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Before we get to the Revenant, I’d like to take a step back.
Actually, many steps back. It was 2001 or 2002, while I was living back in Boston. On a winter afternoon walking back from the Pru I popped into the video store located at the corner of Dartmouth and Newbury. Browsing through the maze of shelves, a red and black VHS cover caught my eye . The three actors on the cover looked very different from each other, but together they shared something in their gaze. The description on the back sounded intriguing as well, so I rented it. I watched it over the next day or two, and was completely blown away.
Amores Perros was a visceral ride that took three disparate storylines in Mexico City, and threaded them together in a unique way. The three intertwining tales were of a good-for-nothing twenty-something who hussled his way to make a quick buck, a gorgeous supermodel whose billboards lorded over the crowded city, and a mysterious vagrant who survived by living off scraps that others discarded. The title of the movie translated to “Love is a bitch” and it was via each of the characters’ relationships with dogs that their stories tied to each other. To appreciate how beautifully the stories had been weaved together I had to watched the VHS a few more times.
And the soundtrack was raw and visceral at times, and sparse and introspective at others. When I tossed the tape into the bucket on the video store door, I could not believe that it was the first movie that Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu had made! I became a believer. And till this day Amores Perros remains one of my favorite movies.
Then over the next many years came movies like 21 Grams, Babel, and Biutiful in slow succession. Each one well made. Each one stirring. Each one cemented my faith in his craft.
Then last year came Birdman. I wasn’t sure about it, but had gone to see it just because it was made by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. And what a treat it was for me! It was unlike any of his other movies. Unlike any movie made by anyone in fact.
So as soon as I saw the first trailer of ‘The Revenant’, I knew it was THE movie I wanted to catch on the big screen this season.
And as expected, it was spectacular! From the opening scene to the closing credits, what amazed me the most was the amazing beauty of the American continent. Alejandro Gonzalez and his star cinematographer Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki had painstakingly recreated the life that the frontiersmen must have lived in the 1800s.
There were so many shots that transported me to a different time and place. Shots of frigid, yet gorgeous landscapes across which the characters made their bone chilling treks. Moments in dark, blue nights when warm orange hues of campfires reached beyond the curtain. Mornings in snow packed mountains where time seemed to pause, and the only sounds one heard were of snow melting into water.
I learnt later that in order to get the right feel, Alejandro and Chivo had decided to shoot completely in natural light. They had lugged the entire production kit and kaboodle up to the northernmost parts of Canada, edging close to the Arctic region. They had gone so far up north that they only had a few hours of daylight to shoot everyday. And because of this they had run over the allocated time. The season had changed before they could wrap up their shooting. And then in order to complete the movie they had to take the entire production down to the southern tip of Argentina, where the weather and geography was akin to what they had up near the arctic. Just for the effort they put into the film, and for the results they were able to conjure I think the movie deserves an Oscar for cinematography.
Yet this movie was unlike Alejandro Gonzalez’s previous movies – the storyline was very simple. There were no multi-threaded narratives as in Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel. No delving into inner conflicts as it was in Biutiful and Birdman. The Revenant was a very straightforward, linear tale. I was expecting it to be a little more layered.
And the main character that Leonardo DiCaprio portrayed seemed very one dimensional. He had grit, no doubt. But there was nothing about him that did not meet the eye. Even the relationship between and his son’s character, upon which the entire conflict with Tom Hardy’s character had been based, seemed superficial. Maybe not enough time was spent building that up. Or maybe I just didn’t get it. Either way, if there was a depth in their father-son bond, it had not been made apparent to this viewer.
I did like how Tom Hardy had portrayed his character. One could see a new layer of him with every unfolding act. There were times when one felt that they were close to getting why he was who he was. There almost were moments of sympathy and respect when towards the end he refuses to plead to DiCaprio’s character.
All in all, it was the best cinematography I have seen in an Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu movie. However, the story was simplistic. But then again Chivo had once mused that the language of film was further from the language of theater and closer to the language of music. So Inarritu may be evolving closer to that ideal after all.
Nominations: Best Director, Best Picture, Best Actor (DiCaprio), Best Supporting Actor (Tom Hardy), Best Cinematography, and a bunch of others for sound/production/special effects.
Either this or Sicario should win the award for Best Cinematography. This could even win for Best Direction and/or Best Supporting Actor (for Tom Hardy). Not sure if it deserves the award for Best Actor though (sorry DiCaprio)!
In terms of Best Movie I don’t think it is in the same league as some of the winners from the last few years (i.e. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman or Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity). But when we compare it to the other contenders in this year’s pool it does seem to have a strong chance.
Next Up: My takes on Sicario.
Post Script: By the way, the video store did not survive the onslaught of Netflix. Today I can see that there is a fancy Mexican eatery, standing there in its stead. “Mexican bites in a swanky, Gothic lounge” – reads its description. When I told this to my wife she noted that it could have been describing Amores Perros itself 😀