Film Review: two directors and the worst, but also the very best, of humankind

Cinema has a funny way of operating. With studios largely dividing their output into two ‘seasons’ – summer for blockbusters and winter for awards contenders – you can find yourself waiting months for something different, only for two standout movies to fall into your lap on the very same day. Such was the case with The Revenant and Room, both released only two weeks into the New Year but already guaranteed to be among the finest cinematic accomplishments of 2016. Both are overwhelming experiences, and offer a singularity of vision that is little short of breath-taking.

With The Revenant, this singular vision is, on the one hand, unsurprising. The film comes from Alejandro G. Iñárritu, a director known for his precise and uncompromising style, whose every film hurtles him further along the path leading from director to auteur. On the other hand, though, the boldness of The Revenant is still unexpected. Only a year after breaking away from the grim realism of 21 Grams and Babel and scooping three Oscars for the genre-bending comedy Birdman, it was uncertain where Iñárritu would head next. Even his most ardent fans couldn’t have anticipated him delivering another unique masterpiece so quickly and so confidently.

Based on early American mythology, The Revenant follows the frontiersmen of the 1820s, pitted against extreme weather, hostile Natives and their own darkest impulses. Reminiscent of Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, it shows humanity at its basest level. An opening battle between the gun-wielding explorers and arrow-firing Arikara tribesmen sets the tone, and the ‘kill or be killed’ mentality coursing through the characters gives the uneasy impression that it’s only a matter of time before something seriously brutal occurs.

Such fears prove to be well-founded. When Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass is mauled by a grizzly bear his comrades, out of practicality, selfishness or fear, leave him for dead. Glass doesn’t die, though. Instead, he sets off on a mission - a mission of survival, and a mission of revenge.

Being derived from patchy mythology works in The Revenant’s favour. It isn’t tied down to a well-known or intricate plot, giving Iñárritu free rein to focus as much on emotional themes and the sheer forces of nature as his actual story. Intertwining plot points with jaw-dropping forest and mountain vistas means that the events of the film take on a sort of cosmic significance. Like Hamlet’s Denmark, characters’ sins bleed into and feed off their environment, producing a beautiful but foul world that Glass is compelled to set right.

This isn’t just a story of survival, though; 127 Hours with DiCaprio instead of James Franco and a bear instead of a boulder. Other character arcs knit together effectively (including, refreshingly, those of the Native American characters), and Tom Hardy is particularly engrossing as the malevolently self-serving villain. Likewise, Glass is not on a one-note, Tarantino-esque quest for revenge. He is also filled with grief, love and desperation, gradually stripped of everything until he becomes a mass of pure feral instinct. DiCaprio’s rendering of this is quite simply hypnotic.

Like the frontiersmen, Iñárritu and his crew navigated unchartered territory for this film, enduring the blistering colds of Alberta and shooting only in natural light (to staggering effect, courtesy of cinematographer extraordinaire Emmanuel Lubezki). Their persistence pays off in spades, with The Revenant playing less like a film and more like an experience. It’s disquieting and gorgeous, bringing new meaning to the phrase ‘savage beauty’.

the two films would make a sucker punch of a double bill

Room isn’t a film to shy away from painful subject matter, either. Masterfully adapted by Emma Donoghue from her book of the same name, it tells the story of five year old Jack, who has spent his entire life inside one room with his Ma. It soon transpires that she has been imprisoned there by kidnapper and rapist ‘Old Nick’, but to Jack the room is his entire world. He can’t imagine anything beyond it, until (potential spoilers ahead) Ma tells him about the world outside. What’s more, she is concocting a plan to set them free.

When successful novels are transferred to the big screen it often feels gratuitous - ‘this book did well, why not turn it into a film?’ Room, by contrast, fits the medium to a tee. Donoghue takes her book (written from Jack’s POV) and makes it purely cinematic, deftly handling dual perspectives in order to depict Ma’s despair as well as Jack’s innocence. In fact, much of the film’s first half thrives on the constant tension between ‘Room’ being his home and her prison. Director Lenny Abrahamson heightens this, capitalising upon the confined setting by making it expansive and cosy through Jack’s eyes, yet claustrophobic and dank for Ma.

Room’s wonders only increase when the pair break free and Jack is finally exposed to the outside world (after an escape sequence infinitely more nerve-shredding than many a conventional thriller). Experiencing everything with Jack for the first time, the audience is made to see the world anew - the glare of bare sunlight, the flurry of everyday objects made to seem foreign. It’s an awe-inducing feeling which lingers long after leaving the theatre.

Anchoring everything are Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay as Ma and Jack. The former runs the gamut from anguish to hope and above all unconditional love, realising her character’s ordeal with devastating potency. The latter, meanwhile, gives possibly the most astonishing child performance ever committed to screen - knowing but innocent, and with an ability to inhabit his character that most adult actors can only dream of.

It is the bond between Ma and Jack that truly makes Room tick. It might be a gruelling watch at times, but their relationship is what sees the audience through and makes it such a supremely rewarding film. Like The Revenant it is a full visceral experience; thrilling, moving and eventually uplifting, it’s a parable of emerging personhood that gives this story the treatment it deserves. Together the two films would make a sucker punch of a double bill, since they achieve what only a handful of films are able to do: they show us the worst, but also the very best, of humankind.

The Revenant, dir. Alejandro G. Iñárritu, starring Leonardo Dicaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter & Forrest Goodluck. Released 15th January 2016 by 20th Century Fox

Room, dir. Lenny Abrahamson, starring Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen & Sean Bridgers. Released 15th January 2015 by A24 Films

More about the author

About the author

Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.

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