The Revenant: A Battle Between A Great Cinematographer And A Mediocre Director

When Orson Welles put cinematographer Gregg Toland's credit on the same title card as his for Citizen Kane he was making an explicit statement. Welles was crediting Toland with a degree of authorship not generally afforded to anyone other than the director of a film. Many of the visual innovations present in Citizen Kane can inarguably be credited to Toland's grand creative sense although there are numerous other aspects to the film one can credit Welles with for which all coalesce in Kane's iconic status.
Emmanuel Lubezki is arguably the most innovative and visionary cinematographer working today. Regardless of who he works with, his visual stamp is often strikingly identifiable. His work over the last 5 years, particularly with Alfonso Cuaron and Terrence Malick has pushed his aesthetic into a fascinatingly experimental realm. Playing with longer and longer unbroken shots through Cuaron and experimenting with visual tactility through Malick, Lubezki has pushed his form in dramatic new directions.
Notably his work with both Cuaron and Malick can be clearly identified as a creative collaboration where Lubezki's aesthetics bond with the director's rhythmic and thematic concerns. They are holistically successful collaborations where Lubezki's work serves the greater whole of the film.
The Revenant is Lubezki's second major collaboration with Alejandro Inarritu after last year's frustrating Birdman. In Birdman, Lubezki attempted to generate a film without visible edits. The entire film had a gorgeous, sinewy flow as the camera floated around the corridors and rooms backstage in a theatre. Disappointingly though, Lubezki's glorious fluid movement had very little functional reason for being. Inarritu's film wasn't especially served well by this visual choice and ultimately there was a jarring discrepancy between form and content. Form doesn't need to be subsumed within the service of content but rather the physical experience being generated does need to complement the narrative and thematic movements of the film. In Birdman it simply didn't. It was a superfluous show-off technique that actually distracted from the trite banality of the screenplay.
In The Revenant, the duo have at least gone halfway to solving the problems of Birdman. Here the magnificent visual artistry of Lubezki does, for the most part, complement and enhance the film. In fact one could even go so far as to say that for about 100 minutes, this is Lubezki's crowning achievement. The Revenant at its core is a survival story. Leonardo DiCaprio's character is attacked by native Americans, mauled by a bear, and left for dead by his group before struggling through the wilderness to survive and get back to his camp. That is basically the entirety of the first two hours of Inarritu's screenplay.
The physical experience of watching the film is remarkably tactile. Lubezki pushes his camera in for extreme close ups and the actor's breath fogs up the screen. We can feel the brutal cold and see the dirt under the actor's fingernails. These are mostly techniques we have seen Lubezki develop through his earlier collaborations with other artists. Inarritu on the other hand had very little visual substance in his films before he embarked upon his collaborations with Lubezki. It becomes very difficult to credit Inarritu with anything that we can deem successful in The Revenant because outside of the physical experience generated by Lubezki's visuals, there are plenty of things wrong with the film.
The Revenant is terribly structured. A final act swing into a generic revenge film template is misguided and anti-climactic resulting in a flat climactic 30 minutes. Inarritu's penchant for portentous and pretentious poetic junk dialogue is stifling and it comes across as a vain attempt at infusing a pseudo gravitas into what arguably should have simply been a stalwartly visceral experience. The pacing of the film is off, the acting is jarringly inconsistent and as a straightforward screenplay, The Revenant is mediocre at best.
Inarritu's problem is that he seems desperate to make a work of “Great Art” yet simultaneously entirely unaware of what that constitutes. He packs his films full of empty signifiers that superficially look or sound like they point to a greater meaning but actually are just placeholders representing nothing. In Birdman this became painfully self-evident with its ridiculously confusing final act and in The Revenant he does it again by throwing mystical Native American catch phrases at us in Malick inspired whispered tones as if we are being told a secret of the universe when in reality we are hearing gibberish that barely reflects anything in the narrative that has unfolded. Here we ultimately learn that it is a hollow quest for humans to seek revenge despite the fact that it was revenge that seemingly fueled the almost supernatural journey of our main character for the prior 140 minutes. Which is it Inarritu? You can't play it both ways.
Inarritu even has the gall to offer up a cliched final shot showing our main character breaking the fourth wall and staring right down the barrel of the camera that nowadays is virtually arthouse 101 if you are desperate to add vacuous depth to your film. On top of that, there is actually no thematic or affectual motivation for such a final shot other than “hey this is what great films do isn't it?”.
And that's Inarritu's problem – he is so desperate to make his film “Great” that he ultimately undercuts all that is good or interesting already present. The Revenant is a genuinely affecting and effective survival film that is expanded to a length that works against it and packed with pretension to the point that it becomes bombastically exhausting. 156 minutes of “Classic Cinema” smacking you over the head.
So what are we left with when trying to evaluate Inarritu's recent output with Lubezki? Are we witnessing a mediocre talent trying to hitch his wagon to a truly talented visual artist? Everything that is great about Birdman and The Revenant can be directly ascribed to Lubezki's technique. A technique that was never present in Inarritu's films prior to their collaborations and a technique that only occasionally complements the overall work Inarritu is trying to achieve. From scene to scene it often feels like two artists are battling it out.
During a climactic confrontation in The Revenant there is a moment in the background where the sun breaks through a cloud and we can see its light moving across a cliff face. It's an entirely incongruous moment of sublime visual beauty that has nothing to do with the crescendo of action in the foreground. It's Lubezki making something beautiful in the background while Inarritu plays with his artist lego pieces in the foreground. It has all the signifiers of “Great Art” but none of the actual cohesion or substance. The Revenant is an impressive cinematic achievement but it is not a great film.