off as tasteless, ostentatious and bereft of ideas. And while I do question a number of his aesthetic choices (more often than not, the insistence on long takes and extreme closeups is distracting and ugly rather than intense and intimate), the film seems guided by a kind of clarity and purity I didn’t think Iñárritu capable of.

It’s fitting that this clarity and purity should arise to shepherd this particular film; it neatly matches the film’s themes of survival and grace. It may seem odd that grace should emerge in a film this violent, and yet it does arise around this violence, amidst it, above it. It’s telling, for example, that as much as violence the film focuses on small moments of goodness that pass among its characters. Like Fitzgerald’s hateful acts, these deeds return almost karmically, gifts from a merciful world. The blood that is shed in this film isn’t just a signifier of death, but also a symbol of life, of the organic matter that keeps beings alive, keep us striving. Indeed, everything in this film feels alive, from the miserable trappers struggling to survive, to the beasts of burden upon which they rely, to the grandeur of nature and the elements around them, to the light that animates the film’s searing images.

Perhaps The Revenant doesn’t totally represent a change in Iñárritu. It may not signal a change in his style or an improvement of his often questionable taste, but rather a refinement of those instincts into their most appropriate expression. The film does feel a bit like lightning in a bottle, but, like the breath that becomes its central theme, The Revenant is a film that palpably strives, reaching towards the sky.