THE REVENANT (2015, Alejandro G. Iñárritu)
I don’t know if there’s ever been a time where a cinematographer was considered an auteur (or at least the driving artistic force of a film — above the director, producer, writers, or actors), but it’s starting to seem like Emmanuel Lubezki might be there. He’s been Oscar-nominated eight times in the last 20 years and won the last two years straight (for GRAVITY and BIRDMAN) — and could possibly win for the third time in a row for this one. Clearly the mainstream Hollywood machine loves him, and as favored DP for Terrence Malick, Alfonso Cuarón, and Iñárritu, he’s getting plenty of chances to show his stuff for discriminating audiences. And if you watch THE REVENANT and have flashbacks to THE TREE OF LIFE and CHILDREN OF MEN, there’s only one reason why: Lubezki.
For me, the primary aesthetic vision I took from THE REVENANT is Lubezki’s, and although he’s among my favorite DPs alive (he’d make my current Mount Rushmore along with Richardson, Deakins, and Mark Lee Ping-bin), he accounts for the film’s strengths and its drawbacks alike. The go-to guy for long takes, Lubezki is great at swirling his camera around and capturing energetic action and precise performance for extended periods of time. For BIRDMAN, that made sense — the film was about stage performance, and long takes were a form that matched the thematic content. For THE REVENANT, Iñárritu has decided to keep Lubezki in the same mode, and it doesn’t work quite as well. Why take the viewer out of the experience with a combination of wide-angle lenses, complicated mise-en-scene, and dizzying movement? This isn’t theater; it’s raw elemental survival and seems to beg for harsh light, hard cuts, and rock-steady frames. Also, due to these extended takes, Lubezki and Iñárritu have to settle for rain and snow splattering the lens, or fake blood, or even the exhaled breath of their actors steaming it up.
Not that those actors aren’t killing it, by the way. DiCaprio doesn’t get to play a lot of range here (his work isn’t nearly the equal of what he did in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET or even DJANGO UNCHAINED), but he’s committed and believable. Tom Hardy is terrific once again, using his voice, walk, and eyes to create a villain as disturbing as Bane in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. And when Lubezki is tight on them and low to the ground, the image is stark, sharp, gorgeous, and textured. But narratively, the entire thing is just too thin. Iñárritu hammers home the theme of man as beast in nature — another part of the animal food chain, at one point getting so obvious as having DiCaprio crawl inside a horse carcass for warmth. Yes, the elements were harsh back then. Life was tough on the frontier. This is all handsomely mounted, but there isn’t much to dwell on afterwards. We get things we’ve seen too often before — floating hallucinations of dead loved ones, noble savage American Indians… and for what? It’s hard to find anything to really hang your hat on, other than the showy exploits of the considerable talents on display.