**** (out of five)
Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s follow-up to his Best Picture Oscar winner Birdman is a visually extraordinary while being dour, bleak, slow at times, and not really about very much. Essentially, it’s a big fat art house western, with an incredibly simple storyline. It is almost entirely a visual picture, but the visuals are goddamn amazing.
They’re shot in Canada mostly, Montana a little, and Argentina for the final sequence, by Emmanuel Lubezki, who will make Oscar history when he wins his third consecutive gong for Best Cinematography. He frames these majestic, awe-inspiring landscapes impeccably – breathtakingly – but he also uses handheld and Steadicam in revolutionary ways. Faces are boldly proportioned, filling half the huge frame (he used a large-format digital camera with tight lenses, from 12-21mm); points of view shift from objective to subjective mid-shot; and, although nothing like those in Birdman, there are some pretty wild long takes. And he shot the whole thing in natural light, and almost entirely in “magic hour”, the hour and a half before sunset (the cast and crew would rehearse all day and then shoot like crazy in the late afternoon). Ultimately, the film stands as a monument to both classical and radical cinematography, and Lubezki is a genius of his craft.
Tom Hardy and Leonardo DiCaprio play Fitzgerald and Glass, two fur trappers working for a company represented by Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson). When Glass is injured (wait’ll you see how he gets injured!) his incapacitation poses a problem for the group, and the resolution of this quandary sets the stage for a story of survival and revenge.
Hardy, who has had one hell of a year, with this, Fury Road, and his astonishing turn as twins in Legend, is fantastic, echoing Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, Wrath of God. Gleeson is also excellent – the best I’ve seen him. Weirdly, DiCaprio, who is considered a shoo-in to win the Best Actor Oscar, is the least engaging. His Glass grunts and shuffles and moans and crawls and bleeds and whimpers and shudders a lot, but he barely speaks, and when he does it’s in a coarse, unengaging whisper. He’s a bit of a cypher in the centre of more interesting stuff. The amount of suffering he’s put through is almost comical at times in its relentlessness – just when you think he’s doing okay, into the rapids he goes! He’s also lumbered with visions and flashbacks involving native Americans that I simply didn’t buy. I’m one of those people who still find his boyish looks distracting, and here, a major plot element is that he’s the father of a teenage son, which didn’t gel for me.
Mad Max: Fury Road is still the more audacious, entertaining and simply brilliant film in this year’s Oscar race, but there’s no denying The Revenant’s boldness. If it had been a little tighter – and perhaps had a bit more dramatic weight to go along with its visual virtuosity – it could have been a classic.