There is a scene in The Revenant, the latest film from Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, in which Leonardo DiCaprio stands in an abandoned church, or, rather, what remains of it. It is now barely recognizable rubble, a sanctuary lost to time and consumed by nature. Inside the skeletal structure, there are trees rising from the dirt lit in an ominous gray that lets the audience know that the world in which this film is set has no salvation, no virtue, no forgiveness. The message Iñárritu is sending you is that the world is the devil's domain; though a pessimistic statement, the narrative of violence, cruelty, and revenge around which the film is centered makes it a believable one.
Through most of the film, I was reminded very heavily of the works of Lars von Trier, a filmmaker who has a seemingly endless obsession with making his audience feel terrible. In particular, however, his 2009 film Antichrist seems the largest influence in Iñárritu's themes, being a meditation on the horrors of both nature and mankind told via dense symbolism, chilling cinematography, and overwhelmingly brutal scenes of violence. However, where von Trier's work, especially in Antichrist, annoys me to no end, The Revenant left me awe-struck thanks to the way it conveys its message that I feel von Trier has never been mature enough to do. Iñárritu does not ever attempt to manipulate the feelings of the audience, instead demanding that you abandon your emotions and morals the moment the film starts. Where von Trier makes incredibly emotional experiences to express his own emotions, Iñárritu's latest film is a cold work of pure intellect that reflects his own intellect.
Key to the brutal, distant world of The Revenant is cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, whose love of lengthy, action-heavy shots is well-documented, thanks to his work on films such as Alfonso Cuar--n's Children of Men, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, and Iñárritu's own Birdman. His unique style is the spirit of this film, as he is among the only people alive who can capture such absolute intensity in such a slow, methodical way. However, this is also one of the most atmospheric films he's ever made, thanks heavily to the natural lighting and weather that surrounds the film's visuals. There was a deliberate attempt to make this film as authentic as possible, a feat accomplished by the near absence of anything artificial. The film looks cold and terrifying because it is a cold and terrifying film. In a cinematic landscape that takes as many steps away from reality as it can, this is the diamond in the rough that shines beautifully by ignoring all the conventions it can.
Whatever the context in which you view The Revenant, there is a poignant energy to it that expands with your mind as you watch it, a complex structure of religious experiences all compounded into a single, two-and-a-half hour vision of the complex, beautiful horror of existence. Though I do not agree with this vision, it is crafted with such maturity and intelligence that that ceases to matter. It is beautiful, no matter what anyone believes.