Though they have very different lead characters, both are films about survival. Watching them in quick succession, I was also struck by their common theme of the beginnings and end of life: Room about the desire to protect and maintain childhood for as long as possible; The Revenant about deterministically following a path or river to its ultimate conclusion, and so death.
For all its excellent character development, Room isn’t, I think, quite as good a film as it might be. It is clearly a book adapted as a film, in that there isn’t sufficiently good cinematography to suggest the picture could have been conceived in its own right. A 10ftx10ft room provides plenty of opportunity for certain types of shots, but the film defaults to regular stills of a skylight to the world outside. Handheld camerawork substitutes for the first-person perspective of the 5-year-old boy, and the filmmaking isn’t quite enough to sustain the film beyond the walls of the Room itself during its second half.
The Revenant, however, is remarkable. A shot of a man sleeping inside the body of a dead horse we have just seen him gut – a camera directly above pulling back to show the hollow black and white horse in blood-soaked snow; the view of a distant avalanche in a snowscape as the lead character watches from the foreground: both exceptional, visual images that add to and don’t just serve the story. The emergence of gun barrels from behind a forward-tracking camera in the opening sequence (part of a continuous shot that reminded me of the first 15 minutes of Saving Private Ryan), a camera lens steaming up from a grizzly bear’s breath; blood splattering another lens as it swivels amongst two fighting characters: this is filmmaking and cinematography that puts you immediately in the film without the crassness of a first-person perspective.
We shouldn’t be surprised that The Revenant achieves this: with Alejandro González Iñárritu and Leonardo DiCaprio we have both director and lead actor producing some of the most intriguing film work just now. The standout performance, though, is from Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald, who first wishes to see DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass left for dead and later wants to finish the job the grizzly bear started. I don’t know if it’s his sort of thing, but an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor must be a possibility.