The Revenant: awe-inspiring, brutal and spiritual

I’ve heard tell of children in the urban West who don’t know that milk comes from cows. They’ve never seen a cow; they just can’t see the connection. I don’t know if it’s an (urban) myth, but it makes a point about the increasingly urbanised nature of our lives. We’re cut loose from our roots and rhythms; we have established new ones in the urban contexts, but we’re no longer creatures of the earth and dust.

The Revenant is a counterpoint to this, a film more in touch with the nature of … nature … you could not expect to see. From Alejandro González Iñárritu, the Oscar winning director of Birdman and staring Leo DiCaprio, it tells the story of an 1820s American frontiersman left for dead by his colleagues as he struggles to recover from a bear mauling. It’s a brutal, visceral tale of survival and, though this only really comes to the fore in the film’s final act, a quest for revenge.

Many have said it’s brutal – and it is. The Revenant’s portrayal of the natural world is of one red in tooth and claw; physical, weighty and oppressive. There are very few concessions to CGI  – apart from in the bear attack itself, which is understandable, but doesn’t detract from the sequence’s extraordinary impact. DiCaprio’s character – and the actor himself, presumably – really suffer here. Bones crack, joints grind; winds sweep and howl; cold seeps into every crevice; food is gleaned from the land and from dead animals. The cinematography is nothing short of extraordinary; the cold colours gleam with a tangible frozen bite; the takes are long and fluid, following the movie’s central character to emphasise that he’s stalked as much by the forces of the land as by his own mortality or people who would do him harm.

There’s a spirituality here. It’s a spirituality of the Native American cultures, one wedded deeply to the earth from which the people draw their life. Tellingly the only reference to Western spirituality is a ruined church being overrun by the elements; the only way DiCaprio’s character is going to survive his trial by snowbound fire is abandoning everything he knows – including any semblance of familiar faith – and embrace a mode of being that’s at once hostile and essential for survival.

Contemporary Christianity has much to learn here. As our planet becomes increasingly urbanised we lose our connection to the rhythms of the pastoral life from which we have drawn our roots. That’s not a bad thing – nor a good thing – in itself. It necessitates a reinvention, though; a rediscovery of theology, spirituality and worship that connects to the way we live and is true to who we are and who we find ourselves to be. Sections of the church are wrestling with this; but some still run, crying about heresy or lost tradition. All the while, people thirst for lack of vision.

Back to the movie. DiCaprio – for me one of the most underrated actors of his generation – is magnificent here. He’s as physical here as he was to very different ends in The Wolf Of Wall Street; long stretches of this film pass wordless, his body and face speaking volumes. He can be a remarkable actor, and his lack of major awards recognition demonstrates how conservative awards judges like to be. They do like their talent to suffer for their art, though, and that alone will probably ensure trophies on this occasion.

It’s a good, remarkable film. It’s not – I suspect – a great one. My sense is that it will not translate so powerfully to the myriad smaller screens on which films are now viewed post cinema release. I may be wrong, but it feels as if the film relies so much for its power on overwhelming you with the beauty and hardness of the environment that the small screen will shrink it in more ways than one. In this era, a great film needs to be great on screens big and small; I suppose we’ll all just have to watch it on our phones to answer that one.

There are other problems with this film – and the director’s work in general. The biggest of these is his treatment of women. Here the women are off-stage, in memory, or a victim of violent rape. They have precious few lines. In the context of a career thus far where his films largely focus on the masculine in different expressions, this gives cause for concern. The director has questions to answer, and they can’t simply be answered by saying that what he produces is very good in its own terms. It is; but in the era he’s working, he needs to do more with half the human race.

The Revenant is remarkable, thrilling, stimulating – and ultimately hard to love. For all that’s impressive and awe-inspiring about it (and I use the word awe in its religious context), it’s not going to lodge in the heart; it fed my soul, but if I tried to live on it I’d be in trouble.

I rated this film 8/10 on and 4/5 on