An edited version fo this text was published by PETRIe Inventory at http://www.petrieinventory.com/the-revenant-human-nature-at-the-edge-of-darkness/
Alejandro G. Iñárritu´s most recent picture, The Revenant, is a story of origin, an epic account of a moment in history, when civilization takes fiercely against the unknown, and crosses the borders of time and space, into new lands and new existential dimensions. The Revenant is a visual masterpiece, an affirmation of timeless beauty, a cinematic search for poetry and order, in a land so pure that it can hardly contain mankind.
The uncomplicated narrative line is doubled by masterful cinematography, with powerful nuances of realism, wide shots and extreme close-ups, which engage viewers at a visceral, intimate level. The plot employs recognizable elements of our somewhat recent history, in an attempt to address universal themes in the layout of humanity: violence, progress, greed, honour. The relationship between man and nature is mirrored by the one between father and son: genealogy is brutally interrupted by culture, by civilizing instincts that end up disrupting natural rhythms and dislocating ecosystems. Man belongs to nature, just as the son belongs to his father, and yet this simplicity of life cannot survive. Intense philosophical undertones inform this film, in which the modern ethos of conquest and progress falls under scrutiny, setting up a frame for ecological awareness.
The story of conquest turns into a story of survival, as Iñárritu sends a group of fur trappers into ferocious wilderness, where the elements engulf humanity. These men push into the uncharted, wild land and seek to tame it, armed with a strong belief in their manifest destiny, and its subsequent economic rationale: any property can be exploited for its treasures. Iñárritu paints a corner in this larger picture of invasion, depicting the frontier from the perspective of these few men and of how they make sense of their world: the frontier marks the border with the foreign they must conquer, the savage they must dominate. In this sense, The Revenant becomes a tale of tales on masculinity, as it is constructed and performed on the edge of the world. The fur trappers find themselves standing in a world they know as civilized, disciplined, and look into an unexplored, savage territory, in which meanings that rule their world might not apply.
Morality, however, is not suspended, as Iñárritu maintains a few ethical categories in this exploration of frontier masculinity: duty, trust, responsibility, shame. The sense of duty permeates central storylines – the duty of a father to find his abducted daughter, the duty of a son to care for his dying father, the duty of a father to revenge his son´s death, the duty of a leader to find and punish the wrongdoer.
A visual progression of landscape, of valleys, mountains and rivers, echoes the journey of these men: their running away from danger is inescapably a running towards a different danger, even towards their own death, which is often honourable and a requisite of duty. Masculinity is thus informed by endurance and resilience, rendered visually through violent scenes, filmed in long takes.
Cinematography follows a particular structure of violence: the pervading blue hue gives the film a sombre tone, creating the impression of a permanent dawn, a struggle of civilization to penetrate these dark corners of the world. The heavy colour correction Emanuel Lubezki opts for brings depth and arresting realism to scenes of gruesome violence, set against a majestic natural background. This antithesis speaks to subsequent existential and moral tensions, which shape experiences of masculinity.
The choice to use natural light enhances the thematic elements of the story, while giving a sense of presence, a heaviness of time, which imposes a particular rhythm – for movement, travel, survival, death. The sun itself shines with hints of coldness, never really bright, never fully capable of penetrating the landscape. Darkness has its own storyline, a palpable density, a visceral presence.
It is only through memories and fire that a lighter spectrum is conceived, to contrast the icy blue tones. Glass´ memories, dreams and visions shift the mood of the film, for a short while: he remembers his past life in calm shades of brown and soft earthly tones, which seem to slow down movement and time. If aggressive blue brings veracity and immediacy to the story, these softer nuances evoke eternity, distant beauty, and hope. For the audience, they are oases of warmth, a refuge from almost somatic reactions to the glacial visual narrative. Use of light is crucial to the feel and mood throughout the entire film.
The frontier men manage to push the limits of the land, but they bring prejudiced knowledge and misconception to these pristine territories; they paradoxically set up new barriers, defined by racism and intolerance. The native tribes become an invisible, unpredictable, dangerous Other. Their experience is, nevertheless, articulated along the lines of a similar ethical structure: duty to protect their land, responsibility towards family, the honourable need to avenge shame suffered at the hand of invaders.
Pain, suffering, prolonged physical agony appear to have a mythical cathartic role. Iñárritu aims to reach a symbolic height of the myth of purification through violence, as he has Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) crawl out of his own grave. The need for justice and revenge animates Glass throughout his painful journey in the American wild, but he eventually renounces it, in what seems to be one of the moral lessons of this film – man has no claim over life and death, no moral standing to invade, destroy, or displace.
The film ends with a powerful close-up on Glass´ shivering face, as his direct gaze meets the camera, in a breach of film-making protocols. This is in itself a violent gesture, meant to be unsettling and challenging to the viewer – a challenge to go back to the story of our beginning, learn from it, and do better.