Review: The Revenant

When I was in high school I took this film studies class where every chapter we would focus on an aspect of film and watch movies that succeeded in those aspects.  We watched JawsCitizen Kane, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and a good dozen or two other movies–and among the bunch was a movie I’d never seen, and will probably never see again.

Saving Private Ryan.

I say that with the utmost respect for that movie because the movie did what it was aiming to do: present to the viewer a real and visceral depiction of war and what that, sometimes, entails.  It was heavy, violent, deep and affecting and while I appreciate that movie for what it ultimately was, I would be okay never seeing it again.

The Revenant, which I most recently saw in theaters, reminds me of my experience and my feelings toward Saving Private Ryan. 

The Revenant was a movie I didn’t know a whole lot about going in.  It was a movie I didn’t really know much about at any point in time.  The closer it got to releasing, the more intrigued I was by the premise–so I just took a leap in, hoping that it would be good.

It takes place in early 19th century America, in the north, following the Louisiana Purchase.  It’s about a man named Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) who, during an expedition, is mauled by a mother grizzly bear and is left clinging to life.  Near death, feverish, drifting in and out of consciousness, his men leave him behind, and the story that follows is of his survival and his journey to find his men.

The movie is long–clocking in at a little over 2 and a half hours–but it doesn’t feel that way.

The Revenant is by no means an action flick (though it does contain plenty of action), but rather–it’s thoughtful, quiet, mulling on the wonder of the unexplored wilderness, and the dangers that lurk within it.  It could have been a shorter movie, sure, but the grueling, cringeworthy recovery of Glass is one that benefits from the time it is given.  Too much shorter and the weight of his recovery and his journey may not have been felt as well as it was, and any longer–then we could have been entering into foot tapping, phone checking territory.

It’s a hard movie to place because of its subject, because of its setting, and its characters and the time period.  Early 19th century America isn’t one I’ve seen covered often and it isn’t a time period I have much interest in, but watching these characters exist outside of the materialistic longing our society has found itself in was refreshing.  Watching these men carry pelts across miles, defend said pelts from hoards of Native American warriors, all because that is their job and their means of survival is so different than what we know now.  It’s so different from what we will ever know again.

It’s for that reason that I feel like Hugh Glass’s return, his becoming “The Revenant,” was so fascinating because he was driven by simplistic desires, same as his men, same as the Native Americans, same as the French, and same as the bear who mauled Glass at the start.  It wasn’t clouded.  It wasn’t obscured.  He wanted revenge–simple as that.

And beyond the themes, the swooping camera angles, the cryptic dream scenes interspersed throughout, there’s a quiet to the film, a natural feeling that is so in keeping with what remains so fascinating about early America.  This land was being discovered, we were discovering with Glass, and each moment, every scene, seemed simpler, more raw, more real than anything I’ve ever seen.

It was a great movie, but one that is so heavy, so intense, that I couldn’t fathom seeing it again.  Much like Saving Private Ryan, it feels to me like a movie that requires our attention and our viewing, but one that can, at least by me, be left behind as one to look fondly on when next such a raw and emotional movie is released.

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