I’ve always loved a good ghost story, in any medium. I read any scary story I could get my hands on as a kid, I’ve seen countless spooky specter films, I’ve been on the Haunted Mansion ride at Disney World a dozen times, and I’ve just finished my first play through of the excellent interactive ghost story game Oxenfree. I loved Oxenfree – really, really loved Oxenfree – but the best ghost story I’ve been privy to in a while is one that’s not even about a real ghost; rather it’s about a revenant. The Revenant doesn’t have an actual ghost, but it manages to be haunted and haunting throughout.
Directed by Alejandro Iñárritu, every aspect of the film is harsh. From the bloodletting of the initial battle of the white men trapping beavers along the Missouri and the native Pawnee tribe searching for their chief’s kidnapped daughter, to the brutal showdown of the film’s climax, things generally go from bad to worse.
With the survivors of his men licking their wounds after the decimating Pawnee attack, Domhnall Gleeson (his 2015: Brooklyn, Star Wars, The Revenant, Ex Machina. Good year for him) must figure out how to get them all to their home fort. Leonardo DiCaprio, the expedition’s guide, plans one route, but Tom Hardy doesn’t agree. After arguing, DiCaprio goes to hunt and is savagely – SAVAGELY – mauled by a grizzly bear. He is left alive, but barely – his leg is broken, his throat cut open, his back and sides ripped to shreds. Gleeson has to lead the men to safety, but leaves Hardy behind (promising bonus pay) to care for DiCaprio as long as he holds on and to bury him properly once he’s passed. But Hardy just wants the money, and DiCaprio is obviously dying a very painful death. Hardy kills DiCaprio’s son in front of him, then drags him to a shallow grave in the frozen ground, half burying him before taking off to catch up to the others. And thus the titular revenant rises, somehow clinging to life for a chance at retribution – a living apparition sworn to vengeance.
Iñárritu is at his masterful best here in capturing the tone. The initial battle has multiple long take shots, which if you are familiar with his work (21 Grams, Birdman) you should expect. One take followed alternating characters from either side of the conflict, moving on from one as he was killed to his killer. But this can’t even ready you for the sheer beauty and brilliance of the cinematography to be found here. Iñárritu, who is Mexican, tapped Emmanuel Lubezki (also Mexican) once again to shoot the film. The two had worked together on Birdman, and Lubezki also worked with Alfonso Cuarón (Mexican!) on Gravity and Children of Men – to say his resume checks out is an understatement, and it would be fairly safe to say that a majority of the most griping and tense visual story telling of the last decade has come from south of the border.
Lubezki and Iñárritu chose to only shoot in actual locations, in actual freezing temperatures, and only using natural light. The story takes place in the north of the United States, but was shot there, in Canada, and even in Argentina. All the locations are grand and epic to behold, and Lubezki’s lens captures the enormity of the harsh environments DiCaprio has to overcome in order to seek out the man that wronged him. Any and every shot from the film would fit perfectly as a still posted on the ‘One Perfect Shot’ twitter account, or as a portrait of beauty, pain or both in a gallery.
The acting is truly spectacular all around – I’ve long held that my favorite DiCaprio performance was of Howard Hughes in Scorsese’s The Aviator (I realize I’m in the minority on that one), but he outdoes himself here. The audience can feel every savage bite DiCaprio endures from the bear, the pain of every step on his mangled leg, and the harshness of every cold wind that threatens to knock him down. In fact, the only thing more chilling that the scene around him is the steely cold visage of resolve he becomes in rising from the grave and traversing the elements to confront his son’s murderer. Driven by his own ghosts, he becomes what might be the most terrifying one the ever grace the screen.
If you’re ok with gruesome violence and harsh despondency depicted in a film, you owe it to yourself to see this in a theater. All the ugly harshness aside, the beauty and mesmerizing visual poetry of the film deserves viewing on a giant screen.