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Seldom has a film ever felt so simultaneously repellant and magnetic. Alejandro Iñárritu’s The Revenant represents the evolution of a filmmaking style, and the use of that style to show how real life fur trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) defied the elements and the odds on a quest for revenge in the American frontier. It’s a film the cast and crew went through hell to make, and that hell ultimately finds itself perfectly translated into every beautiful frame. Ultimately all of the hard work paid off, as Iñárritu’s revenge piece featured some of the most expert visual storytelling of any film produced in the last year, and he wholly deserves to bring home 2016’s Best Picture Oscar for those efforts.
Within the lengthy runtime of the historical epic, we can see numerous trademark stylistic choices that brought him home the Oscar gold at last year’s Academy Awards for his work on Birdman. Both Birdman and The Revenant combine long takes, beautiful cinematography, surrealist imagery to provide the audience insight into the conflict of a bitter, damaged protagonist.
However, The Revenant expands upon these tried-and-true techniques by taking them out of a safe environment and crafting a narrative in a wholly natural setting. From the opening Native American attack, to the grizzly (in both senses of the word) bear attack, the blending between naturalism and technology in the filmmaking process becomes almost seamless. Alejandro Iñárritu uses this cinema blend (boom) to craft beautifully terrifying sequences that strike a perfect balance between chaos, coherence, sadness and inspiration. There’s a sense that the world of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass is hellishly terrifying yet completely lived-in and realized.
Some people have leveled accusations that The Revenant has too basic of a story to deserve the Best Picture win, which ultimately seems like a gross oversimplification of the film. What The Revenant lacks in overall narrative complexity, it makes up for with its endlessly rich thematic elements. It tells a dark, gritty tale of revenge and perseverance against insurmountable odds almost completely nonverbally; it’s emphasis on storytelling through imagery rather than dialogue gets to the very root of film as a visual medium. Bare in mind that Leonardo DiCaprio's character spends much of the film alone in the wilderness; the responsibility falls upon himself and Iñárritu to convey the physical, mental, and emotional state of Glass as he treks through the wilderness, and they never miss a beat.
Additionally, I have to take some degree of umbrage with those who call The Revenant a simple film without leveling the same accusations against other Best Picture nominees. Neither Mad Max: Fury Road nor The Martian burden themselves with ideas like narrative complexity; they tell similarly straightforward, barebones stories. Few people have come after them with the same degree of malice that they direct towards Alejandro Iñárritu’a masterpiece, and it's difficult to discern why.
Does The Revenant deserve to win the Oscar just because it was a difficult film to make? Absolutely not. However, the movie is so well produced, and so emotionally cognizant of itself that the adversity faced by the Alejandro Iñárritu, Leonardo DiCaprio, and everyone else involved only makes the film’s very existence that much more impressive.
The Revenant ultimately works as well as it does not because of any one quality, but because so many different aspects of it coalesced – against all odds – to create a truly breathtaking piece of cinema. Between its haunting score, its realistic performance, and its rich visuals, the film tells one of the most deeply affecting stories of the past year.